Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

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Jun’ichir Tanizaki (tahn-ee-zahk-ee) explored Japanese traditionalism and the male infatuation with dominant women in a wide-ranging body of work embracing novels, novellas, short stories, plays, and essays. He was the son of the struggling owner of a printing establishment and spent his childhood growing up in the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo. His mother was quite attractive, and the young Tanizaki, as later autobiographical statements attest, was enthralled by her beauty. He was a handsome youth, often bullied by his classmates. In primary school, his precociousness was recognized by a teacher who guided him in exploring the Japanese and Chinese classics, giving him an early appreciation of traditions and literary aesthetics. At the First Municipal High School in Tokyo, he was an outstanding student and went on to study in the Japanese literature department at Tokyo Imperial University, where he joined the student literary magazine Shinshich (new thought tides). Because he could not pay his university fees, he did not finish his degree studies, choosing instead to pursue writing as a career.[Tanizaki, Junichiro]}[Tanizaki, Junichiro]}[Tanizaki, Junichiro]}

His first substantial works were two plays published in 1910, but it was “The Tattooer,” an erotic short story describing the coming to life of a spider etched on the back of a drugged courtesan and the enraptured entrapment of the tattooer in the transformed beauty of his “victim,” that launched his literary career. In 1911 this Poe-like creation and other works won for Tanizaki the praise of Nagai Kaf, a writer-critic whom Tanizaki admired and who characterized Tanizaki as a fellow struggler against the prevailing naturalist school of writing and its emphasis on describing reactions to real-life situations. Many of his early works—“Shnen” (children), “Akuma” (demon), and “Kyfu” (terror)—reflecting fin de siècle influences of Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and Edgar Allan Poe and his personal infatuation with the hedonistic macabre, are characterized by “diabolism” (akumashugi), his preoccupation with the perverse and deviant.

Tanizaki was married for the first time in 1915; the marriage, which ended in divorce in 1930, was complicated by a liaison between his wife and his friend the writer Haruo Sato and by Tanizaki’s fascination for his sister-in-law Seiko. The writer’s involved personal life received autobiographical treatment in Itansha no kanashimi (sorrows of a heretic), about a gifted writer and the sadistic carnal attentions of his prostitute lover, and “Longing for Mother,” published a year after his mother died, concerning the narrator’s dream quest for his departed mother. These and other stories, serialized in magazines and newspapers, developed Tanizaki’s fixation on women characters representative of the idealized mother or the domineering sexual siren ministering to the lustful desires of emotionally repressed men. Other important writings from this period include an autobiographical novel, a two-act play set in Edo, and a rare political novel, perhaps inspired by the Russian Revolution. Tanizaki also wrote plays in the early 1920’s, exploring the theme of guilt and happiness involving two men competing for the love of one woman, and dallied with filmmaking. Important short stories from this period include “The Thief” and “Aguri.”

On September 1, 1923, the great Kant earthquake devastated the Tokyo-Yokohama region, prompting Tanizaki to move to the Osaka region. This move interrupted the writing of Naomi, a long work (reminiscent of Pygmalion ) about the effort to change a Japanese bar girl into a sophisticated woman capable of mingling in refined circles with foreigners. For some years, Tanizaki had been intrigued by the West, considering Europe to be a more vibrant civilization than the Orient. Though his early stories explored dissolute Japanese themes shrouded in the native past, he...

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had, nevertheless, an admiration for things Western, as seen inNaomi.

He continued a flirtation with a Western lifestyle while residing near the port city of Kobe with its large foreign enclave, but gradually he discovered in the more traditional ways of the Kansai region (especially as characterized by the softspoken women of the area) an appreciation for vestiges of a fading past which rekindled childhood memories of what was no longer available in a Tokyo being rebuilt into a modern city. This interest in the customs, language, and style of the Osaka-Kyoto-Nara region became manifest in his writings, particularly the serialized novels Manji and Some Prefer Nettles. The former explored the intertwined relationship of two men and two women who relate to shared events from their different perspectives. Tanizaki had the dialogue translated into the Kansai dialect to give the story a sense of location. Some Prefer Nettles went beyond the contemporary localism of Manji to mark a complete return to the author’s nativist roots. Kaname, the main character, in the midst of a failing marriage complicated by a Eurasian prostitute who merely satisfies him and a wife, Misako, who is leaving him for her lover, becomes captivated by the harmonious traditional relationship between his father-in-law and his young mistress, Ohisa. In exploring what is lacking in his own “modern” relationships and discovering what his in-law has in his, Kaname comes to an appreciation of old Japan.

Tanizaki married a young Kansai woman in 1931, but he soon became infatuated with Matsuko Morita (who became his third and last wife), the wife of a wealthy merchant, who inspired him to write “A Blind Man’s Tale” and The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. Other important works from this time are “Ashikari” and “A Portrait of Shunkin.” These writings reflected what Tanizaki described in his 1934 essay “In Praise of Shadows” as a preference for the traditional aesthetic over glaring modernism.

The Makioka Sisters, a novel chronicling the history of a declining Osaka family in the prewar years, was banned by the wartime military authorities for its acceptance of Westernisms. When the book was fully published in the late 1940’s, it won several awards and reestablished Tanizaki’s reputation. Tanizaki returned to Heian Japan for inspiration in The Mother of Captain Shigemoto to reconstruct fictitiously the perverse romance of a famous courtier and her lover. The story of an aged professor’s sexual dalliances related in his and his wife’s diaries in The Key, published in the Ch Kron journal, was a huge success. “The Bridge of Dreams” once again delved into the theme of mother fixation. Diary of a Mad Old Man, a humorous account of love in old age, was his last major work.

Analyses of Tanizaki’s literary career usually focus on the transitions in his life and the resulting effects on his writings. The decadent fascination with fetishes, sadism, excreta, and other perversities found in his early fiction are attributed to personal sexual ambivalances stemming from his childhood maternal fixation and adult marriage problems, expressed in a writing style liberated by exposure to Western writers. With his move to the Kansai region and ensuing disenchantment with occidental modernity, Tanizaki is said to have turned to the Japanese past as a new source of exoticism. During this middle period, he eschewed current events, returning to the classical and medieval ages for inspiration. With the completion of The Makioka Sisters, he turned to the recent but disappearing past while accepting the modernity of the times. His postwar writings were freed from an obsession with the past, and his lifelong exploration of sensual idealism was resuscitated in his final works.

The shifts from occidentalism to orientalism or from diabolism to classicism that many see in Tanizaki’s oeuvre are debatable. What transcends these speculations is the indisputable quality of literary craftsmanship shown in Tanizaki’s mastery of language and sensory detail (smells, tastes, sounds, colors) employed in an exploration of the hedonistically decadent. Weak men sexually enraptured by demoniac femmes fatales and haunting mother figures provide the motifs for delving into tradition and history. In 1927 the novelist Rynosuke Akutagawa criticized Tanizaki for his fixation on the fanciful and depraved at the cost of artistic value. Tanizaki rejected this critique, defending the “architectural beauty” of his writings. Indeed, despite the infatuation with prurient elements, his fiction captures an elemental Japaneseness expressed in an aesthetic of sensuality indelibly stamped with the author’s personality.


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Jun’ichir Tanizaki, whose father owned a printing establishment, was born in Tokyo on July 24, 1886. He attended the Tokyo Imperial University, studying classical Japanese literature, but had little interest in attending lectures and did not earn a degree. Even at the university, however, he wrote stories and plays for small magazines, some of them serialized; indeed, he continued to be productive throughout his life. In his early years, he was noted for dissolute habits, and some readers blamed him for what they believed was worship of women. His three marriages were unconventional, the experiences of which some will say are hinted at in his short fiction. The suggestion is made occasionally that Tanizaki’s moving from Tokyo to the Kansai after the earthquake of 1923 contributed to changes in his writing, but changes in phrasing, characterization, or dialogue in these different years are not easy to see in English translations. As one reviews the publications of his life, one finds no time when he was unproductive. In fact, he continued writing to the time of his death, on July 30, 1965, in Yugawara.