Study Guide

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Essay - Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō (Vol. 8)

Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō (Vol. 8)

Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō 1886–1965

A Japanese novelist, short story writer, and dramatist, Tanizaki wrote in a detached, analytical style about sexual obsession and perversion. While often morbid, Tanizaki never descended to the sordid or the sensational, for it was not his intention to exploit his sexual themes but to reveal the compelling and mysterious nature of sexuality and its relation to cruelty and violence. (See also Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Tanizaki Junichirō represents an extreme emphasis on art as opposed to naturalism. He chose to use the favorite materials of the naturalists but gave them altogether different treatment. He has been variously described as a Satanist, a decadent, an esthete, a lover of the grotesque, a poet in prose, and a number of other things, all of which stem from the intensity of his sensual themes and vivid imagery. His favorite reading was in Poe, Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde, a combination which influenced practically every paragraph he wrote. His appetite for sensuous stimuli was insatiable. Like Poe he constructed complete plots around a character with hypersensitive hearing or touch, with overtones of mystery and horror (though never of occultism). Like Baudelaire he dwelt on sexual themes, giving due attention to the perverted and orgiastic. He was especially fascinated by group fornication and by masochism in the male. But again like Baudelaire he rises above pornography because he deals with the pathetic searching of sensitive personalities in the midst of grossness. Tanizaki seems to possess a full understanding of sexual symbolism; eroticism as such is inadequate as subject matter unless it provides scope for psychological analysis. Although Tanizaki's interest leans toward the abnormal and the exotic, his characters are given personality and motivation as well as glands.

One of his earliest works, and one which indicated the trend of future stories, was a tale of sexual symbolism entitled Shisei (Tattoo), 1909. (pp. 69-70)

Akuma (Satan), 1912, develops the theme of male masochism in less symbolic fashion, as does Fumiko no Ashi (Fumiko's Feet), 1919. In the latter the apparently common fetish suggested in the title receives full treatment. Otsuyagoroshi (The Murder of Otsuya), 1913, is a tale of murder and amorality set in the apache area of the capital. The Japanese variety of gangsterism, the carnality of old Yedo, and the general depravity of urban outcasts is dealt with here, although Tanizaki seems interested in depiction only, not in social criticism. In back alleys and smoky rooms lovers are passed around like a platter of olives, and jaded passions are stimulated by devices which remind one of the notorious tableaux of the Marquis de Sade. Osai to Minosuke, 1915, and Chijin no Ai (A Fool's Love), 1924, are novels similar in kind. The latter is an exposition of Tanizaki's theory that the female is the real sexual aggressor. His male protagonist in the story, a young rake named Kawai, suffers keenly from the discovery that his lady is insatiable. She cannot be content with one lover, not even with one at a time. In spite of his mortification Kawai accompanies her on her plural adventures, as a member of the team. One of her orgies takes place in a large mosquito net, chosen apparently for its symbolism of captivity rather than as a protection against the distraction of insects.

In later years Tanizaki became less concerned with erotic descriptions and much more with introspective analysis. Tade Kū Mushi (A Matter of Taste), 1919, is the story of the failure of a marriage. The hero is unable to hold his wife's affection, although it is clear that with a little effort he could do so. The woman's emotional needs remind one of Tanizaki's earlier heroines, but the emphasis is different. The story is tempered and restrained, and although the dramatic conflicts stem from sexual maladjustment, their resolution is less spectacularly and progressively depraved than was the case in the author's earlier work. (p. 71)

John W. Morrison, in his Modern Japanese Fiction (copyright 1955 University of Utah Press), University of Utah Press, 1955 (reprinted by Greenwood Press, 1975).

The conflict between the claims of East and West is particularly apparent in the works of Tanizaki Junichirō. His early productions dealt mainly with themes which might have been suggested by the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, and are marked by strong overtones of sadism and masochism. This period reached its height with A Fool's Love (1924), the story of a man who is so fascinated by a coarse, European-looking waitress that he tolerates her repeated cruelties. Even in this work, however, there is implied a condemnation of the excessive worship paid to Western things. In the next major novel, Some Prefer Nettles (1928), the hero is drawn both to an Eurasian prostitute and to a Kyoto beauty. Each stands for a world, and we sense that it is Japan which will win. The later novels of Tanizaki expand this conservative aspect of his work. Many of them deal with events of Japanese history of the recent or distant past. The Thin Snow (1944–1947), perhaps Tanizaki's masterpiece, tells of the Japan of the years immediately before the Pacific War, but contains many suggestions of The Tale of Genji, a work which Tanizaki has translated into modern Japanese. (pp. 25-6)

Donald Keene, in his introduction to Modern Japanese Literature, edited by Donald Keene (reprinted by permission of Grove Press, Inc.; copyright © 1956 by Grove Press), Grove Press, 1956.

Tanizaki's theme is not really devotion, but devotion curdled into neurotic fixation. In the fashion of Japanese culture, he is very matter-of-fact about the body. What is quite remarkable is the way Tanizaki combines this with a sense of the body's mystery. There is no matter-of-factness, but a burning sensuality, in the professor's photographing his wife naked in The Key, published when the author was 70, or in Tadasu at his stepmother's breasts in "The Bridge of Dreams," published when the author was 73.

In this respect, as in many others, Tanizaki reminds me of the Leskov of "Lady Macbeth of the Mtensk District." If one cannot be Tolstoi or Dostoevsky, it is not too bad to be Leskov. (p. 183)

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "A Japanese Master," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 179-83.

Tanizaki is the greatest Japanese writer of our time. Like other Japanese contemporary writers, Tanizaki began his career under the spell of the West: Poe, Baudelaire, Wilde. The Western influence is manifest in the condensed form of his short stories. But in both substance and imagination, the influence of the Japanese novelists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is much stronger. In his early period the stories were imbued with the satanic powers of the spirit and the flesh, the mysterious forces of fatal love and exacerbated eroticism. Tanizaki created female characters with strong, fiendish powers for love that are unique in Japanese literature. (p. 153)

[Tatoo] is the perfect work of a great master. The Western technique of exposition and condensation is cleverly combined with the traditional Japanese ability for exploring the dark world of the instincts, the satanic forces of man.

In his long career, Tanizaki always drew his strength and inspiration from genuine Japanese soil. From the West he took only the technique, which he mastered splendidly. It is comforting to find a man so true to himself.

In 1932 he wrote Ashikari (Reed Pickers), a short story impregnated with melancholy and an evocative love for old Japan. In it Tanizaki shows a rare gift for expressing the feelings inspired by nature:

Readers, you all have, perhaps, some old memories charged with deep emotion. As for me, a man nearly fifty years of age, I find myself strongly affected by the melancholy of autumn, with a force unknown to me when I was young. Even the sigh of the wind, rustling through the leaves of kuzu, can make me unbearably sad.

Shunkin-sho (The Story of Shunkin), published in 1933, is an impressive work. It is not that it attracts so much by its striking Japanese details—like the explanation of the ingenious way of teaching nightingales to sing still more beautifully than they usually do, nor by showing how to appreciate the true excellence of the lark's song. The exceptional attraction of this story lies in the impassive cruelty and irresistible power of the blind teacher of samisen, and in the boundless devotion of her servant, Sasuke…. The narration has a rare intensity, gradually deepening the torments of the heart into an intolerable cruelty.

In 1928 Tanizaki treated the contradiction of both Eastern and Western attractions for the modern Japanese in Tade kuu Mushi (Some Prefer Nettles). It is considered by some critics to be his best work. It is beautifully written and its construction is perfect. There is an impressive contrast between the young couple drifting aimlessly towards gratuitous adventure—the wife to a love with her husband's consent and the husband to the casual love of a pretty Eurasian—and the steadiness of the wife's father, who is firmly rooted in old Japanese habits and culture. The old gentleman tries to bring stability to the emotional life of the couple by leading them to the spiritual sources of old Japanese art and enjoyment, to the puppet theatre, which is described with enticing penetration. The clever construction of the novel is not balanced by a strong characterization. The young man and his wife never become very real to us. The old man and his mistress Ohisa seem more like caricatures of an old traditional Japanese gentleman who is a connoisseur of the delicate refinements of yore, and a pretty feminine type who is kept and trimmed exclusively for man's pleasure. Where Tanizaki was an incomparable master is in the refinement and delicacy of combining or just sketching the subtlest nuances, "pushing back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly," in giving us, as he says, "the pattern of shadows, the light and the darkness which things produce."

Tanizaki's power came, no doubt, from the sources of the past, from the strange beauty and spiritual strength of old Japan. This rich soil on which the greatness and inspiration of his work was built enabled him to reach a true universalism. It is a universalism that springs from the turbid sources of life.

Nostalgia for the past inspired Tanizaki to write a roman-fleuve in the period 1943–48, Sasameyuki (translated as The Makioka Sisters). It is a novel about a merchant family of Osaka which is decaying from past grandeur. It is concerned with a vanishing world to which the last war has dealt a mortal blow. The plot is thin, nearly nonexistent. The pace is slow, and flooded with minute, exhaustive description. But the human milieu is real. The complex atmosphere of a family, its complicated affairs, prejudices, proud traditions, and secret shames, and the character of its members—especially the four sisters—are drawn in a masterly way. It is achieved through a long narration animated by an extremely detailed realism and by the poetic vein, the breadth and force of a great writer. (pp. 154-55)

[Tanizaki's] erotic books, absorbed in the world of flesh and carnal desires, have been accused of decadence and of nearly falling into the category of pornographic literature. In his last novels he combined the Japanese tradition of the erotic with the Western trend of psychoanalytical fiction. Perhaps it was this Western bent for the analysis, the over-emphasis of the erotic together with the clear consciousness of its moral implications, that gives Tanizaki's novels more complexity. At the same time it makes them weaker in carnal force.

Compared to Saikaku, Tanizaki evinces the decadent moral dissolution of a society contaminated by de Sade and his successors, the weakness of a man divided between a certain longing for moral integrity and a licentious thirst for pleasures. Tanizaki was far from the wholesome, natural eroticism of Saikaku. Saikaku's pagan desire is naked and brutal, but it still keeps all the innocence of nature.

Tanizaki has a sense of power and depth rarely found in Japanese writers. He is … a Japanese writer who, with artistic taste and harmony, combined the old Japanese tradition—on which he based his strength—with Western values, through which he attained modernity, wide vision, and true greatness. (pp. 155-56)

Armando Martins Janiera, in his Japanese and Western Literature (© 1970 by Charles E. Tuttle Co., Inc.), Tuttle, 1970.

Tanizaki's novel cannot be considered pornographic, though it is rather erotic, and the merely sexual aspect of the novel which plays such an important role, as well as the various interpretations of the novel previously offered, should not confuse us.

The Key describes the sexual life of a fifty-five-year-old Professor and his forty-four-year-old wife, Ikuko, through their diaries covering a period just short of six months. (p. 216)

At first glance, it seems quite easy to establish The Key as a novel. The classification "novel" covers many diverse works, and the The Key is "a special form of narrative" by Michel Butor's approximation of a definition of a novel.

We then become aware of the complexity of this novel. In the first place, it is composed of two private diaries, written not only to preserve the intimate thoughts of their authors but written to be read by each other. They are diaries with a specific addressee, thus they lose the character of impressions of a soul, of a mirror or portrait of the spirit, and instead become an extrovert expression of self in intimate confidences. They are both partial autobiographies and messages, born of the tacit agreement between the Professor and his wife that they will read each other's diaries without mentioning the fact to each other. To utilize a distinction made by Tzvetan Todorov, they are letters on the "being level" and diaries on the "seeming level".

On a deeper level, they are drama, for a dialogue structure develops between the two writers, a result of the similarity between epistolary and dramatic styles. As such, they can be considered a tragicomedy, for both characters are masked by common consent. Thus they both know how much one knows about the other, but continue to appear ignorant. The play is a farce as well as a tragedy, caused by love, hate, taboos, repression and daring. When one of the actors dies, his wife throws off her mask.

From a different point of view, The Key can be considered a chronicle. (pp. 216-17)

Finally, The Key is undoubtedly a detective story. Tanizaki enjoyed this type of novel during his early period, and its influence can be seen throughout his works. The Key keeps the reader in suspense till the end, not through desire to discover the author of the crime, but to know the motives which led him to it, coupled with a perhaps futile desire to know the extent of sincerity in the diaries….

The complexity of literary genre is reflected in the equally complex structure of the novel, and, given his aesthetic ideas, Tanizaki was obviously aware of this….

Structure is the form in which the various parts of a narration are organized. It becomes clear the structure of The Key does not follow a straight and static line. It can more aptly be defined as a spiral with non-uniform radius and great elasticity, subjected to constant force so that parts of the spiral are in contact at times. Each curve deviates sufficiently from its point of origin to open the possibility of a further curve without doubling back upon itself. The narrative forms the spiral, and the turns are the various entries in the diaries, forming an uninterrupted continuity but separated from previous curves by no uniform distance. Movement in the narrative comes from pressure imposed on the turns, such that they coincide with and touch each other. Progress and withdrawal are followed by another advance, rather like a dynamic illusion or, more precisely, a dialectic fantasy. (p. 217)

But this structure is even more complex. The wealth of Tanizaki's technique offers us a surprise in the final sections of Ikuko's diary. Here we see a multiple elasticity, such that it not only represents curves or turns under pressure, but of variable diameter in continual flux. The final turns coincide, in hallucinating movement, with all previous turns, and acquire "real meaning". The illusion of dynamism is at its peak. (p. 218)

[Tanizaki's technique] provides for the representation of one event not only by two different people, but even by the same person at different times. We are thus offered, in a plurality of perceptions, a stereoscopic view more complex than the described phenomenon. This draws our attention to the character who describes and perceives the phenomenon, if we know or think we know the phenomenon. At the same time, different views of a single event by the same individual reveal his complexity, hypocrisy, and ability to disguise himself. (pp. 218-19)

The traditional role of all-knowing narrator is discarded. The novelist reduces perspective, the style is in the first person (in this case he can offer us only what is plausibly happening). At the same time, the authors of the diaries, acting as narrators writing a letter, are not so well informed as the reader, as they cannot communicate about what they write with one another. The reader has an advantage over the characters, who are like chessmen on a board of intrigue. At the same time, there are moments when the reader is surrounded by mystery while the characters seem to have clear knowledge, since the reader cannot know anything not expressed in the diaries…. Mysteries, irresolutions, uncertainties, changing impressions, call into question a balance of awareness: who is more completely aware of what happened, the reader or the characters?

Tanizaki limits himself to outlining the chaos which defines life itself. Chaos in The Key adopts ambiguity as its most characteristic expression. The characters are perplexed by the coils of ambiguity such that even they cannot understand what is happening. The reader is trapped in this game and suffers the illusion that he is a puppet, manipulated by threads of certainty and doubt, truth and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance, until he finally feels identified with the characters. (p. 219)

Sex, which may be considered as a fundamental theme, is at the same time an abstract omnipresent character, acting as a common denominator in the entire novel….

In The Key, sex is a giant which manipulates puppets on a stage. The other characters are hung from invisible threads, and movements, gestures and distorted notions are provoked by the giant giving them life. (p. 220)

The structure of the novel itself is sex-inspired. It is sex which puts dynamic pressure on the spiral forming the various sections or curves of the diaries, as the writers are inspired by sex: the diaries, written to be read, are, depending on the occasion, a means of communicating tacit desire, an incentive to awaken desire, a means of mocking, a strategy to produce the other's destruction. (pp. 220-21)

It may seem that Tanizaki presents his characters with a degree of determinism. They may appear to be puppets, but Tanizaki wanted his characters to remain at this level and has not described them further. He perhaps wished to caricaturize. Let us not forget that it has been said that the caricature is the quintessence of the personality. (p. 228)

Jaime Fernandez, "A Study of Tanizaki's 'The Key'," in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, edited by Kinya Tsuruta and Thomas E. Swann (copyright, 1976, by Monumenta Nipponica), Sophia University, 1976, pp. 215-28.