Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō 1886-1965

Japanese novelist, novella and short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and memoirist.

Tanizaki wrote memorably on beauty, eroticism, and obsession, but his treatment of these potentially sensational themes was never gratuitous. Rather, he used the emotional intensity of passion, cruelty, and degradation as a means of expressing the humanity of his characters in a dramatic way. Though early in his career he was influenced by writers and cultures of the West, Tanizaki eventually came to reject Westernization and turned to Japanese history, culture, and literature for inspiration and subject matter.

Biographical Information

Born in the cosmopolitan city of Tokyo in 1886, Tanizaki grew up during the Meiji era (1867-1912), when many centuries-old institutions of Japanese society—notably the shogun (military governor), the samurai (warrior aristocracy), and the feudal system—suffered elimination or significant reform. Furthermore, Western ideas, arts, laws, customs, schooling, and business methods were welcomed into the country at an unprecedented rate. In 1908 Tanizaki entered Tokyo University but quit his studies in 1910, having written "Shisei" ("The Tattooer"), the best known of his early short stories. In the decade that followed, he devoted himself to writing, particularly dramas. At this early stage in his career, Tanizaki revelled in Western thought and practices and advocated them in his writings. However, in 1923 he moved from Tokyo to a region near Osaka where the older culture and conservative values of Japan predominated, and his writings reflect a corresponding change in his outlook. For example, Tanizaki not only produced a highly-regarded version of Lady Murasaki's eleventh-century masterpiece Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), translating the novel from classical to modern Japanese, he also used earlier periods in Japanese history as the backdrop for such works as Bushūkō hiwa (The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi) and Shōshō Shigemoto no haha The Mother of Captain Shigemoto). In the essay In ' ei raison (In Praise of Shadows) he pines for the purity and the subtle, suggestive beauty of traditional Japan, attributing the loss of these national characteristics to modernization and the influence of the West. Tanizaki died in 1965.

Major Works of Short Fiction

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 commonly form the base of the protagonist's erotic pleasure. The story "The Tattooer" reveals many of Tanizaki's standard themes. Here, a tattooer derives dual gratification from his art: he takes pride in the images he creates on canvases of flesh but also gains sadistic pleasure from inflicting pain with his needle. The tattooer becomes obsessed with an extraordinarily beautiful young woman of whom he has only once had a partial glimpse. Upon encountering her several years later, he convinces her that he should be allowed to create his greatest design upon her skin. Completion of the tattoo signals her symbolic conversion to femme fatale, and the artist submissively becomes her first victim. In the novellas Yoshino kuzu (Arrowroot) and The Mother of Captain Shigemoto, as with many of Tanizaki's works, the theme of yearning for unattainable beauty is often developed through the protagonist's quest for the ideal mother-figure. Similarly, "Shunkinshō" ("A Portrait of Shunkin") demonstrates the elevated position given to women by men in Tanizaki's fiction. In this story, a former servant devotes his life to the care of a blind and disfigured woman who refuses to return his love because of his lower social standing. Furthermore, he voluntarily blinds himself both to share her handicap and to honor her request that he not look upon her scarred face. Some of the more perverse subjects evident in Tanizaki's fiction are incorporated into The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi. This novella, set in sixteenth-century Japan, depicts the sexual deviation and treachery of the warlord Terukatsu. Aroused by the practices of warriors who take decapitated heads and severed noses from enemies slain in battle, he surreptitiously disfigures his lover's husband by cutting off his nose during the night. Terukatsu then encourages his lover to believe that her now-noseless husband was earlier responsible for her father's murder—an act performed by Terukatsu himself! According to Edmund White, "The cause of Terukatsu's double-dealing is his own bizarre obsession; what he most longs to see is a sadistic woman make love to a noseless man."

Critical Reception

While critics have occasionally labeled Tanizaki's works indecent, most commentators acknowledge the highly literary quality of his fiction, which features carefully wrought language and images, classical and modern influences, and penetrating portrayals of emotion and human nature. Donald Keene has stated: "No one would turn to Tanizaki for wisdom as to how a man should live his life, but anyone seeking the special pleasure of literature and an echo in even his most bizarre works of eternal human concerns could hardly find a superior writer."

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Short Fiction

Bushūkō hiwa [The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi] (novella) 1931

Yoshino kuzu [Arrowroot] (novella) 1931

Ashikari (novella) 1932

Neko to Shōzō to futari no onna [A Cat, a Man, and Two Women: Stories] 1936

Shōshō Shigemoto no haha [The Mother of Captain Shigemoto] (novella) 1950

Seven Japanese Tales 1963

The Reed Cutter and Captain Shigemoto 's Mother (novellas) 1994

Other Major Works

Chijin no ai [Naomi; also translated as A Fool's Love] (novel) 1924

Tade kuu mushi [Some Prefer Nettles] (novel) 1929

Manji [Quicksand] (novel) 1930

Bunshō tokuhon [A Style Reader] (criticism) 1934

In'ei raison [In Praise of Shadows] (essay) 1934

*Genji monogatari [The Tale of Genji] (modernized version) 1939-41

Sasameyuki [The Makioka Sisters] (novel) 1943-48

Kagi [The Key] (novel) 1956

Yōshō jidai [Childhood Years] (memoir) 1957

Fūten rōjin nikki [The Diary of a Mad Old Man] (novel) 1962

*The original, composed in classical Japanese by Murasaki Shikibu, dates to the early eleventh century.

Stanley Edgar Hyman (essay date 1966)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Japanese Master," in Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time, Horizon Press, 1966, pp. 179-83.

[A longtime literary critic for the New Yorker, Hyman rose to a prominent position in American letters during the middle decades of the twentieth century. He is noted for his belief that much of modern literary criticism should depend on knowledge received from disciplines outside the field of literature; consequently, many of his best reviews and critical essays rely on his application of theories gleaned from such disciplines as cultural anthropology, psychology, and comparative religion. In the following essay, Hyman praises the wide appeal of the short fiction...

(The entire section is 1875 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1971)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Three Modern Novelists: Tanizaki Junichirō," in Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture, Kodansha International Ltd., 1971, pp. 171-85.

[Keene is an American educator, translator, and critic with a special interest in Japanese literature. In the following excerpt, he examines recurring motifs in Tanizakïs short fiction.]

The writings of Tanizaki Junichirō are apt to surprise equally by their exceptional diversity of subject and manner, and by their equally exceptional consistency of themes. The diversity is likely to attract our attention first. Tanizaki derived materials for his novels from the distant past of the Heian and Muromachi...

(The entire section is 5754 words.)

Anthony H. Chambers (essay date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: 'Tanizaki Junichirō's Historical Fiction," in Journal of the Association of Teachers of Japanese, Vol. 8, No. 1, November, 1972, pp. 34-44.

[An American educator and critic, Chambers is considered an expert on the work of Tanizaki. In the following excerpt, he determines the influence of Japanese history and culture on Tanizaki's short fiction.]

It is clear that in his early years Tanizaki Junichirō was strongly attracted to the West, that he adopted Western dress, lived in Western-style buildings and associated with foreigners in Yokohama. He was also intrigued by China: following a trip to China in 1919 he surrounded himself with Chinese bric-a-brac and...

(The entire section is 3589 words.)

Makoto Ueda (essay date 1976)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tanizaki Jun'ichirō," in Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, Stanford University Press, 1976, pp. 54-84.

[Ueda is a Japanese educator and critic. In the following excerpt, he examines Tanizaki's treatment of beauty in his fiction.]

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (1886-1965) was never known as a literary theorist or critic. Always confident in his mission as a novelist, he had no urge to write a defense of literature or a social justification of the novel. Not a fast writer, he usually wanted to spend as much of his time as possible on writing fiction; he found little time for reading or evaluating the works of his contemporaries. And yet, by the end...

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Noriko Mizuta Lippit (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tanazaki and Poe: The Grotesque and the Quest for Supernal Beauty," in Comparative Literature, Vol. XXIX, No. 3, Summer, 1977, pp. 221-40.

[In the following excerpt, Mizuta Lippit analyzes the thematic and stylistic influence of Edgar Allan Poe on Tanizaki 's short fiction.]

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, however, that the influence of the Japanese literature of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially the erotic and sadistic stories in Kusazoshi...

(The entire section is 6995 words.)

J. Thomas Rimer (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tanizaki Junichirō: The Past as Homage. 'A Portrait of Shunkin' and 'The Bridge of Dreams'," in Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions: An Introduction, Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 22-37.

[An American-born educator and critic, Rimer specializes in Japanese literature. In the following excerpt, he offers the stories "Shunkinshō" ("A Portrait of Shunkin") and "Yume no ukihashi" ("The Bridge of Dreams") as evidence that Tanizaki's fiction is modern yet heavily influenced by traditional Japanese themes and literature.]

For many readers, the work of Tanizaki Junichirō remains the most absorbing in modern Japanese literature, and in many ways, for...

(The entire section is 5425 words.)

Donald Keene (essay date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tanizaki Jun'ichirō," in Dawn to the West, Japanese Literature of the Modern Era: Fiction, Vol. I, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1984, pp. 720-85.

[In the following excerpt, Keene provides an overview of Tanizaki's short stories.]

Tanizaki's earliest writings, mainly poems in Chinese on historical subjects, appeared in the literary magazine circulated among students at his middle school. An essay published in 1902 startled his classmates by the assurance and vocabulary with which he criticized "oriental" pessimism. His insistence on joy as an essential element in human life was the first evidence of the hedonist disposition for which he would be famed. A few...

(The entire section is 6743 words.)

Deborah DeZure (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Tanazaki's The Bridge of Dreams' from the Perspective of Amae Psychology," in Literature and Psychology, Vol. XXXV, Nos. 1 & 2, 1989, pp. 46-64.

[In the following excerpt, DeZure perceives evidence of amae, a psychological syndrome particular to the Japanese, in the characters of the story "Yume no ukihashi" ("The Bridge of Dreams").]

"The Bridge of Dreams" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki is the confessional memoir of a young man, Tadasu, and his relationships with his mother and stepmother. The tale traces the development of his obsessional dependency needs in relation to them and culminates in his social and economic deterioration and his...

(The entire section is 6822 words.)

John Updike (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, in The New Yorker, Vol. LXVII, No. 10, April 29, 1991, pp. 101-02.

[A perceptive observer of the human condition and an extraordinary stylist, Updike is considered one of America 's most distinguished men of letters. Best known for such novels as Rabbit Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), and Rabbit at Rest (1990), he is a chronicler of life in Protestant, middle-class America. In the following review, Updike comments on the bizarre events depicted in A Cat, a Man, and Two Women (Neko to Shōzō to futari no onna).]

In the long title story [of A Cat, a Man, and...

(The entire section is 839 words.)

Nobuko Miyama Ochner (review date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. 27, No. 1, Winter, 1993, pp. 86-91.

[In the following review, Miyama Ochner explores the mother fixation portrayed in Arrowroot (Yoshino kuzu) and the perversion of the title character in The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (Bushūkō Hiwaj.]

Tanizaki is often regarded as having remarkably consistent themes despite the wide range of his subject matter, settings, and style. As a writer who is profoundly interested in the workings of the subconscious, he treated such recurrent themes as the femme fatale, foot fetishism,...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Anthony Hood Chambers (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: "Arrowroot" and "Captain Shigemoto's Mother" in The Secret Window: Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction, Council on East Asian Studies, Harvard, 1994, pp. 7-15, 93-105.

[In the following excerpt, Chambers maintains that the protagonists in Arrowroot and The Mother of Captain Shigemoto Mother create imaginary, idealized worlds that are revealed to the reader by means of narrative devices.]

In one of the most moving plays of the Bunraku and kabuki repertory, a white fox assumes the form of a beautiful woman (a power that foxes were believed to have), marries a gentleman named Abe no Yasuna, and gives birth to a son. They are happy...

(The entire section is 8055 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Hibbett, Howard. Introduction to Seven Japanese Tales, translated by Howard Hibbett, pp. v-ix. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963.

Highlights story elements in the collection Seven Japanese Tales that recur elsewhere in Tanizaki's fiction.

Mayer, David R. "Outer Marks, Inner Grace: Flannery O'Connor's Tattooed Christ." Asian Folklore Studies 42, No. 1 (1983): 117-27.

Compares Tanizaki's story "The Tattooer" with Flannery O'Connor's "Parker's Back," which is about the effect that a distinctive tattoo has upon its owner.

Miyama Ochner, Nobuko. "History and Fiction: Portrayals of Confucius by...

(The entire section is 276 words.)