For many Japanese readers and a growing coterie of Western admirers as well, Jun’ichir Tanizaki continues to rank as the most sophisticated and imaginative Japanese novelist of the century. Few before him have written with such elegance and wit, and few after him, with the possible exception of Yukio Mishima, have been able to link the powerful literary traditions of classical Japanese literature with the social concerns of the contemporary world. Naomi, presented in this elegant and accurate translation, shows at once how Tanizaki has earned and sustained his reputation. This work has long been admired as one of his masterpieces and, along with the six other novels or collections now available in English, helps to reveal the wide span of Tanizaki’s concerns, both in terms of style and of philosophy.
Published in 1924, about the time of the disastrous Tokyo earthquake, Tanizaki created in Naomi a vehicle for a social satire on a Westernizing Japan. In the aftermath of the earthquake, which destroyed many of the locales described so wittily in the novel, Tanizaki was to move to the middle of the country, the region of Kyoto and Osaka, where he slowly became interested in certain more traditional aspects of his culture. That fascination culminated in the composition of his novel Sasame-yuki (1949; The Makioka Sisters, 1957), written during World War II. Naomi, however, was a product of an earlier phase of Tanizaki’s work, composed at a time when so many artists and intellectuals congregated in Tokyo in order to draw as close as possible to the kind of artistic ferment they found there. Much of this excitement involved the importation of Western modes of thinking and living. High culture brought translations of Charles Baudelaire and Immanuel Kant; popular culture imported American silent films, bobbed hair, and dance halls.
Sat Haruo, a distinguished poet and novelist who knew Tanizaki well, insisted that his colleague remained, despite his frequent choice of decadent or sensational subject matter, a real moralist at heart. Naomi shows Sat to be right. The original title of Tanizaki’s novel, Chijin no ai, which might be translated as a fool’s love, shows at once Tanizaki’s point of view on the relationship he creates in the novel, in which Jji Kawai, a gentle and fastidious young Japanese gentleman, becomes increasingly ensnared in his complex relationship with the beautiful, narcissistic, and intriguing Naomi. No matter how ridiculous the relationship becomes, Kawai finds himself dragged further and further into an intimate connection in which he finds himself completely dependent on this beautiful woman, who eventually manages to engulf him completely. Their final marriage is in reality a kind of financial and psychological slavery. The young man willingly places himself in a subordinate role in every aspect of the life they share together.
The setting of the novel, Tokyo from the late 1910’s until the middle 1920’s, is particularly crucial for Tanizaki, who sees the two main characters as very much a product of their times. In that sense, the relationship between the pair does show a wider symbolic significance. Kawai, in his twenties when he first meets Naomi, is very much, on the surface at least, a product of traditional Japanese values; he seems a gentle man, with good manners, who maintains proper filial relationships with his mother and treats his coworkers with dignity and reserve. Naomi, who is about fifteen when he meets her in a café, enchants him precisely because she seems to stand for something ineffable, different from anything he has ever known. Her name is actually a Japanese one that is written in...
(The entire section is 1524 words.)