Taishô-era Tanizaki short fiction

I long believed Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) to be the greatest 20th-century Japanese writer and the one who should have been the first Japanese writer to receive the Nobel Prize for literature (he was dead by the time Kawabata did in 1968). I was having qualms about his limits before the new batch of translations into English of work from the teens and twenties of the previous century appeared. Tanizaki’s foot fetishism is not prominent in them, though present in his 1925 “Red Roofs,” a story told from the point of view of Mayuko, a sadistic young (20ish) screen actress using men, including using young men to satisfy the cuckold fantasies of her 44-year-old patron, Odagiri, who seemingly felt but did not act on desires for the muscular young males who fucked his mistress. (Odagiri thought “it would be comical for a man of his age to have a fondness for boys” (151), though Mayuko is boyish.)

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The narrator of the stories that — with the exception of the very overwritten and hallucinatory “The Magician” (1917) — read like reportage rather than fiction, are novelists like Tanizaki, even if provided another name, such as Takahashi in Devils in Daylight (1918), another tale of a willful woman (Eiko) and a patron happy to be manipulated and drained of his fortune. The narrator is a sort of Dr. Watson, the protagonist a friend named Sonomura (“obsessed with moving pictures and crime novels”), who drags Takahashi along to watch a murder that ends with eradicating any trace of the murdered man (in a bath of chemicals) and who fancies himself a brilliant, detached detective like Sherlock Holmes, though also longing for a woman who will destroy/murder him.

Devils draws on a code drawn from Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” which was Poe’s best-known work in English in the late-19th century and was well-known in Japan after Lafcadio Hearn kicked off a Poe boom there. (Tanizaki’s brother Seiji translated “The Gold Bug,” and was not the first to translate it into Japanese. The tribute of creating a pen-name Japanizing Poe’s was made by “Edogawa Rampo.”

Along with Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson (whose title “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was echoed by Tanizaki’s 1926 “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga”), the young Tanizaki seems to me to have been influenced by French decadents (Huysman et al.), especially in “The Magician,” but also in the Nanjingbrothel crawl of “A Night in Qinhuai” (1919), a “story” with no plot. It is no wonder it was taken as a travel essay rather than as a fiction.

There are plots of sorts in the two novellas, and the other two stories translated by Anthony Chambers in Red Roofs & Other Stories. The novellas are both mysteries, albeit not (despite initial appearances in Devils) not murder mysteries. They are mysteries of quite perverse characters, male in “Tomoda and Matsunaga,” Eiko and various male collaborators in “Devils.”

Men willingly surrender all to the whims of beautiful (greedy, willful) young women in many Tanizaki fictions, notably including Devils and “Red Roofs” from the new crop of translations into English. In these early works, the supine, obsessed male is not the narrator. The novelist narrator writes about friends in “The Strange Case of Tomoda and Matsunaga” and Devils in Daylight. The perspective is that of the actress in “Red Roofs,” though it is told by an omniscient third-person narrator Tomoda complained that novelists are like policemen because “both like to find all about other people” (45—while revealing little about themselves).

For me, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and “Red Roofs” are overly contrived, “A Night in Qinhuai” undercontrived (without even a weak ending), so I guess “Red Roofs” is my favorite. I guess the fantastic “The Magician” is the least voyeuristic, having a male narrator who is bewitched by a male manipulator (the titular magician). The novelist narrator is inveigled by other persons to help understand the Tomoda/Matsunaga coincidences and the murders suggested in Devils.

P.S. I have to say that it is very strange that the title blurb by J. Keith Vincent of Red Roof & Other Stories, asserts that the title story is “about youth culture in Tokyo.” It is set in the countryside between Osaka and Kobe, and as Chambers and McCarthy pointed out, the Japanese movie industry had relocated from Tokyo to Kyoto after the 1923 earthquake. In an afterword the novella he translated (Devils in Daylight Vincent explains its title’s connotations, and the other two translators provided useful discussion of what exoticism meant in early 20th-century Japan and call attention to the unusual turn-around of sexual objectification in “Red Roofs,” which was “unusual among Tanizaki’s works in that it is narrated from a woman’s point of view—and a sexually predatory woman at that.”

Red Roof & Other Stories, translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press in 2016, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions in 2017.

Also see Tanizaki’s breakout successful 1924 novel Naomi with its modern (moga—western-emulating) woman/vampire title character whose patron does not like being cuckolded and Quicksand (1929) with a more fatale femme fatale.

©2017, Stephen O. Murray

 

 

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