Category Archives: Japanese literature

Turgid rediscovered 1928 Tankizaki novel

I have 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.” There is no hint of it in what feels like a very long novel that was serialized in Tokyo and Osaka in 1928, Kokubayaku, which has recently been published in English as In Black and White (the Japanese title is a homonym for “Confession”). The English text of the novel only runs 216 pages, but so little happens that it feels much longer.

As in the stories that appeared in English collections of 2016 and 2017 (Red Roof & Other Stories translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy was published by the University of Michigan Press, Devils in Daylight by J. Keith Vincent, was published by New Directions), the protagonist — definitely not a hero or even a likeable character — Mizuno, is a writer. He is quite an unsociable one with no friends. His wife left him after he wrote a series of stories involving murders of wives.

He is classified as a “diabolist,” and the new story, which is late for delivery to a magazine called The People that pays more than other magazines, again focuses on premeditated murder. Its protagonist (yet another writer) seeks to commit “the perfect crime,” that is to get away with murder. The writer of the story within a story has no animus against a less-successful writer, whom he calls Codama. Lack of motivation is part of the reason he expects to escape detection: the murder is a gratuitous act.

In the rush to get “To the Point of Murder” into print, Muzuno slips several times and uses the name of the model for the man being murdered, Cojima instead of Codama. Muzuno is very concerned that Cojima and/or others will notice that unusual name, but cannot get it changed before the magazine is printed.

Then Muzuno is in a prolonged panic that the real Cojima will be murdered in a way like in his story and that he will be blamed for it. Muzuno is paranoid and could hardly have made more of a mess of establishing an alibi for the night of the new moon when he fears that life will imitate art and Cojima will be murdered. There must have been many, many better ways to establish alibis!

Muzuno’s fears are realized, and he is suspected of having murdered Cojima in the way his alter ego does in his story (which establishes premeditation). Could there be a “Shadow Man” going to the extraordinary lengths of murdering Cojima and spiriting away Muzun’s alibi? I don’t think so, but Muzuno does and tries to pin the fictional murder on someone he cannot identify (who also lacking motivation for the murder and conspiracy to make it appear Muzuno committed it).

My ability to suspend disbelief cannot overcome the obstacles of Tanizaki’s novel, neither the frame nor the stories within the story. The police misconduct, on the other hand, is easy for me to believe.

(Tanizaki in 1908)

From translator Phyllis Lyon’s afterword, I learned that the novel followed an extended debate in print between Tanizaki defending the necessity of plots in novels, and Akutagawa Riyûnosuke (best known in English as the author of two stories that Kurosawa Akira based his international breakthrough film “Rashômon” on) maintaining that lyricism was enough, that how a story was told was more important than its content (plot). Akutagawa closed out the controversy by committing suicide on Tanizaki’s birthday (24 July) in 1927, so Tanizaki felt some guilt about having (symbolically) killed another writer. This is pretty outlandish, and Akutagawa was terrified that he had inherited his mother’s insanity, but one can see reasons for Tanizaki to have been shaken and to be influenced by that in writing about a writer killing another writer.

(Akutagawa in 1927)

There is a surfeit of reflection on the probity of writers and the “truth” of literature in In Black and White, a carryover from his jousts with Akutagawa (who was six years younger than Tanizaki; he seems more remote since Tanizaki outlived him be decades and produced many novels and novellas after Akutagawa’s death). In the novel, like Tanizaki, Muzuno is turning 40 and Cojima was 35, as Akutagawa was when he was sparring in print with Tanizaki.

As in other early Tanizaki fiction, here is a willful semi-modern woman, a femme fatale, in In the Black and White. The prostitute who said she had lived with a husband two years in Hamburg does not tell Muzuno her name—he refers to her as “Frâulein Hindenburg” (Paul von Hindenburg was chancellor of German at the time (1925-34), but addresses her only as “you.” His contracting her for two sessions a week is folly, not even motivated by lust (I don’t think they copulate during their few meetings). She has an aura of perversity and some cunning, whereas he is just a sad-sack painting himself into a corner.

I find In the Black and White less interesting than the other two novels Tanizaki started writing in 1928, Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, and don’t think that exhuming Kokubayaku, was necessary, even for (especially for?) Anglophone Tanizaki aficionados. I found the last part more interesting than the earlier parts, but it seems rushed, with no real ending. The way of telling it, with lots of dialog and lots of paranoid premonitions, did not appeal to me and the plots, as I’ve said, are not credible (as possible human conduct) to me. Though finding them also highly contrived, I prefer Naomi, Devils in Daylight, “The Magician, and, especially, “Red Roofs” among Tanizaki’s fiction before Some Prefer Nettles… and I am more indebted to Lyons for The Saga of Dazai Osamu, (1985), than for this endeavor, though I’d readily stipulate that her afterword is definitely essential for readers in English of In Black and White.


© 2018, Stephen O. Murray



Alienated Japanese trying to understand Europe(ans)

Endô Shûsaku’s Ryûgaku (1965) took a long time to reach English (a 1989 translation by Mark Williams as Foreign Studies). Among other things, this confused realization that its second component, “Araki Thomas” preceded Endô’s grisly novel about 17th-century martyrdom of Roman Catholic missionaries and Japanese convers in his 1966 novel Shinmoku (The Silence).


The tale in Foreign Studies focuses on a Japanese man who went to Europe to Rome to study (Catholic) theology and who later returned to Japan, knowing of the Tokugawa persecution of Christians and renounced the faith, urging other converts to save their lives by trampling images of Jesus. To me the case is more one of pragmatism than one of alienation in Europe.

The other two involve Japanese students in France, ca. 1950 and 1965, despairing of ever understanding Europeans (specifically French). “A Summer in Rouen” focuses on Kudo, who is boarded by a French family whose son aspired to become a missionary to Japan. Kudo is dubious about Catholicism spreading in Japan and about taking on the dead son’s missionizing project.

Most of the volume (78 percent) is occupied by the third variation on Japanese in Europe, “An You, Too.” There is no overlap of characters or even sites between the three variations, and I reject Endô’s claim that the book is a novel. I’d accept applying the category to “And You, Too” although it contains long extracts of what the junior faculty member, Tanaka, writes in the way of a thesis on the Marquis de Sade.

Before being stricken by tuberculosis (which also ended Endö’s studies in Lyon), Tanaka visits sites where Sade lived and/or committed crimes, including La Coste in the south of France (the Vaucluse), where he had a chateau that was partly destroyed in 1799. The village is buried under snow on both visits, to the fields of poppies were not in bloom.


(tower of the Chateau Le Coste, my photo)

Tanaka tries to avoid contact with other Japanese in Paris, though he ends up arranging the repatriation of an architecture student living in the same hotel after Sakisaka is diagnosed with tuberculosis. (There is no indication that Tanaka was infected by Sakisaka, though I couldn’t avoid suspecting this). Tanaka is particularly miffed when a junior colleague from the same school, Suganuma, arrives and inflames Tanaka’s concerns about the security of his position back “home,” what appears to be a viper’s nest of academics jockeying for position.

Tanaka is also irritated by what his wife writes him, though feeling sentimental about their son. Tanaka feels that he would never be able to understand/communicate with the French.

In his introduction, Endô stresses that Kudo is not autobiographical, studying in Rouen rather than Lyon as Endô did. Surely the pressures and frustrations of the fictional character were not solely invented. Tanaka resides in the capital a decade and a half later, when there were other Japanese (even if he seeks to avoid associating with them). Endô also says that he had become more optimistic about the possibilities of intercultural communication than he was when he left France. Understanding the life and/or the writings of the Marquis de Sade strikes me as posing difficulties other than being in a foreign language, a very different time for one. What Tanaka writes about the transformation of the libertine into a sort of philosopher of sadomasochism seems plausible, though Tanaka treats Sade more as a saint (conducting pilgrimages to sites where the Marquis suffered and/or made others suffer) than many would (for instance, me).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


Romance of a Japanese neurasthenic, ca. 1909

It’s hard for me to imagine that 1909 readers of the Japanese newspaper Asahi Shinbun could keep track of (or care about!) the very slow development and shifting consciousness of Daisuke, the hypochondriac slacker protagonist of Sôseki Natsume’s novel Sorekara (And Then), a follow-up (not exactly a sequel) to the 1906 Botchan. I found the book very easy to put down and can’t imagine being eager to pick up the next installment and then the next installment (the paper was — and still is — daily; I don’t know if the serialization was).


Daisuke is quite content to live on the allowance his father and older brother give him. He focuses on any signs of heart problems, grooming, and reading European literature. “Daisuke had never considered himself idle. He simply regarded himself as one of those higher beings who disposed of a large number of hours unsullied by an occupation.” He has a horror of working at a job to pay for food and lodging… and has been able to avoid getting a job because of his indulgent father and brother, whose company may not be as impeccably honest as they lead Daisuke to believe. That is never definitively settled in the text. Not a lot is!

Having turned 30, it is past time for Daisuke to marry. He has rejected every candidate his father, brother, and/or sister-in-law suggest. Now there is one whose marital alliance would aid the company. Daisuke has no specific objection to the young woman, but has come to realize that he is in love with a married woman.

Not just any married woman, but Michiyo, the wife of his university classmate and friend, Hiraoka. Daisuke arranged the marriage himself when his friend said he wanted to marry Michiyo.

Three years later the couple has returned to Tokyo after Hiraoka’s assistant embezzled some funds (500 yen). Hiraoka seeks Daisuke’s help to find a job and to borrown the money he put up to cover his subordinate’s theft.

Daisuke cannot avoid seeing that Hiraoka not only neglects his wife, but doesn’t even provide sufficient funds for her food. They had a son who died after a few months, and Michiyo is sickly.

Daisuke decides he is in love with Michiyo and cannot acquiesce to the marriage his family is promoting. Before he can take Michiyo away, he feels that he must get the permission of Hiraoka, for whom he now feels no friendship. The permission to poach the wife is the same “règle du jeu” as in Jean Renoir’s movie (“règle” has been pluralized in the English title, “Rules of the Game”), which I just tried for the first time to appreciate.

I find Sôseki’s novel even less amusing than Renoir’s film and very, very slow moving. Though open-ended, the denouement is not hopeful. Hiraoka writes an account of Daisuke’s perfidy to Daisuke’s father (who cuts him off), which strikes me as quite caddish. Hiraoka granted permission to Daisuke to take Mishiyo off his hands, admitting he does not love her and knows she does not love him. But she is sick and he says he cannot turn her over in such damaged condition. I think it quite likely she will die and that Daisuke will have squandered his patrimony for nothing. But Sôseki does not reveal what the future (and then!) held for the pair, whose relationship is a scandal even though there has been no physical consummation (adultery). Daisuke seems ill-equipped, especially by inclination, to support himself, let alone a wife, let alone a wife with medical problems (who will not be able to produce an heir).


I guess Daisuke is alienated, though I’m more inclined to regard him as spoiled. Certainly, as he realizes, Daisuke is very ineffectual, partly because he has no assets of his own, only a monthly allowance. Throwing over comfort and everything he has known and valued for love makes him something of a romantic hero, however.

Translator Norma Moore Field has appended a biographical sketch with an emphasis on the sort-of “trilogy” of Botchan, Sorekara, and Mon (The Gate, 1910). She sees them as dominated by three A’s: abandonment, alienation, and ambivalence with the protagonist of each older than in the previous book, and argues that they are not especially autobiographical. She notes but does not explain that Japanese consider Sôseki their greatest modern writer, though others (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Mishima, Murakami) have been embraced more by western readers.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray




Five 1938-39 stories by Okamoto Kanoko, and (more interesting) her own life story

It seems that Okamoto Kanoko (1889-1939) went from being a neglected to a doted-upon wife whose husband acquiesced to her bringing younger men to live in their household. A noted tanka poet and Buddhist scholar, she only began writing fiction in the last three years of her life and only went from narcissistic self-congratulation in the I-novel style to stories about unrequited love during the last year and a half.


Donald Keene who objected to her overblown (quite unJapanese!) style, considered her a “minor but unforgettable writer,” singling out Rōgishō (Portrait of an Old Geisha) for special praise. It seems to me the most autobiographical of the five stories translated by Sugisaki Kazuko in The House Spirit and Other Stories. Not that Okamoto had been a geisha, but she definitely took up a series of younger men to nurture in various ways. Kosono sponsors her all-but resident electrician, Yuki, to do his own work (inventing). Kosono does not goist her foster daughter, Michiko, on Yuki and encourages him to play around, as well as financing his existence. He is chagrined that being freed of the burden of supporting himself, he does not accomplish the great things he thought he would were he free:

“He remembered those days when he had to work on trivial jobs. He didn’t like it, but he could bear it because he had an ambition, a thrilling dream that someday he would have enough money to devote himself to creation of new things. But this living once materialized, living it daily was boring, almost tormenting. Working in quiet isolation he became sometimes frightened with the notion that he might be going in an entirely wrong direction in his research, and thus would be left behind the mainstream of the time.”

In the collection, “Old Geisha” is preceded by the later “Sushi,” a piece about a man named Miyato who as a boy was so fastidious that he would only eat eggs and seaweed. His mother made sushi for him and coaxed him into eating. At the time of the story a young woman, Tomoyo is trapped, literally caged, as a cashier in the family sushi shop, where Tomoyo is a regular. He tells her how he came to be able to tolerate sushi and then ceased to patronize the shop. Yes, that is the whole story. I preferred the novella “Food Demon,” (my favorite of Okamoto’s fiction available in English translation that was paired in another translation with A Riot of Goldfish) also centered on food preparation and presentation.


(1919 photo with her son Taro)

Okamoto’s stories are plotless. One might say that they are character-driven, though I’d say they elaborate situations of unhappiness, often self-defeat, though class differences also figure prominently.

“North Country” (Michinoku), the shortest, describes a young woman, Ran, who takes pity on a young man called “Shiro, the Fool,” who refuses to marry. Shiro does not realize she is waiting for him and disappears.

“The House Spirit” (Karei) also centers on a restaurant. It is patronized — if that word is appropriate for someone unable to pay for his meals — by an artisan (Tokunaga) who makes exquisite metal ornaments that have gone out of style. The mother of Kumeko, the current owner, accepted occasional masterpieces from him and supplied him the loach soup and rice that kept him going. Kumeko decides to continue her mother’s charity, though Tokunaga withers away.

“The River” (Kawa) features an unnamed daughter of a traditional, prominent rural family. Naosuke, an employee of her father, pines for her and drowns himself after she marries (and he builds a bridge for her wedding). This story resembles that of the hopelessly smitten lower-class worker in “A Riot of Goldfish.”

The collection is filled with unfulfilled yearning from both sexes. Some of the scene-setting is overwritten (I’m pretty sure not just in translation). Though Okamoto experienced considerable anguish early in her marriage, she eventually had the love not only of her prodigal-returned husband, and two sons (all artists), but her physician and other young protégés. Sugisaki’s biographical sketch, which does not even allude to any of the stories in the book, is probably the most interesting story in it.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray


©2017, Ste


Flat Ishiguro detective story

When We Were Orphans (2000) Kazuo Ishiguro ’s fifth novel is not the incomprehensible, nightmarish (ersatz Kafka) mess that his previous novel, The Unconsoled 1995), was. But it is also far from returning to the mastery of an unreliable narrator (who does not understand what he is relating) of his superb Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day, or his earlier, also quite accomplished The Artist of the Floating World. All three are set in the days just before World War II (which began earlier in China than in Europe). The earlier ones were set in Japan and England. A large (and not very interesting!) chunk of When We Were Orphans is set in England, but even there, the narrator (Christopher Banks, called “Puffin” for no discernible reasons) is preoccupied with the relationships of his childhood: relationships to his parents, both of whom mysteriously disappeared when he was ten, to the Chinese woman who cared for him (his amah), and to his Japanese playmate Akira.


Seemingly even before Akira and he began playing detective imagining resolutions for the kidnapping of Christopher’s father. In England he develops a reputation as a discerning sleuth, though this is asserted rather than credibly illustrated by Ishiguro. Inevitably, he returns to Shanghai to try to solve the mystery of the successive disappearances of his parents. To put it mildly, 1937 is a particularly difficult time to do this, as the Japanese invaders are fighting in the streets of the Chinese city of Shanghai (though leaving in place the international concessions where Christopher grew up).

The most vivid part of the novel involves getting to a house Christopher is convinced that it is where his parents have been held for two decades. However, it is on the front lines of the battle with first Chinese and then Japanese help. He also gets an earful about the Kuomintang’s greater concern with fighting communists than with fighting the Japanese invaders. .

The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard. Certainly, Ishiguro has drawn unsympathetic protagonists before, but they are more interesting and more plausible than Christopher is. Although most of the loose ends are tied up (one irritatingly is not), at the close of the novel I have no clear idea about what Christopher felt about what he learned, or, for that matter, what he remembered from his childhood. “Uncle Philip,” the novel’s most interesting character seems to have prefigured Christopher in the role of male English spinster, and is indeed emotionally stunted, but at least he feels and communicates some emotions. Uncle Philip’s final scene is extremely melodramatic, but in it he almost comes to life, The reader is, however, given no indication of what Christopher feels about what he learns about the central mystery of his past.

I’m not sure whether he becomes more unreliable as the book progresses, though early on his dissent from the recollections of him at school are suspect. Even Christopher considers that he may have hallucinated some other Japanese soldier into a reunion with Akira in an hour of great need for both. (Why doesn’t he try to follow up and contact Akira’s son after the war?)

The other orphans (both females) are underdeveloped and implausible. Christopher’s behavior toward Sarah at the end of her stay in Shanghai and toward a driver and a KMT lieutenant who has aided him in getting close to the house he seeks are particularly ill-conceived and unlikely, or, at least, are badly executed. The expectations of what Banks can accomplish that are held by the Shanghai Europeans bewildered by the beginning of war are ludicrous, but not implausible. And what Ishiguro writes about the politcal economy of opium seems quite accurate. Although it gets hallucinatory, the background setting is mostly deftly drawn.


(Ishiguro in 2005, photo by Mariusz Kubiki )

Ishiguro’s masterpiece of an emotionally blocked, politically blind “unreliable narrator” is clearly still Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro has a talent for recreating the 1930s and writes often limpid descriptive prose, I have found his work since Remains disappointing, particularly deficient in character development, which was what was most impressive about Remains.


©2000, 2017, Stephen O. Murray


Two novellas about young male creators by Okamoto Kanoko

Okamoto Kanoko (née Ohnuki Kano, 1889-1939) was a scholar of Zen Buddhism and a tanka poet who wrote fiction during the last three years of her life. Being of upper-class origin, her fiction tends to focus on resentful working-class males. Whether males from lower classes of the early Showa-era idealized her peers as she portrays them as doing is a question I can’t answer, though I am suspicious.


The protagonist of her novella Riot of Goldfish (Kingyo Ryōran), Mataichi is the son of a goldfish-seller who is enchanted by Masako, a shy girl whose rich father (Teizô) underwrites Mataichi’s fishery studies. Though distant glimpses of Masako, up the hill above his family’s fishponds, enchant him, he has no chance of wedding her and sublimates his desire into trying to breed a goldfish as beautiful as (he thinks) Masako is. The breeds he engineers (life he creates) keep being washed away in floods. Masako has no idea he is trying to recreate her in piscine form, or, for that matter, that he has been in love with her for most of their lives.

“The Food Demon” (Shokuma), Besshirô, is also smitten by the beautiful daughter of his patron, Okinu, and desperate to be regarded as a master artist, to be addressed with the honorific “sensei.” He alienates those who had admired his knowledge of and skill at painting and calligraphy, though what he produces is dismissed as “tasteful,” lacking the spark of genius.

His genius is for the less exalted “art” of cooking, which has lower prestige but gives very tangible pleasure. He gives cooking lessons to the pampered Okinu and her drudge sister Ochiyo, but only the latter really notices how handsome and gifted he is.

Their father provides Besshirô and the meek wife he has been pressed by the aunt of his dead painter/restaurant-owner friend, Higaki, to marry a small house and a small stipend, and Besshirô takes out his frustrations mostly on his wife, Isuko (Higaki’s only cousin).


There are no female characters developed at all in either novella. The only one who is not a drudge or an impossible fantasy is a female Buddhist scholar (what Okamoto was) who delivers the “no more than tasteful” verdict on his paintings, but genuinely appreciates his culinary skills. Even she is little developed.

The protagonists bring Zola (especially L’ouevre) to my mind with his fatalism in the traditional Buddhist guise of karma. Mataichi is more focused (beyond the point of obsession!) than Besshirô, who writhes in disappointment and resentment of his social superiors.

Goldfish has something of a plot, Food-Demon fills in the background of its protagonist, including the harrowing cancer death of Higaki). In the story’s present Besshirô gives a demonstration of handling endive, leaves his female students in their mansion, goes home, rails at his wife, and drinks a lot of beer as he watches hail fall, and while his wife keeps their son quiet in the bedroom.

Food-Demon is more about attempts to integrate Eastern and Western art and aesthetics than the aesthetic of Mataichi, though he is even more intent on creating beauty than Besshirô is.

The two novellas, translated by J. Keith Vincent were published in 2010 by Hesperus with an enthusiastic foreword by David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas).

©2017, Stephen O. Murray


More recently translated, mostly Taishô-era Tanizaki short fiction

Though my enthusiasm for the writings of Tanizaki Jun’ichirô (1886-1965) has waned over the years and turned into ambivalence, I still think he may be the greatest of 20th-century Japanese writers. Some of his early work, when he was most influenced by writers from Europe and the US, has made it into English of late (2016-17). The novella The Gourmet Club and five shorter fictions, translated by Anthony Chambers and Paul McCarthy, were published in 2001. The title novella (first published in 1919) is very sensual. In it Count G discovers a sort of dining hall (not a restaurant open to the public, but only to Chinese) in a back alley and begins serving the members of his gourmet club (numbering five) exotic Chinese dishes appealing to multiple senses. There is not a plot other than his being blocked from dining at the Chinese establishment by its president.

Jun'ichirō_Tanizaki_&_Inazō_Nitobe_1908.jpg (1908)

The other stories are kinky, though lacking the foot fetishism that increasingly flared up in later Tanizaki fiction. The only late “story,” the 1955 “Manganese Dioxide Dreams” is mostly a plot summary of the 1955 Henri-Georges Clouzot thriller “Diabolique,” followed by examination of the narrator’s turds floating in a western-style toilet. I don’t much care whether the latter contemplation is fictional or autobiographical. Diary of a Mad, Old Man has some resemblances to this narrative, but is far better.

“Two Acolytes” (1918) is somewhat based on “the road not taken” (becoming a Buddhist monk) by Tanizaki earlier on. He definitely opted for the world of sensation rather than ascetism. I suspect that the sadomasochism central to the 1911 “The Children” is a mix of fantasy and schoolboy experience. In it a girl subdues her brother and two of his classmates into eager abjection. The perverse Mitsuko torturing male admirers is a very Tanizaki figure. And the man obsessed by an actress in “Mr. Bluemound” (1926) is also a very Tanizaki figure, though not the narrator. The narrator is a movie director who has explored his wife, Turako, with a camera for general delectation and is startled to find the lengths of imaginative bonding to which one fan whom he meets in a bar has gone.

Something of a change of pace—or at least of final destination—is offered in “The Secret” (1911) in which obsession eventually turns to disenchantment when the narrator runs to mundane reality his “dream woman” and learns her name (Yoshino). (The story also encompasses the pleasures of cross-dressing, but that is incidental to the usual heterosexual obsession.)

junichiro-tanizaki.jpeg post-WWII

I like the three earliest stories of the six the best, the last the least. Are they better? They are shorter. They are also more focused on sexual obsession (along with “Mr. Bluemound” rather than on the alimentary system. With “Red Roofs” (the title story, not the collection in which it is the title story), I think the four stories of sexual obsession in The Gourmet Club: A Sextet add to the body of Tanizaki fictions I find interesting. Early cinema is prominent in “Mr. Bluemound” as in the too-pat for me purported murder mystery Devils in Daylight (1918). (“Manganese Dioxide Dreams” shows that Tanizaki remained interested in international cinema, though plot regurgitation seems to me beneath his genius.)


©2017, Stephen O. Murray