There must be Japanese who consider that Tanizaki Jun’ichirô shows too much light on obsessive and/or fetishistic Japanese love relationships. One of his equations of unfortunate modernization and overillumination spins out of a paean to nô stylization: “The Kabuki is ultimately a world of sham, having little to do with beauty in the natural state. It is inconceivable that the beautiful women of old—to say nothing of the men—bore any resemblance to those we see on the Kabuki stage. The women of the Nô, portrayed by masked actors, are far from realistic; but the Kabuki actor in the part of a woman inspires not the slightest sense of reality. The failure is the fault of excessive lighting. When there were not modern floodlamps, when the Kabuki stage was lit by the meager light of candles and lanterns, actors must have been somewhat more convincing in women’s roles.” (In Praise of Shadows, p. 27).
That gold was a reflector in dim rooms (p. 22) seems likely. I can’t recall ever seeing a solid gold object from Japan, whereas goldleaf is common on screens and gold thread is relatively common in fancy kimonos. Tanizaki is wrong that only “Orientals” loved jade (p. 10; what of Mesoamericans?). I am not convinced that Japanese in general prefer shadows to substance (inverting the values in Plato’s parable of the cave: “We find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows”—p. 30).
“The older we get, the more we think that everything was better in the past. Never has there been an age that people have been satisfied with” (p. 39; I feel that fog was thicker in my early years in San Francisco and am reminded of Burt Lancaster in “Atlantic City” bemoaning the diminution of waves since the breakers of old). And he makes me wonder what persimmon-leaf sushi tastes like.
Of the tales, “The Thief” is the most straightforward representation of helpless repetition. I find “A Blind Man’s Tale” numbing (though the historical characters are among those most often encountered in the final paroxysms of civil war at the end of the 16th century). “A man has the strangest thoughts at the strangest time” (p. 187). Indeed, but Tanizaki’s characters rarely think of anything as prosaic as making a living: they live for art, they live for love (often very fetishized, with foot fetishes especially recurrent), they suffer for love and for art, they live and die for honor. The women are as preoccupied with their honor as are the men, partially or fatally withdrawing from the world. . .
I most admire “The Bridge of Dreams” with the doubling of a loving mother, and the scholarly trying to sort out what happened from the decorous records of the blind musician in “A Portrait of Shunkin.” (The contrasting definite and indefinite articles must be the translator’s.)
Tanizaki’s Secret History of the Lord of Musashi is quiete perverse. Tanizaki was so enraptured with women, he was even reverent of their feces. The “hero” finds his way up the toilet of the lady of the castle in which he is a hostage and delights in looking at her with the husband whose nose he has removed (with her connivance; earlier efforts by others split his upper lip and shot off his right ear). A Freudian could make much of a fascination with women preparing severed heads for display. It is this which thrills the twelve-year-old future Lord of Musashi, especially heads that have been left behind by warriors who take only the nose and will pick up the head later: sort of double castration.
Tanizaki wanted to (was!) with women, but I don’t get any sense that he wanted to be one. His fascination with everything about them was erotic.
I know that I read Arrowroot with which it is paired, but remember nothing about it except boredom at its dry chronicling. John Updike, another obsessively heterosexual writer, liked it, according to a cover blurb.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray
Earlier postings on Tanizaki fiction:
(Lord Musashi is here in the chronological order of Tanizaki’s writings)
(Seven Tales collected works from a span of years)