Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Start Free Trial

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Long Fiction Analysis

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Jun’ichir Tanizaki’s early literary career was characterized by a deep interest in Western literature. Although as a student he studied Japanese literature and had a nostalgia for classical Japanese works, he once commented that about 1918, “I had come to detest Japan, even though I was obviously a Japanese.” Assiduously reading Baudelaire, Wilde, and especially Poe, he asserted the supremacy of the imagination in literature, as opposed to the naturalism of many of his contemporaries, arguing that even Gustave Flaubert andÉmile Zola could not have produced their naturalistic works without being highly imaginative.

Once using Wilde’s aphorism “Nature imitates art” as an epigraph to a story, Tanizaki believed that the representation of reality was not the primary function of literature; it was rather the presentation of truth. “The artist,” he wrote, “justifies his existence only when he can transform his imagination into truth.” This truth, in Tanizaki’s view, was primarily psychological. Imagination allowed the author to see the subconscious depths of humanity. The writer perceived what people were, not what they could be. There was no need for a writer to justify his (or her) works for social or moral reasons, and Tanizaki was seen as an exponent of aestheticism.

As might be expected, the early influence of the Decadent authors led to intense, macabre works. They are, by turn,gothic,grotesque, hedonistic, diabolic, and erotic. Tanizaki’s first important work, “The Tattooer,” is typical. Seikichi is a master tattooer who has become so great he only tattoos according to his vision of his client’s character. Further, he delights in the suffering his needles cause his clients. His obsession becomes the creation of a masterwork on the skin of a woman who meets his requirements of character as well as beauty. After four years, he sees the foot of a woman disappear into a palanquin, knows instantly that she is the one he has been searching for, but loses the palanquin in the crowd. The next spring, she appears at his house, and after he reveals her true, vampirish nature, he creates an exquisite tattoo of a black widow spider on her back and finds himself the slave of his own creation.

There are several elements characteristic of Tanizaki’s work in this story. In most of his works, a man delights in his utter servitude to the woman he adores. Seikichi goes from sadist to masochist as the result of finding his perfect woman, and although Tanizaki devotes this work to the psychological and artistic obsessions of the tattooer, he was generally more interested in his women characters, because they expressed an ideal before which his men groveled. This subservient role has been frequently associated with Tanizaki’s attitude toward his mother, who died in 1917. One will also note the foot fetishism implicit in Seikichi’s first noticing the young girl. Throughout Tanizaki’s career, women’s feet play a large role in the sexual relationships between his characters. This is obvious in such works as “Fumiko no ashi” in which an old man is infatuated with the feet of his mistress and dies in ecstasy as Fumiko presses his forehead under her foot, but it reveals itself in other ways as well: Frequently, Tanizaki devotes more detail to his description of a woman’s feet than he does to his description of her face.

Despite Tanizaki’s interest in Western writers, many elements of his early work were derived from traditional Japanese literature. Throughout his career, he felt no hesitation in setting his stories in the Japanese past. “The Tattooer,” for example, occurs in the Tokugawa period of the seventeenth century. In 1919, in the middle of...

(This entire section contains 2630 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

his Decadent interests, the same year as “Fumiko no ashi” and his translation ofLady Windermere’s Fan, he published a volume of erotic stories in the style of the Japanese 1830’s and two novellas in the Chinese style. As they are depicted in works by Tanizaki, women are often portrayed as treacherous, cruel creatures in classical Japanese literature. The seventeenth century novelist Ihara Saikaku wrote many risqué stories, in some of which the heroine’s insatiable sexual appetite exhausts the hero. Finally, grotesque and diabolic motifs are very common in classical Japanese literature, and it is perhaps too easy to overemphasize the influence of Poe’s and Wilde’s content on Tanizaki, when he was more interested in adapting their conception of art in his reaction against naturalism.

There is no doubt, however, that Tanizaki’s work changed at the beginning of the 1920’s, particularly after he moved from Tokyo to the more conservative Kansai (Kyto, saka, and Kbe) region after the Great Earthquake. Although in his later work he retained his masochistic heroes, characters for whom there are few precedents in traditional Japanese literature, he began to acknowledge more strongly the values and practices of his culture.


Naomi marks the division between Tanizaki’s Westernized period and his more tradition-oriented works from the 1920’s through the 1940’s. Although, like so many of his works, Naomi tells of a man’s quest for the ideal woman, there is much implied criticism of Japanese worship of the West, despite the fact that the novel seems to have been based on W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage (1915).

Joji, the narrator in Naomi, is attracted to a European-looking waitress named Naomi. Her features make him think of Mary Pickford, and he asks her if she would like to go to a film. Instead of the usual polite evasions, she says (like Mildred in Of Human Bondage), “I don’t mind if I do.” Eventually, he takes her home with the intention of remaking her into his ideal of beauty—a woman he will not be ashamed of in front of blond foreigners—and marrying her within a few years. Naomi is given Western clothes, practices playing the piano, speaking English, and dancing. All of this merely encourages her decadent tendencies. He learns she has been unfaithful and attempts to leave her. He discovers he cannot, however, and gives in completely to her. She can do as she wishes, have whatever lover she wishes, as long as she remains his wife.

Joji is a fool as much in his obsessive love of Western things as in his love of the girl. He is ashamed of his racial identity. His shortness, his protruding teeth, his dark complexion, and other typically Japanese features embarrass him, but he is proud of his European-style Yokohama house. He is degraded by his sense of both cultural and sexual inferiority. Often offended by Naomi’s crudity, he excuses it because of his fascination with her; to be humiliated by her is an honor. Even when she dresses and behaves like a prostitute, he is filled with masochistic pride that she is his.

Some Prefer Nettles

Tanizaki’s next major novel, Some Prefer Nettles, deals with similar themes. This work tells of a character, Kaname, whose superficial Western tastes are gradually replaced by an appreciation of traditional Japanese culture. Kaname is unhappily married to Misako. He has lost sexual interest in her but is tormented by uncertainty over what to do about it. He encourages her to have an affair while he finds sexual satisfaction with a Eurasian prostitute. There is a superficial resemblance between this plot and certain events in Tanizaki’s own life. Bored with his first wife, Chiyoko, one night at dinner he calmly asked Sato Haruo, poet and friend, if he would like to marry her. In 1930, after encouraging the affair, Tanizaki divorced Chiyoko, and she married Sato. Obviously, this arrangement was on his mind during the writing of Some Prefer Nettles, and his ambivalence is perhaps reflected by the book itself.

Far more important, however, in assessing the book, is the struggle in Kaname between his appreciation of Western culture and his appreciation of the merchants’ culture of old Japan surviving in saka, particularly represented in this novel by the Bunraku, or puppet theater. At the end of the novel, Kaname confuses a puppet with the saka beauty O-hisa, showing perhaps that the old way of life is a fantasy that cannot be recaptured. Edward G. Seidensticker, who translated the novel, argues that Kaname (and Tanizaki) is attempting to return to the peace of childhood, although the adult knows the new world is here to stay. In his essay “In’ei raisan” (1934; In Praise of Shadows, 1955), Tanizaki wrote “I know as well as anyone that I am dreaming, and that, having come this far, we cannot turn back.”

It should also be noted that whatever ambivalence or vagueness readers might find in Some Prefer Nettles and other Tanizaki novels is as much a reflection of his aesthetic as of any personal feelings. He always insisted on exploiting the vagueness of Japanese and objected to writers who were too clear. One cannot, for example, know exactly what will happen to Kaname the day after the novel closes. Primary among Tanizaki’s goals in writing was to achieve poetic suggestiveness, which the last scene certainly does.

The Makioka Sisters

During the late 1930’s, Tanizaki continued his rediscovery of traditional Japanese culture by beginning his translation of The Tale of Genji, a work that, in many ways, influenced the composition of The Makioka Sisters, his longest and, many argue, his greatest novel. Although Tanizaki was always a slow, very careful writer, wartime circumstances forced him to work even more slowly than usual. He spent many years on The Makioka Sisters, and censorship prevented complete publication of the work until 1948.

Before Tanizaki began writing the novel, he delineated a precise plan and followed it nearly to the conclusion. Despite this detailed planning, The Makioka Sisters—unlike his usual lean, straightforward novels—is a sprawling, indirect novel in the episodic form often favored by Japanese authors. Complex characterization and diverse social forces create many layers of action and emotion to give the book a texture quite different from that of Tanizaki’s typical works, which focus on a single character.

In the novel, the four Makioka sisters represent various aspects of Japanese culture during the 1930’s. Once a rich saka merchant family, the Makiokas have declined. Tsuruko, the eldest, is the most conservative, trying to hang on to a way of life they have outlived. Taeko, the youngest, seems the brightest, the most talented, and the most corrupted by the Tokyo-style intelligentsia with its Western fads. Sachiko, with her husband, Teinosuke, holds the family together by mediating between the impulses that tear at it. Yukiko, despite her traditional beauty, is too shy to deal effectively with her sisters or the world about her.

Most of the novel concerns the attempt to find the aging Yukiko a husband; the Japanese title Sasameyuki (thin snow) refers to the number of miai (marriage arrangements) that fail. Tsuruko generally insists on going through the slow traditional investigation of potential husbands, while Sachiko recognizes the diminishing value of Yukiko as a bride and tries to carry the arrangements out in a reasonable, though not hurried, time. Taeko, who intends to marry a Westernized playboy, must wait for her elder sister’s marriage before marrying on her own. Yukiko is so introverted that she often seems indifferent to the whole struggle, except when she rejects another candidate.

This plot, however, is not Tanizaki’s main concern. Using details from his wife Tomiko’s family history, he re-creates saka as it was before the war, revealing foreign influences that would inevitably destroy that way of life—the clothing, the foreign films, the German neighbors, the visit to the White Russians, Taeko’s desire to go to Paris to learn dressmaking—and the traditional Japanese customs as they were then practiced. Attention is devoted to the cherry blossom festival, Taeko’s dollmaking, Kabuki, Japanese dance, and the old house of the Makiokas. The elegant saka dialect is spoken by the main characters and the Tokyo dialect is portrayed as being corrupted. Despite these contrasts, The Makioka Sisters is not a didactic work that preaches the superiority of the old ways over the new. It captures a particular way of life at a certain period in a certain place. Free of the grotesqueness that characterizes his early works and of the obsessive characters that populate most of his works, The Makioka Sisters is a panoramic view of diverse characters with complex motivations, a work unusual in Tanizaki’s oeuvre but indisputably a masterpiece.

Unlike many writers, who, once they have achieved an integrated work such as The Makioka Sisters, run out of things to say, Tanizaki remained as creative in the final decades of his life as he had earlier. Entering the third phase of his career, he returned to many of the themes that had occupied him in his youth; with a more detached and sometimes ironic point of view, he dealt with the obsessions of sex in old age. Composed of the parallel diaries of a fifty-six-year-old professor and his forty-five-year-old wife, The Key progresses through the former’s attempt to expand the sexual abilities of the latter, a woman whom he loves madly but who no longer satisfies him. Once again, one might note the autobiographical resonance of the professor’s gradually directing his wife into the young Kimura’s arms. One might also note the return of the devouring woman as the wife encourages the eating of beef and incites his jealousy, in spite of her knowledge of her husband’s rising blood pressure, which eventually kills him.

The Key

The Key created a sensation on its publication, no doubt largely because of its frank treatment of sex; like other works of literature—Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857) and D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928)—which achieved notoriety before their literary merits were admitted, The Key’s craftsmanship can now be assessed more objectively. Presenting one diary in the katakana script and the other in the hiragana script, Tanizaki exploits the differences between the two characters’ perceptions of the situation. Further, he complicates the ostensibly sincere presentations of the diaries by having each character aware that the other may be reading what is written. This complex treatment of point of view turns an apparently simple, short work into a multilayered psychological study.

Diary of a Mad Old Man

Tanizaki’s last novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man, also consists mainly of a diary, but by a man even older than theprotagonist of The Key. Also suffering from high blood pressure, he is sexually impotent as well. Nevertheless, he is attracted to his daughter-in-law, Satsuko, estranged from her husband and having an affair with another man. As in many of Tanizaki’s works, the narrator devotes much attention to Satsuko’s feet as sexual objects, and he thinks often of his mother. He compares Satsuko’s feet many times with those of his mother, and he delights in kissing Satsuko’s feet and biting her toes when she comes from the shower. Her feet also become associated with the Buddhist goddess of mercy, and the old man plans for his daughter-in-law’s footprints to be carved on his tombstone.

Objectively treated, Diary of a Mad Old Man is a great deal less sensational than it would appear from a plot summary. The artistic coolness that Tanizaki worked so hard to achieve saves the work from any pornographic content. Further, the novel is comic in its attitude toward the main character, satirizing the high intensity of Tanizaki’s early works. Several of his works have comic elements—he was fond of cats and often wrote of them in a lighthearted vein—and Tanizaki seems to have ended his career looking back on his extraordinary achievements with a whimsical detachment.


Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Short Fiction Analysis


Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō