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.
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."
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."