Modern Japanese fiction frequently has taken the form of the “I-novel,” an often intimate first-person narrative with a strong confessional tendency. Tanizaki follows this technique by utilizing a memoir that is not directed at any audience, nor is it intended to be read until after Tadasu’s death. This gives the whole story an authenticity and intimacy that allows readers to see a character’s innermost thoughts in an almost voyeuristic way. The use of a memoir—other Japanese authors have used long letters—creates this authenticity. One follows Tadasu’s personal thoughts with almost embarrassing clarity, but at the same time one sees the other characters only through his eyes. Their motives are therefore as obscure to readers as they are to Tadasu.
The story, like all of Tanizaki’s work, is heavily laden with literary and cultural references. As in Japanese poetry, he evokes the seasons with allusions to insects or the color of trees or blossoms. For example, Tadasu knows that his shocking encounter with his stepmother was in late spring because the silk tree his grandfather had planted was in blossom. He begins massaging his stepmother when the crape myrtle is beginning to bloom and the plantain is ripening. The passing of time is marked by these familiar references from traditional Japanese literature.
Poetry, calligraphy, and other arts provide a rich background for this psychological study, giving the story a classical quality that provides a context for its eroticism. The Heron’s Nest, itself a reference to The Tale of Genji, is a quiet eddy of Japanese culture, protected from the rapid changes of the world beyond the walls of the garden.