(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

In his preface to The Secret Life of the Lord of Musashi, Jun’ichir Tanizaki claims to have examined secret papers telling of the otherwise unknown masochistic sexual desires of the famous sixteenth century samurai, the Lord of Musashi. The purpose of his book, he explains, is to reveal the development of these sexual desires in the young Musashi. Tanizaki approaches his subject with formal respect, carefully placing Musashi in the context of other renowned and respected warriors who were known to have enjoyed cruel and unusual sex practices. The novel’s material is then presented as a historical investigation; it is related in the past tense, and the point of view is third-person, with occasional first-person commentary.

The novel is divided into six books, each divided into chapters. Book 1 opens with an account of the author’s two “secret” sources: “The Dream of a Night” was written by a nun named Myokaku, who had apparently once been in the service of Musashi; “Confessions of Doami” was written by a servant of Musashi and recounts sexual exploits that the servant not only witnessed but in which he was also forced to participate. As an occasional confidant of his master, Doami also had learned from Musashi himself the history of his sexual appetites. Throughout the novel these two sources are referred to, quoted, and compared with other (genuine) historical accounts.

In the three chapters of book 2, the origin of Musashi’s sexual perversion is explained. The scene is the castle on Mount Ojika, where Musashi—referred to as Hoshimaru during this stage of his life—is kept hostage by Lord Tsukuma Ikkansai, who has won power over Hoshimaru’s father and apparently retains Hoshimaru as surety against rebellion from the father’s clan. The castle on Mount Ojika is being besieged by the forces of a war-lord named Yakushiji Danjo Masataka. The year is 1549, and Hoshimaru is twelve years old. Restless and disappointed at not being able either to fight in the battle or to observe it, Hoshimaru listens to women of the castle who describe the action and is finally invited to observe the women at their nightly task of cleaning and dressing the decapitated heads of defeated warriors. On observing this spectacle, Hoshimaru is entranced, and he becomes especially excited upon seeing a young woman combing and cleaning a “woman-head,” which is a head whose nose has been removed. Hoshimaru...

(The entire section is 995 words.)