Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Though not translated into English until 1982, The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi was originally published serially in 1931-1932 and in book form in 1935, placing it at the beginning of the second period of Tanizaki’s literary career. His first period had just ended with the publication of his collected works in twelve volumes. Where his first period of fiction consisted of traditional storytelling, in which Tanizaki wove his plots with a conventional mix of dialogue and objective narrative, the second period introduced experimentation in combining fiction with nonfiction and employing less orthodox storytelling. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is an excellent ex-ample of both these areas of innovation. The narrator begins by announcing his intention to record the undisclosed truth about the legendary samurai, and he liberally speculates during the narrative on the motives of its characters. By fabricating events in the story of his real-life protagonist, and fabricating as well some of his very sources, Tanizaki creates a parody rich in ironic humor. The humorous pretense running through the work is that the author is coolly objective and appropriately distanced from his historical material.

Interest in Japanese tradition and history, while not new in Tanizaki’s writing, is another characteristic that dominates in this second period. Yoshino Kuzu (1931; Arrowroot, 1982), appearing only months before the serialization of The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, depicts a writer who is investigating a fifteenth century imperial court outside Kyoto. Two other historical fictions of this period are “Ashikari” (1932; English translation, 1936) and “Shunkin sho” (1933; “A Portrait of Shunkin,” 1936).

Sadomasochism and obsession with unobtainable beauty are elements so common in Tanizaki’s work that they are regarded as two of its unifying characteristics. In The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, however, these elements are brought together with Tanizaki’s humor. The story’s exaggerated perversity, with the protagonist’s fantastically bizarre desire, creates a parody of Tanizaki’s own fiction and presents the author as he comments humorously on his work.