Tanizaki Junichiro was one of the greatest 20th-century Japanese writers—in my opinion greater than the two who won Nobel Prizes for literature and surpassed only by Dazai Osamu as a stylist and as a master of portraying masochistic males dominated by perverse young women. The “mad old man” of his last novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962), Tokusuke, is very lucid in detailing his flirtations with his son’s undemure wife Satsuko, who is neglected by the husband who insisted on marrying so unsuitable a woman (she had been a dancing girl). Like the husband in Tanizaki’s masterpiece The Key, Tokusuke derives vicarious pleasure from aiding Satsuko’s affair with Haruhisa, who is (I think) Tokusuke’s nephew: “Now that I can’t enjoy the thrill myself any more, I can at least have the pleasure of watching someone else risk a love affair. It’s a pitiful thing when a man sinks that low” (58). Satsuko is bored, cooped up in the house with a very proper mother-in-law. The old man’s lusts provide some relief from boredom as well as support of varying kinds for her.
Like many other Tanizaki male characters, Utsugi is a foot fetishist, and Satsuko doles out some access to the adored parts of her anatomy. Some other Tanizaki connoisseurs of women are even more completely destroyed by what they represent as femmes fatales, for instance, Mitsuko in Quicksand . Tokusuke is very aware that he is “more susceptible to a woman with bad character. Occasionally, there are women whose faces reveal a streak of cruelty—they are the ones I like best” (27).
The old man’s deviousness and delight in shocking his nurse, his wife, and even his daughter-in-law are presented plausibly in his diary, along with (considerably less interesting) details about his deteriorating health and various failed treatments for his maladies. There is a problem — also recurrent in Tanizaki’s oeuvre — of narrating the end, after the first-person narrator can no longer narrate and the book rather dribbles out in documents supposedly from other hands that leave the reader unsure whether Tokusuke’s final perverse project succeeded. To me, this is a technical problem of a novel using supposed documents. In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene (who knew Tanizaki and championed his work to American audiences) writes that “the death of the old man was the one subject that Tanizaki could not treat with humor at this stage of his life [1961-62; Tanazaki died in 1965] (p. 780).
Unlike Vladimir Nabokov’s portraits of obsessed males, I am not certain that Tanizaki was aiming for ironic humor. Tokusuke’s stratagems make me laugh, but I have the nagging suspicion that Tanizaki was expecting readers to share his excitement. Given how often foot fetishism appears in Tanizaki’s fiction, it is hard to believe that it is just one metaphor for obsession and not a record of the author’s own obsession. (“One time a philosopher,” Voltaire said of exploring non-normative sexual behavior, “but [from] the second time, a pervert.”)
I guess that in our age of denigrating invention and imagination and insisting on authenticity, on documenting one’s own positionalities and feelings, this may be an advantage. The feelings of veneration for kabuki and regret for the artificiality of Japanese females that was lost to western influences after the First World War are also recurrent Tanizaki themes, and the distaste for modern (post-World War II) Tokyo is certainly Tanizaki’s. Tokusuke chooses a cemetery in Kyoto, and Tanizaki himself moved from the modern to the premodern capital city.
 In Dawn to the West, Donald Keene asserts that, like Thomas Mann and William Faulkner, Tanizaki ended his career with “a wonderfully comic work” (p. 779). If it is a satire, it would seem that it can only be a satire of Tanizaki’s own male characters’s unseemly lust-driven masochism.
©2016, Stephen O. Murray