Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō (Vol. 28) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jun'ichirō Tanizaki 1886–1965

Japanese novelist, short story writer, translator, essayist, and dramatist.

Tanizaki ranks among the greatest Japanese writers of the twentieth century. He began his long career in the Meiji period (1868–1912) with the magazine publication of several short stories; he continued to write throughout the Taishō period (1912–1926) and into the modern Shōwa period. His novels and short fiction are marked by their combination of Western and classical Japanese literary influences and by their sensuous, almost pornographic subject matter.

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 often form the base of the protagonist's erotic pleasure. The theme of the yearning for unattainable beauty is developed through the hero's quest for the ideal mother-figure, as in Arrowroot (1932), a recently translated novella.

Sasameyuki (1948; The Makioka Sisters) explores the theme of beauty through the lives of four sisters and has been called Tanizaki's greatest contribution to literature. When Tanizaki tried to publish this novel during World War II, he encountered resistance because the novel neither mentions nor offers support for the Japanese war effort.

In his later years Tanizaki began to reject much of the Western influence on Japanese culture. In the novel Inei raisan (1934; In Praise of Shadows), for example, he bemoans the loss of purity and the subtle, suggestive beauty characteristic of traditional Japan. His respect for and sensitivity to the Japanese language is reflected in his modern rendition of the eleventh-century classic, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki.

(See also CLC, Vols. 8, 14 and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 93-96, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed. [obituary].)

Makoto Ueda

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

For all his emphasis on the subconscious, Tanizaki himself was a very self-conscious technician. Perhaps he thought a novel must have a form designed to engage the reader's conscious mind precisely because its contents made their appeal at a different level. In any case, his own novels are characterized by skillfully constructed plot and persuasive rhetoric, in sharp contrast to the uncanny, indefinable nature of their central themes and characters. (p. 71)

Tanizaki's concept of structure, as it emerges from the controversy [between himself and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke] is quite clear: a novel should have a tightly knit, skillfully woven plot. "Its components," he observed elsewhere, "should embrace each other so tightly that if one were to be removed the whole would collapse." Not many Japanese literary theorists have shared this approach. Japanese readers have always liked a loose, episodic kind of plot—if plot it can be called—far removed from what Tanizaki had in mind; they especially detested a plot that was constructed geometrically, like a classic French comedy. Tanizaki's notion of plot was also unusual in its preference for grandeur; plot, he thought, should be not only tightly knit but constructed on the grand scale. It should be like a long-distance runner with strong legs; it should demonstrate the writer's staying power.

Tanizaki's idea of plot thus turns out to be almost deterministic. Plot construction, ostensibly the fruit of the writer's conscious efforts, is determined willy-nilly by his physique. By his own criteria, Tanizaki's preference for a long, complicated story was instinctive, and his argument with Akutagawa had to end at this point because constitutional differences could never be reconciled. Once again, Tanizaki gave the subconscious an important role.

By and large, Tanizaki seems to have followed his own theoretical precepts about plot construction. His major works have plots that are considerably more complicated and more tightly woven than most Japanese novels. Few indeed of the latter have plots as complex as Tanizaki's The Whirlpool. Skillful storytelling contributes much to the charm of A Blind Man's Tale, "The Portrait of Shunkin," and The Mother of Captain Shigemoto. What Tanizaki termed the grandeur of a far-extending mountain range is seen in the plots of such works of his as An Idiot's Love and The Makioka Sisters. A Tale of Disarrayed Chrysanthemums reads like a popular adventure story; in fact, Tanizaki amused himself by calling it "a popular novel," apparently in reference to Akutagawa's charge that any work of fiction that tries to attract readers by an ingenious plot is a "popular" novelist not a "genuine" one. Some of his early tales—"The Thief," "Devils Talk in Broad Daylight," and "In the Street," among others—are plotted as carefully as detective stories; indeed, they are usually assigned to that genre. (pp. 72-3)

As a storyteller, Tanizaki was always extremely sensitive to the use of language…. His desire to do something to improve the quality of Japanese writing led him to produce The Composition Reader, a comprehensive guidebook to good prose. While intended for a broad range of readers, the book reveals a good deal about his own literary practice.

What was distinctive about Tanizaki's approach to the language of literature was his denial that any such thing existed. He even said: "I believe there is no difference between practical and artistic language." By practical language, however, he meant language that efficiently carries out its practical purpose, which is to make the reader understand the writer. The most practical language is therefore the most artistic. "If you think there is some art of speaking or writing reserved exclusively for the novel," he said, "read any one of our contemporary novels. You will immediately discover that it contains no sentence that cannot be used for a practical purpose, and that any sentence serving a practical purpose well is also useful in literary composition." More than anything else, Tanizaki believed, the language of literature had to be persuasive; to be beautiful or euphonious was of secondary importance. (p. 74)

According to Tanizaki, good style was a matter of two rules, both of them quite relevant to his general conception of literature. The first was not to be too concerned with the rules of grammar. The reason for this, as he explained, was that the Japanese language in its very nature was not very grammatical. The writer could turn this to advantage by cultivating a certain ambiguity, which Tanizaki found elegant; indeed, he compared the effect of a passage written with no ambiguity to that of rudely exposed thighs and knees. A passage that omitted as many words as possible, even to the point at which a strict grammarian would object to it, was at once graceful in impression and provocative in meaning.

The second piece of advice Tanizaki had for beginning writers was that they should cultivate their literary taste. In order to become a good writer, one had to be able to distinguish good writing from bad. But this was like distinguishing between good and bad wines; one had only one's own taste to rely on. Here Tanizaki was retreating to subjectivism, and he knew it. He still insisted, however, that there would emerge a semblance of objectivity if the reader had developed a refined taste…. Education had little to do with it; inborn taste, polished by experience, was all. Here again Tanizaki's distrust of intellect was apparent.

The Composition Reader also classified prose styles in terms of two main categories. The first included the "flowing style," the "laconic style," the "calm style," the "airy style" (a light, casual, unconventional style …), and the "craggy style" (a deliberately rugged, uneven style; Tanizaki compared it to the surface of a crag); it referred, as these terms imply, both to the mode of sentence construction and to the way in which one sentence followed from another. The second referred to vocabulary and idiom; it comprised the "lecture style" (normal written style; professors often used it in their lectures so that students could copy them verbatim), the "military style" (more polite than the lecture style; so called because typically a serviceman used it in addressing his superior), the "salutatory style" (even more polite than the...

(The entire section is 2640 words.)

Gwenn Boardman Petersen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Many of Tanizaki's contemporaries ended their stories with a question: "When and where will these two meet again?"—or as in the play by Fujimori Seikichi flashing a sign that reads "What made her do it?" But Tanizaki's questions are unvoiced, though often related to specific incidents. Just what did the prostitute do to the author in Itansha no Kanashimi? Who poured the scalding water on Shunkin and why? What is the nature of the "snake" in the untranslated Shōnen (where critics tend to focus on the presence of another cruel female—Mitsuko, the girl who frightens the other children)? Only marginally of Freudian significance, this focus of horror ultimately leaves the reader, like the boy,...

(The entire section is 928 words.)

Noriko Mizuta Lippit

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Taisho period (1912–1926) in Japan] was one of reaction to naturalism and to the confessional I-novels; it was characterized by two dominant literary movements, one of the Shirakaba group and the other the so-called aesthetic school. These movements—and the philosophic and aesthetic ideas underlying them—were almost diametrically opposed. The Shirakaba group sought a new sense of life in the limitless expansion of the self and of human possibilities, while the aesthetic school was committed to the pursuit of the beautiful, even to the point of sacrificing social and moral integrity. Yet they were in agreement that literature is an art form and that style, structure, words, and images are at least as...

(The entire section is 3632 words.)

Geoffrey O'Brien

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The long career of Junichiro Tanizaki … offers a spectacle of unity in the utmost diversity. From his early "diabolist" tales through the traditionalist underpinnings of his middle period to the erotic realism of his last novels, Tanizaki's preoccupations remain the same: the secret ritual, the obsessive desire, the nostalgia so profound that it defines an entire existence. Oddly, he is also the most objective of writers. Never judging, he turns his subjects around and inside out, proposing motives, contradicting them. He rarely hesitates to make jokes of the grotesque figures his characters cut as they attempt to reconstruct the world according to the laws of fetishism.

Of the many fetishes that...

(The entire section is 468 words.)

Edmund White

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Junichiro Tanizaki may well prove to be the outstanding Japanese novelist of this century, rivaled only by Yasunari Kawabata…. Both writers presided over the obsequies of traditional Japan, and both responded to its demise with a strong but ironic nostalgia….

For Tanizaki, "Arrowroot" (1932) and "The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi" (1935), now admirably translated into English for the first time, mark the period when, after 20 years of writing novels in a fairly orthodox style, he fused two interests—traditional Japanese storytelling and experimental narrative—into a unique style. But their themes are mirrored in many of his other stories….

Sadism—or more exactly...

(The entire section is 891 words.)

Richard Howard

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[With The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi and Arrowroot] we begin to discern the coastline of that other Japanese archipelago, the works of Junichiro Tanizaki. The tale and the meditation … were written fifty years ago, after the publication of the author's first "Collected Works"—the twelve volumes of novels, stories, plays and essays of his first twenty years of writing. Even so, they predate the books by which he is known in the West—Some Prefer Nettles, Seven Japanese Tales, The Makioka Sisters. They stand—Arrowroot mild and maieutic, a kind of prolegomenon to any future storytelling, Secret History almost comic in its excruciating violence—as flags staking claim...

(The entire section is 729 words.)