The dominant theme in Jun’ichir Tanizaki’s best work is love, but few writers so successfully explore this universally preferred topic with such unconventional revelations. Commentators often identified his earliest writings as “demoniac”; his later work they might have characterized as “sardonic.” As labels prove to be insufficient for most good writers, however, one must struggle to understand Tanizaki’s probing style as he uncovers complicated motives for lovers, spouses, family members, and friends, who continually surprise one another. In addition, as one finishes reading Tanizaki’s works of fiction, most characteristically, one finds oneself more than a little uncertain as to how things really work out. The dispute, the rivalries, or the resentments always seems resolved or brought to a close; most commonly, though, the reader finds himself needing to fill in indeterminate gaps using his own imagination. This challenge, in fact, contributes to much of the pleasure in reading Tanizaki’s fiction.
In his early sensational tale “The Tattooer,” the exceptional tattooer, Seikichi, behaves much like a sadist in his attitudes toward some of his customers, as he revels in the excruciating pain they endure for the honor of having such an artist adorn their bodies. He outdoes himself in embellishing the back of a beautiful young woman with a huge black widow spider. Readers are told that “at every thrust of his needle Seikichi felt as if he had stabbed his own heart.” After he assures the woman that he has poured his soul into this tattoo and that now all men will be her victims, she accepts this prophecy, turns her resplendently tattooed back to him, and promptly claims the tattooer himself as her first conquest.
With similar emphasis upon intimate revelation of pain, and with similarly ambivalent implications for the suffering endured, in “Terror,” a young man describes his peculiar phobia for riding in a train or any other vehicle. For the occasion in the story, he must travel by train to take a physical examination for military duty. His nervous trembling almost drives him mad and certainly drives him to excessive alcoholic consumption. With the combination of neurotic fearfulness and drunkenness, he seems unlikely to pass his physical; the reader, however, hears a doctor reassuring the young man: “Oh, you’ll pass all right. A fine husky fellow like you.” Such openendedness in Tanizaki’s short fiction seems practically his trademark.
The probing into the psychology of nonconforming personalities reveals itself also in “The Thief.” In this story, a young man shares the discomfort and embarrassment with his university dormitory roommates as one by one they admit their shame at having suspected the narrator as the perpetrator of recent thefts. Readers can hardly avoid sympathizing with the young man as he reveals his private thoughts about the unfortunate, painful admissions by others who suspect and distrust him. Then one suddenly discovers that this sensitive young man, in fact, truly is the thief. In fact, the thief boasts that, with an outward show of innocence, he can deceive not only roommates and readers but also himself.
In the story “Aguri,” Tanizaki goes further, with his presentation of a self-conscious narrator brooding over his fears and inadequacies. The middle-aged Okada, accompanied by his slim, shapely mistress on a shopping trip, describes in extravagant detail how he is wasting away physically while the young woman, Aguri, craves the most expensive luxuries. As in “The Thief,” the narrator of this story carries the reader along with him in his imagination, momentarily at least, with a painful scene of ruinously expensive purchases for Aguri, followed by Okada’s fainting embarrassingly in public from weakness. Almost before one realizes the change, however, the reader learns that these disasters were merely an imagined vision....
(The entire section is 1664 words.)