Tanizaki Junichiro’s breakthrough (to popularity in Japan) novel Chijin no Ai (A Fool’s Love , though Naomi is the current English title) was originally serialized in 1924-25. Imperial censors interrupted the serialization. What concerned them about the story is not what most American readers now will find unsettling. That they were concerned about the portrayal of western-style (cheek-to-cheek) dancing seems quite quaint.
What will make many American readers now queasy about the book is the quasi-incestuousness of the primary relationship portrayed. The book begins in 1918 with Joji, a salaryman in his late 20s, who is going to inherit land when his mother dies, finding a fifteen-year-old waitress whose name sounds like the Western name of Naomi. Her family (mother and brother) are less-than-successful parts of “the floating world” that caters to the pleasures of men like Joji.
The family has no objection to Naomi going to serve as a live-in maid to an unmarried man. She is a sort of living doll for him to play with. He dresses her up and pays for her piano and English lessons. As the bud he carefully selected blossoms, he bathes her and becomes, um, shall we say “intimate” with her delicate feet. They secretly marry, and Joji indulges Naomi’s increasingly expensive demands for clothes (which she never washes; she also orders food, being unwilling even to boil rice). Most fatefully, he also agrees to accompany her to dancing classes (the teacher is Russian; I’m surprised that her “European” prestige is not compromised by the Japanese defeat of Russia in 1905 or the collapse of the old regime in 1918).
Through her classes, Naomi meets a number of young men of her own age and, we eventually learn, becomes intimate with them in more conventional — that is to say, genital — ways. Joji is very slow to realize that many bees are pollinating the flower he has so carefully grown. He blows up, expels her from their playhouse, and realizes he cannot live without his slatternly, promiscuous wife. “Bad breeding will out” is his interpretation — very much in the tradition of naturalism and eugenics of the turn of the last century.
Apparently, Naomi was a model of the “modern girl” moga for many Japanese. She was certainly free of domestic responsibilities and indulged by her husband. It would be hard to argue that she is any more self-indulgent than Joji is. Also, it would be hard to argue that she is any more self-indulgent than Joji is (pampered by his trusting mother). He is far from being a model of maturity or good sense, either. His pleasures may be less vulgar than hers, but such fetishism following upon what could be argued is heterosexual pederasty is not inspiring. He is not a monster of perversity, just a somewhat affluent man able to wallow in a masochistic relationship with a shallow, greedy younger woman who looked like Mary Pickford and acted out a flapper version of “free love.
From the fascination with the nymphet’s name on, there are many similarities to Nabokov’s Lolita, written more than three decades later. Especially given the recurrence in later Tanizaki work of the masochism and foot-fetishism (and attempts to mold younger, poorer women, most notably in Some Prefer Nettles, as well as his earlier story “The tattoo artist” and slightly later story “Professor Rado” from A Cat, a Man, and Two Women), I am less sure that Tanizaki’s intent was comic/satiric than I am that Nabokov was pursuing that. Naomi is older when she catches Joji’s eye than Lolita is when she catches Humbert Humbert’s. And Joji is younger than Humbert Humbert. Moreover, fifteen was not as young in Japan between the world wars as it is in post-WWII American conception. Naomi had a job in the floating world; she was not a schoolgirl.
Intercourse with Lolita and Naomi seems less important than ownership and connoisseurship for Humbert and Joji. Both men fail miserably at owning their young beloveds. Both appear ridiculous in the excess of their fascination with the young women. Lolita and Naomi have simpler pleasures and do not take Humbert and Joji nearly as seriously as the men take themselves and their passion.
In the current climate of panic about “child abuse,” some will be eager to cast Lolita and Naomi as victims. Suspicion about the reliability of the older male narrators is certainly justified, but Nabokov and Tanizaki portray the male lovers as more innocent than what appear to be healthier as well as younger “partners” with simpler tastes, including sexual partners nearer their own age. Naomi is certainly “spoiled” as a conventional Japanese housewife and mother, but being one was not in her pre-Joji fate. She does not seem to me to have been harmed by the perverse devotions of the man who more or less bought her, and there is no doubt that she ends up dominating him. Only his total surrender keeps her around at all. Joji certainly does not destroy Naomi. It might be argued that she does not destroy him, but his pampering and ogling her destroys his career, burns through his inheritance, and destroys his self-esteem. (Some other Tanizaki connoisures of women are even more completely destroyed by what they portray as femmes fatales, for instance, Mitsuko in Quicksand),
The text is leanly written, though it provokes wondering about the reliability of its narrator. The style is not at all florid, even if the subject matter is flowering! Tanizaki was a great prose master.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
(The photo of Tanizaki dates from 1913)