Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

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Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Short Fiction Analysis

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The dominant theme in Jun’ichir Tanizaki’s best work is love, but few writers so successfully explore this universally preferred topic with such unconventional revelations. Commentators often identified his earliest writings as “demoniac”; his later work they might have characterized as “sardonic.” As labels prove to be insufficient for most good writers, however, one must struggle to understand Tanizaki’s probing style as he uncovers complicated motives for lovers, spouses, family members, and friends, who continually surprise one another. In addition, as one finishes reading Tanizaki’s works of fiction, most characteristically, one finds oneself more than a little uncertain as to how things really work out. The dispute, the rivalries, or the resentments always seems resolved or brought to a close; most commonly, though, the reader finds himself needing to fill in indeterminate gaps using his own imagination. This challenge, in fact, contributes to much of the pleasure in reading Tanizaki’s fiction.

“The Tattooer”

In his early sensational tale “The Tattooer,” the exceptional tattooer, Seikichi, behaves much like a sadist in his attitudes toward some of his customers, as he revels in the excruciating pain they endure for the honor of having such an artist adorn their bodies. He outdoes himself in embellishing the back of a beautiful young woman with a huge black widow spider. Readers are told that “at every thrust of his needle Seikichi felt as if he had stabbed his own heart.” After he assures the woman that he has poured his soul into this tattoo and that now all men will be her victims, she accepts this prophecy, turns her resplendently tattooed back to him, and promptly claims the tattooer himself as her first conquest.

“Terror”

With similar emphasis upon intimate revelation of pain, and with similarly ambivalent implications for the suffering endured, in “Terror,” a young man describes his peculiar phobia for riding in a train or any other vehicle. For the occasion in the story, he must travel by train to take a physical examination for military duty. His nervous trembling almost drives him mad and certainly drives him to excessive alcoholic consumption. With the combination of neurotic fearfulness and drunkenness, he seems unlikely to pass his physical; the reader, however, hears a doctor reassuring the young man: “Oh, you’ll pass all right. A fine husky fellow like you.” Such openendedness in Tanizaki’s short fiction seems practically his trademark.

“The Thief”

The probing into the psychology of nonconforming personalities reveals itself also in “The Thief.” In this story, a young man shares the discomfort and embarrassment with his university dormitory roommates as one by one they admit their shame at having suspected the narrator as the perpetrator of recent thefts. Readers can hardly avoid sympathizing with the young man as he reveals his private thoughts about the unfortunate, painful admissions by others who suspect and distrust him. Then one suddenly discovers that this sensitive young man, in fact, truly is the thief. In fact, the thief boasts that, with an outward show of innocence, he can deceive not only roommates and readers but also himself.

“Aguri”

In the story “Aguri,” Tanizaki goes further, with his presentation of a self-conscious narrator brooding over his fears and inadequacies. The middle-aged Okada, accompanied by his slim, shapely mistress on a shopping trip, describes in extravagant detail how he is wasting away physically while the young woman, Aguri, craves the most expensive luxuries. As in “The Thief,” the narrator of this story carries the reader along with him in his imagination, momentarily at least, with a painful scene of ruinously expensive purchases for Aguri, followed by Okada’s fainting embarrassingly...

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in public from weakness. Almost before one realizes the change, however, the reader learns that these disasters were merely an imagined vision. The man and woman end up making modest purchases and with no physical collapse.

“A Blind Man’s Tale”

In “A Blind Man’s Tale,” Tanizaki offers what might be his boldest experiment in narrative point of view. A blind masseur, while massaging a nobleman, recalls the insight he gained thirty years before into a complicated series of events in sixteenth century Japanese history. What he knows he learned largely through the experience of serving as masseur for a beautiful noblewoman. The blind man depends upon his own intuition, overheard conversations, and confidential hints. His story not only opens up multiple perspectives on historical events, interesting for their own sake, but also leaves readers pondering choices in judging these acts as honorable, cowardly, or opportunistic.

“Ashikari”

In “Ashikari” the author appeals to easy emotionalism by beginning with a sentimental narrator taking a walk, visiting the Shrine of Minase and then, in the evening, enjoying the moonlight on the river. His detailed observations of ancient scenes and nostalgic thoughts about the past are accompanied by recitation of favorite verses, Chinese and Japanese. He also composes verses of his own, reciting them aloud while admiring the moonlight. Soon, however, this simple sentimentalism gives way.

The brash visitor, Serizawa, who appears suddenly, dominates the scene from this point. Serizawa tells the story of his father’s love for the elegant widow Oyu, a woman surrounded by symbols of refinement. This leads to the self-sacrificing of both the father and Oyu’s younger sister Oshizu, who marry but remain chaste in respect for the love between Oyu and the father. The three of them remain close companions in this setting for two or three years. In retrospect, though, one is left intrigued with the mystery of what kind of satisfaction either the father or the son gained from their limited sharing in the Lady Oyu’s aristocratic way of life.

“A Portrait of Shunkin”

“A Portrait of Shunkin” invites attention for another narrative technique favored by Tanizaki, the use of abundant circumstantial detail to lend an initial air of credence to the unusual love story that follows. At the beginning, the narrator gives precise descriptions of a pair of tombstones in a temple graveyard and then of a privately printed biography, and the only known photograph of the beautiful, blind woman Shunkin, famous for her samisen lessons. With this narrator, however, one discovers Tanizaki’s characteristic ambivalence as the storyteller regularly admits uncertainty about how to interpret the evidence he has found. One suspects that Shunkin gained pleasure from tormenting Sasuka, her disciple, who may have been, in effect, her slave, but quite possibly he also was her lover. The most startling event, Sasuka’s blinding of himself following the cruel, disfiguring scalding of Shunkin by an assailant, invites a great range of speculation about Sasuka’s motives: to preserve the memory of her beauty, to gain a measure of acceptance from her, or to distract her from demanding so much of him because of her own handicaps.

“The Bridge of Dreams”

Certainly one of Tanizaki’s most difficult tales is “The Bridge of Dreams,” the story of a boy’s affectionate memories of his mother and stepmother with resulting family complications. The most striking images in Tadasu’s few recollections of his mother are of her sitting by the pool soaking her pretty feet in the water and of her permitting him to suckle her breasts at night when they were in bed together. This was when he was nearly five years old. The new mother, who had been a geisha, was chosen for her striking resemblance to Tadasu’s real mother. She even took the same name and adopted similar habits as a full replacement. In time, as the boy grew old enough to marry, he had difficulty distinguishing the two mothers in his memory. When the second mother has a son, too, the new baby is sent off for adoption. The narrator even relates that Tadasu sucked the milk from his stepmother’s swollen breasts after she had given up the child. Following the deaths of his father and second mother, Tadasu adopted his stepbrother with a vow to protect him from loneliness. In this story, with the powerful emphasis on family protectiveness, readers can hardly avoid pondering the relative gains and losses from the characters’ exceptional watchfulness over their loved ones.

Diary of a Mad Old Man

Another excellent comic representation of obsessive love reveals itself in Tanizaki’s novella Diary of a Mad Old Man. In this story, Utsuki, a sickly old man, age seventy-seven, fits into the traditional family pattern as the unchallengeable head of the family, whose word is law. The narrative comes across mostly through the old man’s notes in his diary. Tanizaki leaves indeterminate the private thoughts of Utsuki’s wife and grown children, but they know of his squandering wealth and affection on his daughter-in-law, the scheming Satsuko. The family had been suspicious of her as a bride for the son, Jokichi, right from the start, because of her background as a lowly cabaret dancer. In fact, as the story begins, Jokichi has already lost interest in her anyway, and Satsuko is visited frequently by another young man, Utsuki’s nephew, Haruhisa. Nevertheless, the old man’s dotage reveals itself in expensive gifts for her, including a cat’s-eye ring costing three million yen, the plan to enshrine her footprints on his gravestone, and niggardliness toward his own children. One’s disgust for the old man grows with the combination of abundant references to Utsuki’s medicines, drugs, and treatments, and Satsuko’s obvious contempt for him. After Utsuki boldly kisses her on the neck one time, she tells him that she felt as if she had “been licked by a garden slug.” Near the end, the narrative trails off with a long series of notes attesting the failing health of an apparently dying man. Then, in the final entry, one reads that Utsuki recovered enough to supervise excavation of the garden to construct a swimming pool for his darling Satsuko. Even in his last years, Tanizaki never lost his ability to catch his readers off guard.

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Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Long Fiction Analysis