Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Although his early novels suggest a bohemian spirit and appear to have been influenced by Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, and Oscar Wilde, Jun’ichir Tanizaki is not a mannerist writer. A much-honored novelist—who won the Imperial Prize in Literature in 1949, and who was the first Japanese to be elected an Honorary Member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1964—Tanizaki became absorbed in the Japanese past, abandoning his superficial Westernization. Some of his novels—such as Kagi (1956; The Key, 1960) and Futen rojin nikki (1961-1962; Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1965)—are about sexual desire and the will to live, but The Makioka Sisters is, perhaps, the most representative of his deepest themes. Its length shows Tanizaki’s marathon energy, concentration, and control. Some critics have asserted that he works on readers almost as much as he does on his characters. Yet despite the length of his novel, its painstaking fidelity to events and the surfaces of things, and its depiction of natural forces, Tanizaki is not a naturalistic writer. Cultural and social factors are not massive forces to be scientifically analyzed, but nagging irritants. The chronicling of society is undisturbed by the episodic nature of the writing.

Tanizaki’s art is subtler than it first appears. The blow-by-blow narrative gets bogged down in trivia and extraneous material, and the digressions on a variety of subjects appear to weaken the flow of the story. Yet there is a method to this arduous realism, and there is a commitment to the facts and truths of existence. Small talk is recorded with as much fervor as are major exchanges among characters. Clinical details of illness and disease are not curtailed. Tanizaki’s novel is loaded with conversations. His characters speak directly and freely, and reveal themselves in what and how they speak.

The often-colorless diction looks flat at times, but it demonstrates Tanizaki’s refusal to differentiate between practical and artistic language. His sentences are often long, sometimes dull, but always aimed at the revelation of character and society. The persuasiveness of the writing is finally indisputable.

Western readers will be most charmed by the satire and the almost courtly manners of the sisters at times. These qualities of comic charm and decorum have a distinctly Oriental flavor.