Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The pursuit of an unobtainable ideal is a theme that recurs in the fiction of Tanizaki, and, as in The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, the pursuit often discovers cruel obsession and sadism, represented as profound currents that are as natural to humans as attachment and sexuality. The protagonist of this novel is not victim to erotic fantasies that can be fulfilled, and the very terms of the fetish here prevent the story from being merely erotic at any point. The protagonist’s ideal is of an impossible union of beauty and grotesquery, of delicate life and ugly death, of pleasure and suffering. In the image of a woman making love to a noseless man—or, as originally perceived, a dead man’s noseless head—the protagonist forces together these apparent opposites, and the impossibility of the consummation intensifies his desire for it, by putting it on an ideal, or fantastic, plane. That this ideal exists only as the protagonist’s fantasy makes him both persecutor and victim in a closed world. It is in this sense that his sadism is masochistic, and it is in this condition of a self-created and self-contained world that the broader issue of the relationship between reality and fantasy is suggested. In The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, Tanizaki represents fantasy and reality as irreconcilables and portrays man as hopelessly abandoned between them.