Jun’ichir Tanizaki’s early literary career was characterized by a deep interest in Western literature. Although as a student he studied Japanese literature and had a nostalgia for classical Japanese works, he once commented that about 1918, “I had come to detest Japan, even though I was obviously a Japanese.” Assiduously reading Baudelaire, Wilde, and especially Poe, he asserted the supremacy of the imagination in literature, as opposed to the naturalism of many of his contemporaries, arguing that even Gustave Flaubert andÉmile Zola could not have produced their naturalistic works without being highly imaginative.
Once using Wilde’s aphorism “Nature imitates art” as an epigraph to a story, Tanizaki believed that the representation of reality was not the primary function of literature; it was rather the presentation of truth. “The artist,” he wrote, “justifies his existence only when he can transform his imagination into truth.” This truth, in Tanizaki’s view, was primarily psychological. Imagination allowed the author to see the subconscious depths of humanity. The writer perceived what people were, not what they could be. There was no need for a writer to justify his (or her) works for social or moral reasons, and Tanizaki was seen as an exponent of aestheticism.
As might be expected, the early influence of the Decadent authors led to intense, macabre works. They are, by turn,gothic,grotesque, hedonistic, diabolic, and erotic. Tanizaki’s first important work, “The Tattooer,” is typical. Seikichi is a master tattooer who has become so great he only tattoos according to his vision of his client’s character. Further, he delights in the suffering his needles cause his clients. His obsession becomes the creation of a masterwork on the skin of a woman who meets his requirements of character as well as beauty. After four years, he sees the foot of a woman disappear into a palanquin, knows instantly that she is the one he has been searching for, but loses the palanquin in the crowd. The next spring, she appears at his house, and after he reveals her true, vampirish nature, he creates an exquisite tattoo of a black widow spider on her back and finds himself the slave of his own creation.
There are several elements characteristic of Tanizaki’s work in this story. In most of his works, a man delights in his utter servitude to the woman he adores. Seikichi goes from sadist to masochist as the result of finding his perfect woman, and although Tanizaki devotes this work to the psychological and artistic obsessions of the tattooer, he was generally more interested in his women characters, because they expressed an ideal before which his men groveled. This subservient role has been frequently associated with Tanizaki’s attitude toward his mother, who died in 1917. One will also note the foot fetishism implicit in Seikichi’s first noticing the young girl. Throughout Tanizaki’s career, women’s feet play a large role in the sexual relationships between his characters. This is obvious in such works as “Fumiko no ashi” in which an old man is infatuated with the feet of his mistress and dies in ecstasy as Fumiko presses his forehead under her foot, but it reveals itself in other ways as well: Frequently, Tanizaki devotes more detail to his description of a woman’s feet than he does to his description of her face.
Despite Tanizaki’s interest in Western writers, many elements of his early work were derived from traditional Japanese literature. Throughout his career, he felt no hesitation in setting his stories in the Japanese past. “The Tattooer,” for example, occurs in the Tokugawa period of the seventeenth century. In 1919, in the middle of his Decadent interests, the same year as “Fumiko no ashi” and his translation of Lady Windermere’s Fan, he published a volume of erotic stories in the style of the Japanese 1830’s and two novellas in the Chinese style. As they are depicted in works by Tanizaki, women are often portrayed as treacherous, cruel creatures in classical Japanese literature. The seventeenth century novelist Ihara Saikaku wrote many risqué stories, in some of which the heroine’s insatiable sexual appetite exhausts the hero. Finally, grotesque and diabolic motifs are very common in classical Japanese literature, and it is perhaps too easy to overemphasize the influence of Poe’s and Wilde’s content on Tanizaki, when he was more interested in adapting their conception of art in his reaction against naturalism.
There is no doubt, however, that Tanizaki’s work changed at the beginning of the 1920’s, particularly after he moved from Tokyo to the more conservative Kansai (Kyto, saka, and Kbe) region after the Great Earthquake. Although in his later work he retained his masochistic heroes, characters for whom there are few precedents in traditional Japanese literature, he began to acknowledge more strongly the values and practices of his culture.
Naomi marks the division between Tanizaki’s Westernized period and his more tradition-oriented works from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Although, like so many of his works, Naomi tells of a man’s quest for the ideal woman, there is much implied criticism of Japanese worship of the West, despite the fact that the novel seems to have been based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915).
Joji, the narrator in Naomi, is attracted to a European-looking waitress named Naomi. Her features make him think of Mary Pickford, and he asks her if she would like to go to a film. Instead of the usual polite evasions, she says (like Mildred in Of Human Bondage), “I don’t mind if I do.” Eventually, he takes her home with the intention of remaking her into his ideal of beauty—a woman he will not be ashamed of in front of blond foreigners—and marrying her within a few years. Naomi is given Western clothes, practices playing the piano, speaking English, and dancing. All of this merely encourages her decadent tendencies. He learns she has been unfaithful and attempts to leave her. He discovers he cannot, however, and gives in completely to her. She can do as she wishes, have whatever lover she wishes, as long as she remains his wife.
Joji is a fool as much in his obsessive love of Western things as in his love of the girl. He is ashamed of his racial identity. His...
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