Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Analysis

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

For Western readers, Jun’ichir Tanizaki is best known for his short stories and short novels.

Throughout his career, however, he was a prolific writer of plays, essays, and translations as well. Many English readers favor his long novel Sasameyuki (1943-1948, 1949; The Makioka Sisters, 1957) as his best work. It is the story of a family’s efforts to arrange a marriage for Yukiko, the third of four daughters in a respectable Osaka family. Tanizaki has written a number of plays, and also noteworthy are his two translations into modern Japanese of Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; first English translation, The Tale of Genji, 1925-1933). The earlier translation was restricted by the severe censorship during the time of the war with China; the later one was in more liberal and colloquial language.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

The modern Japanese writers most commonly suggested as comparable to Jun’ichir Tanizaki for the quality of their fiction are the 1968 Nobel Prize winner Yasunari Kawabata, and Yukio Mishima. It is widely believed that Tanizaki was Kawabata’s chief rival for the Nobel Prize that year. Mishima’s easier fiction gains more readers but cannot match Tanizaki’s more innovative complexity. From his earliest years, however, Tanizaki has had his detractors, because many found his youthful “demoniac” works offensive. Throughout his career, for that matter, his frank portrayal of unconventional, even bizarre sexual and marital relationships among his characters caused consternation. In spite of such reservations, Tanizaki was elected to the Japanese Academy of Arts in 1937. He was awarded the Mainichi Prize for Publication and Culture for Sasameyuki, 1943-1948, 1949 (The Makioka Sisters, 1957) and the Asaki Culture Prize and the Imperial Cultural Medal, both in 1949. These are the most important awards the Japanese can give a writer.

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The history of the novel in Japan is quite different from its history in the West, and the distinctions normally observed between the short story and the novel do not apply there. If, arbitrarily, one refers to Japanese works of fewer than one hundred pages of prose fiction as “short stories,” Jun’ichir Tanizaki (tah-nee-zahk-ee) is as famous for his short stories as for his longer works. Typical of his early period, “Shisei” (1910; “The Tattooer,” 1963) indicates his early interest in sexual symbolism. “Akuma” (1912; Satan) deals with male masochism, and “Otsuya goroshi” (1913; a springtime case) deals with murder and amorality in Tokyo. Later, Tanizaki wrote such remarkable stories as “Ashikari” (1932; English translation, 1936), “Shunkinsh” (1933; “A Portrait of Shunkin,” 1936), “Mmoku monogatari” (1931; “A Blind Man’s Tale,” 1963), and the exquisite “Yume no ukihashi” (1959; “The Bridge of Dreams,” 1963).

Tanizaki also wrote a number of plays, including Aisureba koso (pb. 1921; all because of love), Okumi to Gohei (pb. 1922), and Shirogitsune no yu (pb. 1923; The White Fox, 1930). In 1932, he began translating Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (c. 1004; The Tale of Genji, 1936-1941, 1951-1954) into modern Japanese; over the years, he produced several revisions of it. Bunsh tokuhon (1934; a manual of style), in which he outlined his craftsmanlike attitude toward composing fiction, is often called a minor masterpiece of criticism. Although he published several highly accomplished reviews and essays, he seldom was persuaded to undertake them, believing that he ought to concentrate on his fiction.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Jun’ichir Tanizaki was recognized as a remarkable talent even in his twenties and continued to be so recognized throughout a long and prolific career, which outlasted several publications of his complete works. At first, he was considered shockingly Western by his contemporaries; during the 1920’s, however, he gradually began to incorporate more conservative Japanese literary elements, implicitly warning his readers of the dangers of being overly Westernized. Late in his career, his characters are not endangered by Western culture, enjoying, for example, Western clothes and houses as everyday realities in modern Japan.

Tanizaki’s mastery of a carefully composed style and his insight into the psychology of his characters place him among the great writers of twentieth century world literature. A slow, careful writer, Tanizaki argued that one of the most important elements of Japanese is its “vagueness” in comparison to other languages, a vagueness that allows the Japanese author to suggest motives, feelings, and details in delicate strokes rather than in precise exposition. Considering the imagination crucial, Tanizaki often dealt with sensational material and abnormal states of mind; by controlling his style, he did not allow his intensity to become hysterical. Despite their bizarre aberrations, his characters rarely become unbelievable as human beings, because of the objective manner in which he treats them. Like many great writers, Tanizaki was also able to assimilate opposing elements such as tradition and innovation, imagination and realism, and the influences of West and East.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

(20th-Century Biographies)

Early Life

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, Japan, on July 24, 1886. His father, Sogoro Tanizaki, was a rice merchant by virtue of his marriage into the Tanizaki family, whose name he subsequently adopted. It was Jun’ichirō’s grandfather, Hisaemon, who had built the business. Sogoro could not appropriate the Tanizaki business acumen as he had the name. When his father-in-law’s fortune came into his hands, he grossly mismanaged it. As a result, the performance of the business fluctuated wildly, the long-term effect being a steady decline in the family fortune. The death of an elder brother left Jun’ichirō heir to the dissipated Tanizaki wealth. Although he was a brilliant student, there was at one point a serious problem regarding his tuition fee at the Tokyo Metropolitan First Middle School. Later, he would observe, in his typically paradoxical fashion, that his rearing in Tokyo’s merchant class had left him with both a distaste for materialism and a strong sense of nostalgia.

Tanizaki studied classical Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University after first sampling English law and English literature. Very early, he had exhibited a talent for literary composition, and he published several pieces in small magazines during his years at the university. He was not graduated and, again, the lack of money was quite probably a contributing factor. In the autumn of 1910, he published two plays and two short stories in Shinshicho, a magazine that he and university friends were editing. The short story “Shisei” (1909; “The Tattooer,” 1956) introduced one of Tanizaki’s enduring themes—the erotic power of feminine beauty. Seikichi, a tattooer, becomes obsessed with a young geisha. He drugs the girl and tattoos an enormous spider sprawling across her back. When she awakens, however, she announces to Seikichi that he has become her victim.

Life’s Work

In January, 1911, Tanizaki’s first paid piece, Shinzei, a play, was published in Subaru. In June and September, two of his stories appeared in the same periodical. The earlier of these, “Shōnen” (youth), attracted the attention of several prominent literary figures. In October, his first novel, Taifū (typhoon), appeared in Mita-Bungaku. He was married in 1915 to Chiyoko Ishikawa. The first decade of Tanizaki’s career was an exciting period in Japanese literature. Japan, by virtue of its victory in the Russo-Japanese War, was now a force to be reckoned with internationally. Western literary influences had been growing since the previous century, and the hold of ancient conventions had been loosening. A controversy was in progress between the naturalist writers, who had commanded the literary field, and their opponents. Tanizaki embraced Westernism and fell under the spell of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and Charles Baudelaire, especially the mixture of sensuousness and morbidity in their fiction. The critic Gwenn Boardman Petersen argues, on the other hand, that Tanizaki’s Westernization has been overstated, that Japan’s long tradition of ghost and horror tales is sufficient to account for the bizarre elements in his early work. These elements had by 1920 caused some critics to label him a “Satanist.”

In 1923, a great earthquake struck Tokyo, and Tanizaki subsequently relocated to Okamoto, near Osaka. This move has been characterized as the turning point in Tanizaki’s career. His simpler way of life, as he left the great metropolis behind, brought with it a reexamination of traditional Japanese customs and a disenchantment with industrialization and Western values. Some critics suggest that at this point Tanizaki ceased to be merely a good writer and became a great one. Again, Petersen sounds a cautionary note, pointing out that Tanizaki’s residence in the Kansai area was not so very lengthy and that the writer, according to his own testimony, made no conscious break with Tokyo. Still, for whatever reasons, his writing underwent a noticeable change in the early 1920’s. His themes were more surely developed. His narratives became more realistic. His style became more descriptive, less sensuously suggestive (he had been accused of disguising a lack of content with a complex and urbane style). Chijin no ai (1924; a fool’s love), serialized in Osaka, reflects Tanizaki’s gradual disillusionment with Western culture.

Tade kuu mushi (1928-1929; Some Prefer Nettles, 1955), set in Osaka, dramatizes the clash of East and West through a failing marriage. The husband, whose position the narrative seems to favor, has become a traditionalist, while the wife is chic and Westernized. As a result, the two are drifting further and further apart. The novel also contains a strong autobiographical element. Tanizaki’s own marriage was failing. A choice bit of Tokyo literary gossip in 1928 had Tanizaki seeking to act as go-between in a proposed affair between his wife and the novelist Sato Haruo. In 1930, the marriage ended in divorce, and, in April, 1931, Tanizaki married Furukawa Tomiko. Within the next five years, he would be divorced and remarried again. Also by 1930, he had gained such distinction that his complete works were published.

An emphasis on physical mutilation and a strain of sadomasochism run through Tanizaki’s work. Blindness is featured in “Momoku monogatari” (1931; “A Blind Man’s Tale,” 1963) and “Shunkin shō” (1933; “A Portrait of Shunkin,” 1936). In the latter,...

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Chambers, Anthony Hood. The Secret Window: Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki’s Fiction. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994. Chapters on “ideal worlds,” “A Portrait of Shunkin,” and “The Bridge of Dreams.” Includes notes and bibliography.

Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Soseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993. Concentrates on Tanizaki’s handling of the theme of modernism. With detailed notes but no bibliography.

Golley, Gregory L. “Tanizaki Junichiro: The Art of Subversion and the Subversion of Art.” The Journal of Japanese Studies 21...

(The entire section is 699 words.)