Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 969
In his afterword to this essay, Thomas J. Harper recounts an anecdote illustrating the paradoxical nature of Tanizaki’s views. An eager architect announced proudly to the author that he had read In Praise of Shadows and knew exactly what Tanizaki sought, but Tanizaki replied that he could never actually live in such a house as he had described. That self-mocking answer gets to the crux of the conflict posed in the essay and in Tanizaki’s career and life: the attractions of the new from the West and the power of native tradition.
Tanizaki’s early work was much influenced by such writers as Oscar Wilde, Charles Baudelaire, and Edgar Allan Poe. In his personal life, too, Tanizaki favored Western customs. In 1921, he moved to the section of Yokohama where foreigners lived; he reveled in flashy clothes, keeping his shoes on all day and dancing at night. On September 1, 1923, a major earthquake—its epicenter in Yokohama— caused many people to move south to the Kansai region, where the much older capitals of Nara and Kyoto are located. Tanizaki first moved to Kobe, a port city with a large contingent of Westerners. He did not return to Tokyo, however, settling permanently in the Kansai region instead. Tanizaki said that the move was partly motivated by his fear of earthquakes, but, more important, he found in the Kansai region the traditional Japanese customs that had disappeared from Tokyo.
The move also signified Tanizaki’s turning away from a Western life-style and his renewed appreciation of Japanese life. The Japan evoked in In Praise of Shadows is the Japan of the Kansai region, especially of Osaka, where the middle-class citizenry was much slower to adopt Western customs than the migrants who had flocked to Tokyo. It is a work which marks a shift in Tanizaki’s life and a gradual change in his writings; he had at first welcomed the earthquake as the impetus for a new Tokyo, imagining an entirely European-American city with high-rise apartments, automobiles, subways, and young people wearing Western clothes and crowding late at night into theaters and streets bright with artificial light.
Instead, Tanizaki found great pleasure in the Japan that still existed in the Kansai area. He describes some of his delight in In Praise of Shadows. There are lovingly detailed descriptions of the joys of ordinary Japanese things, such as the persimmon-leaf sushi made by the people in the mountain region of Yoshino, so much better than the sushi in Tokyo, and the lacquerware with “colors built of countless layers of darkness.” He praises the No drama over the Kabuki drama precisely because the older theater had not yet been illuminated by electricity. He prefers the darkness from which the beauty of the No drama emerges precisely because it is authentic, for it re-creates the darkness of the domestic architecture of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the setting of the No plays; the excessive lighting of the Kabuki stage, in contrast, has destroyed whatever magic suggestiveness it once had.
In Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era (1984), Donald Keene observes that the works Tanizaki wrote after settling in the Kansai area were the basis for his lasting reputation. Though some of his stories even then revealed his strong ties to the West, this is the period during which Tanizaki started his translation into modern speech of the epic The Tale of Genji; one of his best-known novels in the West, Sasame-yuki (1943-1948, 1949; The Makioka Sisters, 1957), follows the decline of an old Osaka family. In his own novels, Tanizaki combined experimental narrative techniques with the traditional Japanese storytelling technique, capturing in his prose the “shadowy” language which hints at meanings rather than stating them outright.
In Praise of Shadows reiterates some of the themes and styles of Tanizaki’s best-known novels. His early novels, which show the influence of such Western aesthetes as Wilde, were called “diabolic,” for his characters pursued sensual pleasure with scant regard for morality. His later novels maintain the supremacy of art to life, symbolized by the heroes’ pursuit of unattainable feminine beauty. Tanizaki’s fascination with a remote female beauty is apparent in several passages of In Praise of Shadows which dwell on the traditional notions of the beauty of Japanese women. The practice of women blackening their teeth, shaving their eyebrows, wearing green-black lipstick, and then swathing themselves in layers of kimonos, he explains, might have been an attempt to push everything into the shadows except the face, so that a woman hardly existed physically except for the whiteness of the skin set against the darkness of her dress. Such old-fashioned ghostly beauty can hardly be imagined now, he laments, when bright lights highlight the flesh of women.
The glorification of the Japanese toilet in In Praise of Shadows is also a discreet and elegant echo of another motif in Tanizaki’s novels. As Keene observes in his work Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture (1971), Tanizaki’s obsessive interest in women took the unusual form of a male character’s fascination with a woman’s excreta, in, for example, The Makioka Sisters and Bushuko hiwa (1931-1932, 1935; The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, 1982).
The aesthetic described in this nonfiction work is thus consistent with that of Tanizaki’s novels, an aesthetic based on the sensual, on a belief in the relationship between physical and spiritual beauty amounting to the religious. In theme and tone, In Praise of Shadows is not only an exposition on Japanese aesthetics but also a nostalgic meditation on the values of the past which are rapidly disappearing. The 1977 translation captures the meditative tone of a man who observes the changes around him, who has indeed resigned himself to the inevitable, but who enjoys salvaging what he can from the darkness.