Tag Archives: Tanizaki

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


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


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.)


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



More Tanizaki short fictions


(1913 portrait)

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 gold leaf 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 in Seven Japanese 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:


Some Prefer Nettles

The Reed Cutter

(Lord Musashi is here in the chronological order of Tanizaki’s writings)

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women

The Mother of Captain Shigemoto

The Makioka Sisters

The Key

Diary of a Mad Old Man

(Seven Tales collected works from a span of years)






Diary of a Mad Old Man (Tanizaki)


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.[1] 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.

[1] 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





A Cat, a Man, and Two Women (Tanizaki)



The title novella “A cat, a man, and two women” (first published in 1936) is not top-flight Tanizaki. It has many familiar elements: a weak, obsessive male, a very indulgent mother, willful female love objects. The cat Lily is an exceptionally spoiled feline with fur resembling a tortoise shell.

Shozo’s first wife Shinako was jealous that Shozo was more devoted to the cat than to her and decides to ask for the cat for a variety of reasons that do not include liking it. Once she has the cat, however, she comes to dote on it to nearly the extent her ex-husband did. Shozo is very unhappy at having allowed the three women (including his mother) to maneuver the cat away from him, and going to check up on it greatest threat, his second marriage.

He reasons, “he had only been married to Shinako for a total of two and a half years spread over four calendar years. And Fukoko had been in the household barely a month. Naturally, then, it was Lily, with whom he’d lived so long [ten years] who was most intimately bound up with many memories of his; who formed an important part of Shozo’s past” (39).

Aside from the slightness of the plot, and a lack of sympathy for cat worship, and a lack of sympathy for someone who is as easily manipulated (spineless) as Shozo, what I find most disappointing about the novella is the overabundance of explaining. Partly, this is a result of a third-person omniscient narrator in contrast to the alternating first-person narrators of The Key and other Tanizaki novels.

In contrast, the story “The little kingdom” (originally published in 1918) shows rather than tells. Although it definitely takes up Tanizaki’s most basic theme, dominance and submission, this is not eroticized. A charismatic student becomes a (relatively benevolent) dictator of a fifth-grade class, eventually adding the impoverished teacher to his empire. “A cat…” is also unusually (for Tanizaki) explicit about money and its lack. It is not being able to support his large family that drives the teacher (Kajima Shokichi) to submit to the ruling order, which has an elaborate economy of its own redistributing all sorts of goods. Like Robert Musil’s The Young Törless, “The little kingdom” seems to prefigure the mixture of domination by a charismatic leader providing some sort socialism that became widespread after the First World War (in Japan, as in Germany and Russia).

The other story, “Professor Rado” (originally published in 1925 and 1928) shows yet another male masochist eager to be dominated by an adored woman. I prefer it to “A cat…” because it shows rather than explains. A newspaperman comes to interview Professor Rado, who is bored and completely unhelpful. This pushes the interviewer to try to learn more by other means than interrogation. He sees that the arrogant, aloof professor likes to be flogged and worship women’s feet. Later, surprised to find the professor at a musical revue, the reporter is enlisted to supply information about one of the performers. While the narrative is slanted to make the reader sympathetic to the reporter, he ultimately is used, so that the reader can end up feeling superior to both.

Tanizaki was so capable of making the most extreme pursuit of various fetishes seem matter of fact (“natural”), that it is difficult to be sure whether he sees them as martyrs or as comic figures. I guess “comic martyr” is the easy solution, and applies to Shozo as well as to Professor Rado, and perhaps even to Kajima. All are in some ways ridiculous, yet are also sad failures. And the objects of their desires? They, especially Lily, are indifferent to the sufferings of those who love them.


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Two Tanizaki novellas


I didn’t enjoy reading what Tanizaki mistakenly thought was Donald Keene’s favorite of his works, The Mother of Captain Shigemoto (1949), though it had an impact by the time I finished. With Keene’s negative feelings for his mother (along with the lack of any evidence of heterosexual desire), it seems very unlikely that he would like best a book in which a mother taken away from the young child is idealized.

There is plenty of self-sacrifice in The Reed Cutter (1932), too, with Oshizu marrying a man so he can be near her sister Ozû (who, as a widow with a young male son, cannot remarry), and him later giving up Ozû (whose son has died) to marry another.

Finding a suitable partner for one’s wife seems a uniquely Japanese concern! It occurs in all three Tanizaki novel(la)s I’ve read (in both The Reed Cutter and The Mother of Captain Shigemoto, it is a wife (de facto in the first instance, de jure in the second) the man adores and continues to love after she is gone.  In The Key (1956), to stimulate his jealousy, the husband gets his wife drunk and throws his physician at her. In Some Prefer Nettles and Oe’s Silent Cry, it is one the man no longer loves. Male jealousy is generally absent in Dazai, too, except the retrospective jealousy about the earlier liaisons of his first wife, the ex-geisha. (I can’t recall men in Mishima novels feeling jealous about their female partners or covertly arranging new liaisons for them, and have only read one Kawabata novel, Snow Country).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray