The title novella “A cat, a man, and two women” (first published in 1936) is not top-flight Tanizaki. It has many familiar elements: a weak, obsessive male, a very indulgent mother, willful female love objects. The cat Lily is an exceptionally spoiled feline with fur resembling a tortoise shell.
Shozo’s first wife Shinako was jealous that Shozo was more devoted to the cat than to her and decides to ask for the cat for a variety of reasons that do not include liking it. Once she has the cat, however, she comes to dote on it to nearly the extent her ex-husband did. Shozo is very unhappy at having allowed the three women (including his mother) to maneuver the cat away from him, and going to check up on it greatest threat, his second marriage.
He reasons, “he had only been married to Shinako for a total of two and a half years spread over four calendar years. And Fukoko had been in the household barely a month. Naturally, then, it was Lily, with whom he’d lived so long [ten years] who was most intimately bound up with many memories of his; who formed an important part of Shozo’s past” (39).
Aside from the slightness of the plot, and a lack of sympathy for cat worship, and a lack of sympathy for someone who is as easily manipulated (spineless) as Shozo, what I find most disappointing about the novella is the overabundance of explaining. Partly, this is a result of a third-person omniscient narrator in contrast to the alternating first-person narrators of The Key and other Tanizaki novels.
In contrast, the story “The little kingdom” (originally published in 1918) shows rather than tells. Although it definitely takes up Tanizaki’s most basic theme, dominance and submission, this is not eroticized. A charismatic student becomes a (relatively benevolent) dictator of a fifth-grade class, eventually adding the impoverished teacher to his empire. “A cat…” is also unusually (for Tanizaki) explicit about money and its lack. It is not being able to support his large family that drives the teacher (Kajima Shokichi) to submit to the ruling order, which has an elaborate economy of its own redistributing all sorts of goods. Like Robert Musil’s The Young Törless, “The little kingdom” seems to prefigure the mixture of domination by a charismatic leader providing some sort socialism that became widespread after the First World War (in Japan, as in Germany and Russia).
The other story, “Professor Rado” (originally published in 1925 and 1928) shows yet another male masochist eager to be dominated by an adored woman. I prefer it to “A cat…” because it shows rather than explains. A newspaperman comes to interview Professor Rado, who is bored and completely unhelpful. This pushes the interviewer to try to learn more by other means than interrogation. He sees that the arrogant, aloof professor likes to be flogged and worship women’s feet. Later, surprised to find the professor at a musical revue, the reporter is enlisted to supply information about one of the performers. While the narrative is slanted to make the reader sympathetic to the reporter, he ultimately is used, so that the reader can end up feeling superior to both.
Tanizaki was so capable of making the most extreme pursuit of various fetishes seem matter of fact (“natural”), that it is difficult to be sure whether he sees them as martyrs or as comic figures. I guess “comic martyr” is the easy solution, and applies to Shozo as well as to Professor Rado, and perhaps even to Kajima. All are in some ways ridiculous, yet are also sad failures. And the objects of their desires? They, especially Lily, are indifferent to the sufferings of those who love them.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray