Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō (Vol. 28)
Jun'ichirō Tanizaki 1886–1965
Japanese novelist, short story writer, translator, essayist, and dramatist.
Tanizaki ranks among the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century. He began his long career in the Meiji period (1868–1912) with the magazine publication of several short stories; he continued to write throughout the Taishō period (1912–1926) and into the modern Shōwa period. His novels and short fiction are marked by their combination of Western and classical Japanese literary influences and by their sensuous, almost pornographic subject matter.
The most significant of the Western writers by whom Tanizaki was influenced were Edgar Allan Poe and Oscar Wilde. Like these authors, Tanizaki displayed an interest in the relation of the grotesque to the beautiful. He also shared their emphasis on plot and the creation of a fictional world based on fantasy and subconscious obsessions. Tanizaki's works differed from the Japanese literature of his time, which was dominated by naturalism and the confessional "I-novels." Nearly all of his fiction explores the sexual obsessions and perversions of the protagonist. The typical male hero is obsessed by the beauty of an unattainable woman and he suffers acutely because of this obsession. For Tanizaki, beauty is never far from pain; humiliation, rejection, and masochism often form the base of the protagonist's erotic pleasure. The theme of the yearning for unattainable beauty is developed through the hero's quest for the ideal mother-figure, as in Arrowroot (1932), a recently translated novella.
Sasameyuki (1948; The Makioka Sisters) explores the theme of beauty through the lives of four sisters and has been called Tanizaki's greatest contribution to literature. When Tanizaki tried to publish this novel during World War II, he encountered resistance because the novel neither mentions nor offers support for the Japanese war effort.
In his later years Tanizaki began to reject much of the Western influence on Japanese culture. In the novel Inei raisan (1934; In Praise of Shadows), for example, he bemoans the loss of purity and the subtle, suggestive beauty characteristic of traditional Japan. His respect for and sensitivity to the Japanese language is reflected in his modern rendition of the eleventh-century classic, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki.
(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary].)
For all his emphasis on the subconscious, Tanizaki himself was a very self-conscious technician. Perhaps he thought a novel must have a form designed to engage the reader's conscious mind precisely because its contents made their appeal at a different level. In any case, his own novels are characterized by skillfully constructed plot and persuasive rhetoric, in sharp contrast to the uncanny, indefinable nature of their central themes and characters. (p. 71)
Tanizaki's concept of structure, as it emerges from the controversy [between himself and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke] is quite clear: a novel should have a tightly knit, skillfully woven plot. "Its components," he observed elsewhere, "should embrace each other so tightly that if one were to be removed the whole would collapse." Not many Japanese literary theorists have shared this approach. Japanese readers have always liked a loose, episodic kind of plot—if plot it can be called—far removed from what Tanizaki had in mind; they especially detested a plot that was constructed geometrically, like a classic French comedy. Tanizaki's notion of plot was also unusual in its preference for grandeur; plot, he thought, should be not only tightly knit but constructed on the grand scale. It should be like a long-distance runner with strong legs; it should demonstrate the writer's staying power.
Tanizaki's idea of plot thus turns out to be almost deterministic. Plot construction,...
(The entire section is 2640 words.)
Gwenn Boardman Petersen
Many of Tanizaki's contemporaries ended their stories with a question: "When and where will these two meet again?"—or as in the play by Fujimori Seikichi flashing a sign that reads "What made her do it?" But Tanizaki's questions are unvoiced, though often related to specific incidents. Just what did the prostitute do to the author in Itansha no Kanashimi? Who poured the scalding water on Shunkin and why? What is the nature of the "snake" in the untranslated Shōnen (where critics tend to focus on the presence of another cruel female—Mitsuko, the girl who frightens the other children)? Only marginally of Freudian significance, this focus of horror ultimately leaves the reader, like the boy, uncertain as to the nature of the threat. Was the snake real or carved from wood? And was the terror any less real or the domination more perverse if the beast's only life was in the imagination of a frightened boy? Tanizaki's ambiguities may be poetic in the Japanese tradition or prosaic in the manner of a mystery story. His perceptive psychological studies are rendered with great artistry and always leave room for the reader to exercise imagination. His careful delineation of the past implies—but never makes explicit—a judgment of those who are merely fanciers of tradition. At the same time, Tanizaki fashions from the past a commentary on the distance between dream and reality: between our hopes and "the way things are."
(The entire section is 928 words.)
Noriko Mizuta Lippit
[The Taisho period (1912–1926) in Japan] was one of reaction to naturalism and to the confessional I-novels; it was characterized by two dominant literary movements, one of the Shirakaba group and the other the so-called aesthetic school. These movements—and the philosophic and aesthetic ideas underlying them—were almost diametrically opposed. The Shirakaba group sought a new sense of life in the limitless expansion of the self and of human possibilities, while the aesthetic school was committed to the pursuit of the beautiful, even to the point of sacrificing social and moral integrity. Yet they were in agreement that literature is an art form and that style, structure, words, and images are at least as important as the content of literary works. Perfection in a work as art, together with or in place of philosophic depth, was a professed goal of most of the writers of this period; this was especially true of the writers of the aesthetic school who were most strongly influenced by [Edgar Allen] Poe. Among them Sato Haruo, Hagiwara Sakutaro, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, and Tanizaki Junichiro openly acknowledged their indebtedness to Poe, and their works show the depth of his influence. (pp. 83-4)
Students of Tanizaki usually agree that, like other Taisho writers, he began his career under the spell of the West: the influence of Poe, Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde, among others, is reflected in many of his early works. It is agreed,...
(The entire section is 3632 words.)
The long career of Junichiro Tanizaki … offers a spectacle of unity in the utmost diversity. From his early "diabolist" tales through the traditionalist underpinnings of his middle period to the erotic realism of his last novels, Tanizaki's preoccupations remain the same: the secret ritual, the obsessive desire, the nostalgia so profound that it defines an entire existence. Oddly, he is also the most objective of writers. Never judging, he turns his subjects around and inside out, proposing motives, contradicting them. He rarely hesitates to make jokes of the grotesque figures his characters cut as they attempt to reconstruct the world according to the laws of fetishism.
Of the many fetishes that crop up in Tanizaki's books, few are as bizarre as that of Terukatsu, the Lord of Musashi [the protagonist of The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi], who responds only to the sight of noseless male heads caressed by young female hands….
Tanizaki's novella is on one level a burlesque of heroic feudal sagas—loyal retainers commit suicide by leaping into toilets, and far more space is devoted to the hero's sexual proclivities than to his prowess in battle. But beyond that, it is an analysis of the ways in which Terukatsu's secret sexual agenda determines his role in history. In the end he will topple a powerful clan solely to bring about the desired conjunction of a lovely woman and a noseless face....
(The entire section is 468 words.)
Junichiro Tanizaki may well prove to be the outstanding Japanese novelist of this century, rivaled only by Yasunari Kawabata…. Both writers presided over the obsequies of traditional Japan, and both responded to its demise with a strong but ironic nostalgia….
For Tanizaki, "Arrowroot" (1932) and "The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi" (1935), now admirably translated into English for the first time, mark the period when, after 20 years of writing novels in a fairly orthodox style, he fused two interests—traditional Japanese storytelling and experimental narrative—into a unique style. But their themes are mirrored in many of his other stories….
Sadism—or more exactly sexual coercion, quietly engineered and often taking place among members of the same family—is a theme that fascinated Tanizaki. He managed to exclude it altogether only from "The Makioka Sisters," as though he had determined not to mar his masterpiece with anything too recherché. But even in those pages, the grim relish with which diseases, operations and natural disasters are described seems a bit suspect….
[Many of Tanizaki's] plots, if baldly summarized, sound merely pornographic. But what must be kept in mind is that the erotic maneuvers in a Tanizaki novel are performed in a tight, almost claustrophobic society based on filial deference and an equally strong parental sense of responsibility for children. If such...
(The entire section is 891 words.)
[With The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot] we begin to discern the coastline of that other Japanese archipelago, the works of Junichiro Tanizaki. The tale and the meditation … were written fifty years ago, after the publication of the author's first "Collected Works"—the twelve volumes of novels, stories, plays and essays of his first twenty years of writing. Even so, they predate the books by which he is known in the West—Some Prefer Nettles, Seven Japanese Tales, The Makioka Sisters. They stand—Arrowroot mild and maieutic, a kind of prolegomenon to any future storytelling, Secret History almost comic in its excruciating violence—as flags staking claim to a still unexplored continent, or, given the nature of the case, incontinent. Coprophilia, a curiously lyrical theme sounded in all of Tanizaki's works, constitutes one of our clues. It is hinted at in the famous last sentence of his 1949 family chronicle, the Turgenev-like Makioka Sisters ("Yukiko's diarrhoea persisted, and was a problem on the train to Tokyo"). In Secret History it is given astonishing scope:
Ladies born into a daimyo family were not only ignorant of money, they never allowed anyone to see their excretory matter, nor did they ever see it themselves…. There is a story of the beautiful Heian court lady who tantalized a suitor with a copy of her feces fashioned...
(The entire section is 729 words.)