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Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965)

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Japanese novelist, poet, and essayist, who dealt with the influence of the West on the old cultural heritage of his native country. After publishing novels written in a fairly orthodox style, Tanizaki fused traditional Japanese storytelling and experimental narrative. He emphasized the fabrication...






Japanese novelist, poet, and essayist, who dealt with the influence of the West on the old cultural heritage of his native country. After publishing novels written in a fairly orthodox style, Tanizaki fused traditional Japanese storytelling and experimental narrative. He emphasized the fabrication as the basis for fiction, stating that in both his reading and his writing he was "uninterested in anything but lies." 


"I read somewhere the other day that men who are too fond of the ladies when they're young generally turn into antique-collectors when they get old. Tea sets and paintings take the place of sex." (from Some Prefer Nettles, 1928) 


Junichiro Tanizaki was born in Nihombashi, in the commercial district near Tokyo Bay. His family owned a printing press, founded by Tanizaki's grandfather near the rice merchants' quarter. "Grandfather was very fond of me, his last grandchild; and sometimes in later years I suddenly felt I could hear his voice calling my name – "Jun'ichi, Jun'ichi," as he had during my earliest years, while he was still alive. A much-enlarged photograph of him was always prominently displayed in our house, so I got to know his face well, and could call it to mind and so encounter Grandfather whenever I wished." Aften falling on hard times Tanizaki's family had lost much of its former wealth. Tanizaki worshiped his mother who breast-fed him until he was 6. Despite financial problems, his parents pampered him and took him to countless theatrical performances, which early gave birth to the author's passion for drama and the traditional Japanese arts. 


Tanizaki's studies at the university of Tokyo ended in 1910 in shortage of money - or according to some sources his nonpayment of fees was an act of rebellion. At the age of 24 he published one of his best short stories, 'The Tattooer', which show influence of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde and the French Decadents. Wilde's Portrait of Dorian Gray Tanizaki also translated. In the story the character of a young woman starts to change when she has taken a tattoo. When in Wilde's novel the painting displays the decay of the subject, in Tanizaki's tale the artist's design is the cause of the woman transformation. The theme of feminine beauty and moral integrity marked his following stories, among then 'Whirlpool' in which an evil woman poses as a Buddhist saint for an artist's drawing. 


--...Standing aside, he studied the enormous female spider tattooed on the girl's back, and as he gazed it, he realized that in this work he had expressed the essence of his whole life. Now that it was completed, the artist was aware of a great emptiness. 

--'To give you beauty I have poured my whole soul into this tattoo,' Seikichi murmured. 'From now on there is not a woman in Japan to rival you! Never again will you know fear. All men, all men will be your victims...' 

                                                        (from 'Tattoo') 

The turning point in Tanizaki's life was the great earthquake in Tokyo region in 1923. His house in the fashionable residential area was leveled by the quake. Tanizaki left his wife and child and moved to the Osaka area which was much more old fashioned. There he stopped using Western models and started to take interest in traditional literature, especially the classical Japanese tale GENJI MONOGATARI (The Tale of Genji), which was written by Lady Murasaki Shikibu (c. 980-1030). Tanizaki put it into modern Japanese three times. 


Tanizaki'a first novel from this period, serialized in the mid-20's, was CHIJIN NO AI (1924, Naomi, translated into English in 1985), in which a 28-year-old engineer, Joji, goes through his love affair with a very young girl, who is totally immersed into Western culture. This masochistic story anticipated Nabokov's Lolita, but it also drew on the Pygmalion theme. "As Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan, Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling with one another; all sorts of new doctrines and philosophies are being introduced; and both men and women are adopting up-to-date Western fashions. No doubt, the times being what they are, the sort of marital relationship that we've had, unheard of until now, will begin to turn up on all sides." (from Naomi) In TADE KUU MUSHI (Some Prefer Nettles, 1928-29) Tanizaki continued the theme of the clash between traditional values and modern culture and made Tokyo and Osaka symbols of the conflict. The protagonist, Kaname, considers himself a man of his time, but eventually abandons the modern world. 


At the time of writing 'Professor Rado' (1925-28), an erotic story about an eccentric bachelor professor, Tanizaki's second marriage was ending. Her third wife, Matsuko, become again for the author a target of worship, as many other women in his life. 


Tanizaki's years of immersion in Japanese history produced some of his finest works. The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi (1935) was set in the the 16th-century civil-war period. In the story Lady Kikyo set out to revenge the murder of her father and mutilation of his face. But the culprit is not her won husband, as she thinks, but her lover, the Lord of Mushashi, whose bizarre sexual obsession is behind the whole plot. Tanizaki's admiration for old Osaka is seen in SASAMEYUKI (The Makioka Sisters, 1943-48), a recreation of Osaka family life in the 1930s. The first chapters of the novel appeared during the World War II, but further publication was stopped by censorship of the military government. Tanizaki continued writing and published the first part at his own expense and delivered the copies to his friends. The second part appeared in 1947 and the third part was first printed in a serialized form in a magazine. 


Although Tanizaki's used his own wife and her three sisters-in-law as models – and the author himself plays a small part in the middle of the story – it is not a roman à clef. Tanizaki wanted to record the vanishing cultural milieu of Osaka, its dialect, and the daily life of a middle-class family. The story is about four sisters, who are trying to find a suitable husband for Yukiko, the third sister. She is a woman of traditional belief and has rejected several suitors, and remains almost unmarried. Until Yukiko marries, Taeko, the youngest, the most Westernized, must wait for her turn according to the social convention. 


His nostalgic love for the traditions and remnants of the past, even rustic and worn-out, Tanizaki expressed in the essay 'In Praise of Shadows' (1933-34). Tanizaki juxtaposed in it Western harsh light and the ''muddy'' Japanese complexion: ''I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration.'' 


Tanizaki's characters are often driven by obsessive erotic desires. His famous post-war novels include FUTEN ROJIN NIKKI (1962, Diary of a Mad Old Man), which depicts an aged diarist who is struck down by a stroke caused by an excess of sexual excitement. He records both his past desires and his current efforts to bribe his daughter-in-law to provide sexual favors in return for Western baubles. KAGI (1956, The Key) was a story of dying marriage examined through parallel diaries. "If now, for the first time, my diary becomes chiefly concerned with our sexual life, will she be able to resist the temptation? By nature she is furtive, fond of secrets, constantly holding back and pretending ignorance; worst of all, she regards that as feminine modesty. Even though I have several hiding places for the key to the locked drawer where I keep this book, such a woman may well have searched out all of them." The two protagonists start to use their diaries as a means of communication by tacitly agreeing to read each other's diaries while outwardly pretending that they do not. The diaries reveal their problems of understanding each other and separateness even during the shared activity of sexual union. The Key was adapted into screen by Kon Ichikawa in 1959, and later by Tinto Brass.


Tanizaki was one of Japan's first crime writers. In the short story 'The Thief' Tanizaki again studied the theme of fabrications and the truth. The narrator is a young student who is suspected of stealing from his comrades. "It also struck me that if even the most virtuous person has criminal tendencies, maybe I wasn't the only one who imagined the possibility of being a thief." Finally the protagonist admits his guilt but defends himself that he told the truth in a roundabout way. 


Several of his stories have been made into films, in Japan and in other countries. For The Makioka Sisters he received the Imperial Prize in 1949. His later years Tanizaki lived his mostly in the Kansai, the area around Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe. Mishima Yukio, from the younger generation of writers, was an ardent admirer of Tanizaki; they both were committed aesthetes. Tanizaki died in Yugawara, south of Tokyo, on July 30, 1965. His childhood memoirs appeared serially in a Japanese magazine in 1955-56, and were published in English in 1988.

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