Tag Archives: modernization

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


Mishima melodrama about political shenanigans



Mishima Yukio (1925-70) wrote “Rokumeikan” in 1956, on a commission from the Bungaku-za (Literary Theater) for the troupe’s twentieth anniversary. Mishima said that he wrote the play” to showcase actors and acting.” The Rokumeikan ( “Deer Cry Pavilion” in Japanese) was built in Tokyo and then used by the Japanese government from 1883 to 1893. The Rokumeikan was an architectural symbol of the Meiji government policy popularly known as bunmei kaika, “civilization and enlightenment“ a westernization conception of modernization. Rokumeikan was a British-designed Renaissance-style social center built as place where the Japanese upper classes entertained foreign dignitaries. It was badly damaged by an earthquake in 1893, but continued to be used as a social club for Japan’s aristocracy until 1933.


The ball the night of 3 November 1886, on which Mishima based this play, was attended by eventeen hundred guests, hosted by the foreign minister Count Inoue Kaoru (1835-1915) and his wife, Sato. MIshima stipulated that “during the ball on the Emperor’s Birthday, on November 3 of the nineteenth year of Meiji, nothing remotely resembling the incident seen here [in the play] happened.”

The play opens in the tearoom at the residence of the Prime Minister, Count Kageyama. At eleven AM 3 November 1886, the Meiji Emperor’s birthday. Every year it is the occasion for Count Kageyama to host a ball at at Rokumeikan, which Count Kageyama’s wife, Asako never attends. Though other members of the elite wear Western clothes, Asako never does. After Asako comes in, she is involved in a discussion with the Marchioness Daitokuji Sueko about the latter’s daughter Akiko’s romance with Kiyohara Hisao, the (adopted) son of the opposition (Jiyû Party) leader Kiyohara Einosuke.

Unknown to the others, Hisao’s biological mother is Asako. Hisao shows up and tells Asako about his grudge against his father and ongoing dismay at not knowing who his (biological) mother is, She decides to tell him and he confides his plans to assassinate his father that evening at the ball.

The second act takes place two hours later. Asako has asked Einosuke, whom she has not seen in twenty years, to come and see her (in the same room as the first act’s setting). He tells her that though he has neglected their son, he loves him. Asako asks him not to go to the ball, without telling him why. Einosuke refuses.

Einosuke slips away when Count Kageyama returns home. Asako overhears Einosuke’s conniving to have Hisao slay Einosuke, masking the politically motivated assassination as a family quarrel.

Asako enters and tells her husband that the opposition party’s intrusion at the ball will not occur… and that she will go to the ball, and in western dress. She refuses to explain why she is breaking from her pattern.

The third act occurs in the Rokumeikan Grand Ballroom shortly before sunset, as the preparations for the ball are in process. Akiko persuades Hisao not to kill his father. A subsequent conversation between the count and Hisao ends in Count Kageyama giving Hisao a pistol.


The final act takes place around 9PM. Asako learns that Einosuke’s followers — or at least young men disguised as Liberal Party disrupters — have arrived. This makes Hisao believe that his father has gone back on his word (about the planned disruption). Two shots ring out—offstage. The final father-son conversation also occurs offstage, though when she learns that her husband had staged the invasion of the ball by his opponents, she tells him she is leaving him and taking up (again) with Einosuke. The play ends with another offstage gunshot, this one not explicated.

As my summary of the plot shows, the play is very melodramatic. It also show the veniality and hypocrisy of the political establishment (Count Kageyama) … and the despairing idealism of youth (Hisao).

Asako is like many a self-sacrificing Kabuki character, hiding her feelings (not least from her husband, and, until act two, her son), though they are quite clear to the audience. The movements of the characters are also tightly choreographed, as in Kabuki.

I don’t really see why the conflicts are sited in the Rokumeikan: the meeting/melding of East and West for which the place was built are peripheral and no foreign (i.e., non-Japanese) character matters at all to the plot. A ball crowd just makes staging more difficult (in contrast to “My Friend Hitler” with four characters and a simple, single set). Maybe the glamor of the setting appeals to Japanese audiences (along with nostalgia for the first flushes of modernity, as Donald Keene suggested). “Rokumeikan” is the Mishima play most frequently mounted in Japan, reputedly (“Hitler” elsewhere).

The play was also the basis for a 2010 opera.

And what happened to Akiko?


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Kinoshita’s (1943) “The Living Majoroku”


“Ikite iru Magoroku” (The Living Majoroku, 1943), the second film directed by Kinoshita Keisuke is rather opaque to 21st-century American viewers. I don’t know if it seemed as schizoid to Japanese viewers as the tide was turning in the Pacific War (WWII). On the one hand, it advocates dispensing with superstitions, in this instance stemming directly form a military engagement three and a half centuries earlier that gave a field to the Onagis (for service in a battle on the side of Tokugawa Ieyasu with a curse on anyone digging into it (with, say, a hoe). And there are feudal obstacles to the marriage of a pair who work on the local bus (driver and conductor). On the other hand, it honors the cult of old swords—and a new one to cut down Americans in the war raging to the south. Militarist myths about the divine Japanese spirit were not treated as superstitions.

The fulcrum of the struggle to cultivate the Onagi field that has been covered with weeds (the same pampa grass that covered it back in the day of the now legendary battle) is Yoshihiro (Hara Yasumi), who is convinced that he is dying of the curse on Onagi males (form his grandfather’s affront to the sacred battlefield) and that letting the field be turned to food production will kill him. A visiting physician (Hosokawa Toshio), who is there seeking the heirloom sword (the titular Magoroku) the family has, tests the young Onagi’s lungs and realizes that they are unusually strong, that the failing lungs have no somatic basis. (“Nervous breakdown” is the translation provided by the subtitles.)

There are some strikingly beautiful outdoor scenes, reminiscent of Murnau. I didn’t notice any shots from above, but there are quite a lot of closeups (in rapid succession before the heretofore neurasthenic head of the Onagi family pronounces his decisions).

The valorization of clinging to the past and of taking action to help the nation in its struggle seems schizoid to me. At least there is nothing I see in the way of an explanation of what distinguishing should be preserved from past (feudal) lifeways, what jettisoned.

BTW, the pressure to increase production on the virgin soil comes from local fervor rather than down from the militaristic government. I wondered why Yoshihiro had not been drafted by 1942.

“The Living Majoroku” is available on the Criterion Eclipse (barebones) boxed set “Kinoshita and World War II.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray