Some Prefer Nettles (Tanizaki)

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Like Tanizaki Junichrio, Kaname, the passive protagonist of his novel Tade kuu Mushi* (Some Prefer Nettles, 1928) was rediscovering the beauties of traditional Japanese culture (especially puppet theater) and waiting to shed a wife who does not excite, or even interest him. Hardly anything happens in the novel (though Tanizaki had been clashing in print with Akutagawa Ryûnosuke as an advocate for plot being necessary in fiction along with mood).

Kaname, the stand-in for the author, has gone through a period of fascination with the modern West and ignoring Japanese tradition(s), is not even certain that he wants her to leave (Tanizaki did not shed his first wife for another two years.) Kaname comes to realize he wants a doll rather than a “modern” wife with a mind of her own. As he is retreating from modernization (to seeking the most patriarchal kinds of domination), Misako is continuing on the road to the modern West Kaname increasingly doubts.

His son and his father-in-law learn of the planned divorce. The son doesn’t react; the father-in-law tries to force Misako to end the affair her husband has condoned and return to her wifely duties, starting with fidelity. Her father also guides Kaname’s burgeoning interest in traditional Japanese art forms, especially puppet theater.

I wouldn’t say that any character, including Kaname, “develops.” He drifts, while everyone remains true to type (and probably he is just a less familiar type, who “in an excess of pain at being unable to love her as a husband should, had only nursed a prayer, almost a dream, that someone might come along to give the luckless woman what he himself could not” (p. 100). For the older generation, in contrast, “ his father-in-law recalls that “sometimes for five years at a stretch I never went near her [his wife]. But she just assumed that was the way things were, and there was no problem” (p. 188)). I consider the novel an interesting cultural document and don’t find the near stasis boring. It was published closer to the Tokugawa shogunate than to the present, and more of the old ways have eroded (or were bombed during the war).

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The ambivalence to the Modern Woman (ca. the 1920s) and quest for the Eternal Feminine, Nippon-brand (eien josei) continues from Chijin No Ai (Naomi). Kaname is not as masochistic as Joji in that 1924 novel and does not exhibit the recurrent foot fetishism in Tanizaki’s male idealizers of the Eternal Feminine.

At the beginning he is trying to find the “dirty” parts of Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights, which is “Western” in the sense of being from west of Japan, but in Burton’s hands is Western orientalism. In that sense A Thousand and One Nights is, I guess, part of English culture. The topsy-turvy Occidentalism is also evident in the prostitute who calls herself Louise and purports to be Turkish, but is half-Russian and half-Korean (a hybrid).

Misako agrees (way in advance!) with Takemitsu’s characterization of his own music as having no bass line: “Japanese music was simple and one-threaded.” (p. 35)

* The title translates more directly as “Insects that eat Tade.” Tade is a bitter vegetable. Though I’m not sure whether it is traditional Japan or the modern West that is tade, the title clearly indicates that tastes differ, and not only for insects in choosing what to eat, but for men in what to venerate.

 

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