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 CLC, Vol. 8, and Contemporary Authors, obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.)
Faced with Tanizaki's Sasame Yuki (The Makioka Sisters), popular criticism has tried to find Western analogues for the techniques and themes of this major Japanese novel. Because it deals with bourgeois life and with humdrum events of human existence, because it finally results in a seemingly broad view of society, it is called a naturalistic novel. (pp. 19-20)
[While] Sasame Yuki does have characteristics in common with a French tradition, these are minor and it is Murasaki's Tale of Genji, a courtly romance, that is the immediate model for Sasame Yuki. The fact that Tanizaki interrupted work on a modern translation of Genji to write a chronicle of the Makiokas is significant, particularly when several of his novels are compared. It becomes clear that Tanizaki's quest is not for a duplication of reality, in the Zola manner, but it is a quest for ideal beauty, embodied in ancient traditions and artistically expressed in the Japanese female.
What popular critics have in mind when they say Tanizaki is a naturalistic writer seems to be, first, that he is a chronicler of a society rather than of a single individual; second, that he uses detail to place characters in an observable reality; third, he as author-artist maintains detachment from his characters; and fourth, the animal functions (teeth brushing, using bedpans) are permissible parts of a work of art. The single largest danger of judgment is to assume that these are qualities of naturalism. While they certainly may appear in the naturalistic novel, the use of them does not necessarily produce naturalism, nor does the failure to use them preclude it. The essence of naturalism lies deeper in the purpose and overall effect of the novel. In this respect Tanizaki's works (except Kagi [The Key] which stands apart from his other novels …) bear little relation to the Zolaesque tradition.
The title of the translation is partially to blame for the misunderstanding of Sasame Yuki. The Japanese title means "delicate snow" and is a poetic symbol of transitory beauty, whereas The Makioka Sisters gives the impression that the book is truly a chronicle of domestic life. The subject matter, however, is closer to a poetic vision (something Zola denounces with vehemence) of the essential beauty of an older way of life in contrast with the harshness of Japan's westernization, symbolized by Tokyo.
Structurally, Sasame Yuki owes nothing to Zola. Murasaki—and indeed all traditional Japanese writers—compose episodically, with no obvious emphasis given to certain actions as guides to further development. Interest is concentrated on the individual scene and development is accomplished only by demonstrating change from scene to scene. This differs from Western episodic treatment which generally means only that the same characters are present in a series of separate actions, and in the totality there is no development either of action or of character. Murasaki utilizes, by oblique reference, each episode to show a growing complexity in Genji's character and to record his growth from rascally young prince, to honored court official, to mature man. What is principally lacking in Japanese fiction that is present in Western is a deliberate cause and effect delineation. The Japanese writer deals with effects and causation is only hinted at, if mentioned at...
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[In Diary of a Mad Old Man Tanizaki's symbolic eroticism] is earthy, realistic, clinically detailed. (p. 109)
The efforts of Tanizaki's old man [Tokusuke] are not so much a quest for identity as an attempt to preserve the image he understands well and more or less accepts. He tries to extract the last bit of life-juice from the shriveled facts of his existence, affirming through diary and desire the significance of who he is. (pp. 109-10)
But he is hardly crazy. The title's assertion, that he is a mad old man (futen rojin), is surely ironic. For one thing, his diary account is lucid. When he looks at the record of a year before, he realizes he is getting forgetful and acknowledges it. His analysis of his own motives is perceptive. (p. 110)
The madness, rather, is the madness of life itself, the lunacy of a world where the creative drive is shackled to a decaying frame identified by pulsebeats, urine analysis, and doses of medicine—and described in complicated medical jargon…. Old Tokusuke's existence comes increasingly to be defined by such clinical facts of life. On the comic level—and there is a good deal of comedy—Tanizaki satirizes the Japanese in particular and modern man in general. On the more serious level, Tokusuke's fate suggests a society which has developed analysis of the physical functions to a remarkable degree, but shows myopia in comprehension of the spirit. I'm...
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Tanizaki Junichirō's works are often described as "sensuous," "dazzling," "exquisite," "devilish," or "sick." One associates his name with the exquisite beauty of a firefly seen through the sleeve of a silk kimono, or the perverse sexuality of a man exhausted by the nightly pleasure of being tortured by his wife. It seems that he writes in order to see what an artist can do with a theme or image that happens to capture his creative ambition. The "germ" of his fiction is sensual and aesthetic, rather than ideological….
Each of Tanizaki's works has one or two central images or themes which are so uncommon as to haunt the reader. Diary of a Mad Old Man offers as theme an old man's tremendous desire for certain parts of the body of his daughter-in-law, and as image, the beautiful young woman's footprints engraved on the old man's tombstone. In theme, The Key concentrates on two diaries, each written with the knowledge of the other person reading it; and its controlling image is a necklace on the naked body of the wife which excites the husband to death. In his famous dispute with Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, Tanizaki declared that he does not feel like writing or reading a work about ordinary facts, and that only lies and fantasies can stimulate him to write. (p. 321)
The result of Tanizaki's untiring labor over words is an appearance of easy and unbroken composition. Thus, most of his works are accounts in simple words of a self-contained and somewhat twisted reality, in which accepted logical patterns are ignored. Describing the extraordinary in a nonchalant tone, as if reporting an ordinary event in familiar, flowing language, has the effect of stripping the reader of his demand for normal logic, as we see in the case of Kafka.
A second aspect, which critics have mostly ignored and occasionally considered a flaw, is the structure of his narrative. That is his secret trick. In his essay on Story of Shunkin, Tanizaki discusses what he considers the most important thing in fiction and how it can be achieved. In his mind, to make the reader feel that the events in the work are all real is far more important than to impress him with the author's artistry. The more artistic the work, the more false it appears. Thus, he recommends that a fiction have the appearance of someone narrating a summary of events rather than of an author describing details. He says that in writing Story of Shunkin his utmost concern was "what kind of form would give the impression of actuality," and that he arrived "at the sneakiest and easiest way an author can think of." He does not tell us exactly what is the "sneaky and easy way."
In Story of Shunkin Tanizaki effectively practices his theory of narration and summary. The sneaky part of it is the way he puts together the "summaries" and "narrations." This novella germinates from the image of an incredibly beautiful woman to whom sight is denied: if the...
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