Friday, February 7, 2020

Tanizaki's Seven Japanese Tales - Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious

Seven Japanese Tales (1970, tr. Howard Hibbett) by Juichiro Tanizaki.  Four of the “tales” are short stories from the 1910s and 1920s, pretty obviously newspaper pieces, although heaven forbid an editor mentions where anything is from.  Three tales, two from the 1930s and one from 1959 – impressive career! – are more like novellas.

I thought this would be a good place to get to know Tanizaki, who I had not read at all.  Poking around, I found a review or two saying it was not the place to start.  I suppose I did not think anything in this book was world-class, but I know Tanizaki wrote other books.  And much is visible right here.

The oldest story, “The Tattooer” (1910), made Tanizaki famous.  That is worth seeing.  A sadistic tattooer dreams of creating the perfect tattoo (“a huge black-widow spider,” 167) on the perfect woman.  He does so, but somehow in the process transfers his creative strength to the woman:

“All of my fears have been swept away – and you are my first victim!”  She darted a glance at him as bright as a sword.  A song of triumph was ringing in her ears.  (169)

Sure, why not.  I had picked up somewhere that Tanizaki was a fan of Edgar Allan Poe, and in these early stories I can see it, not so much in the Gothic giant spider but in the extreme, self-destructive psychology of the men, who all succumb to Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  I noted Theodore Dreiser borrowing the same idea in The American Tragedy (1925), contemporary to Tanizaki’s early stories, although Dreiser also borrows Poe’s distinctive, bizarre language, Tanizaki much less so, at least in this translation.  But in the character who has a phobia about riding on a train (“Terror,” 1913), or the kleptomaniac who can’t bring himself to tell a lie (“The Thief,” 1921), I can see the shadow of Poe.  “’Maybe you think I’m just being perverse, but I’ve never been more serious’” (184).

Also immediately visible was Tanizaki’s interest in another aspect of the word “perverse.”  Five of the seven stories feature dominant / submissive relationships with a woman in the dominant and a man in the submissive role.  “The Tattooer” is the only one where the man is dominant but becomes submissive.  Some of these relationships are sexual, some not, but the psychology is repeated.  Theme and variation.

The most interesting variation was in “A Portrait of Shunkin” (1933), where the woman is a blind music prodigy and the man is first her servant, then pupil, then lover – husband, really.  She is a tyrant, willful and capricious; he is perfectly devoted.  At one key point, his devotion goes way, way too far, in a way I do not want to describe.  Yikes!  Ick!  Tanizaki seems to like extreme cases.

I thought “Shunkin” was the best-written story, too, in the sense that the sentences were the most interesting.  More phrases and clauses, more rhetorical variation.  In some of the stories, the prose got pretty flat.  The recurrent symbolic songbird theme was blatant but effective:

Nightingales are often long-lived if properly cared for, but they require constant attention.  Left to an inexperienced person, they soon die.  (51)

The Japanese Literature Challenge, now in its 13th year, is ongoing, so I read this book and hope to read another Tanizaki or two.


  1. Out of curiosity: did your sources recommend a particular one to start with? I haven't read any Tanizaki either. This collection does sound promising enough, though...

  2. I was browsing online reviews of Seven Japanese Tales, so no, they did not have a recommendation. Just not this one.

    I think the most prominent novels, in English, at least, are Some Prefer Nettles (1929) and Makioka Sisters (1948).

    The Japanese Lit Challengists are doing a Makioka readalong in March, so they will surely sort this out for us.

  3. I first read Junichiro Tanizaki eleven years ago during JPL 3. I now regard him as one of my favourite authors. In terms of works dealing with sexuality,Naomi is about a grown man's obsession with a midterm age girl he bought from her family. Manji deals with lesbian relationships. Perhaps the oddest is The Secret History of The Lord Musashi, deal with a Samurai Lord's obsession with the severed heads of enemy generals.

  4. That is odd. Worthy of the genre called "bizarro fiction."

  5. Who knew that Tanizaki was a fan of Poe? Certainly not I. I need you to point out the underlying substance in so many pieces of literature.

    The only work of his I have read (so far) is Naomi. Of course, there is The Makioka Sisters read-along in March, as you mentioned above, around which surely there will be some sorting out. ;) Or, at least humbly presented opinions about it by me. I do hope you’ll join in; it has been too long (for me) since our shared reads of Big, Little and Great Expectations.

    You have sufficiently intrigued me about these seven tales. I did not find myself absorbed by Naomi as much as I feel I ought to have been, and these short tales sound marvelous. Thank you for being a part of the Japanese Literature Challenge 13.

  6. If we think of Poe as an explorer of the literary representation of extreme psychological cases, the link makes sense. But I had to see it to understand it.

    I didn't mention the last novella in Seven Japanese Tales, which is a kind of medieval chronicle (Heike personages, I think) and is a big snooze until pretty close to the end. What is another way to say this. I lacked the background to understand what the heck Tanizaki was doing in that one.

    I should read Makioka. I definitely should. We'll see.

  7. Well, if background is required, I am not eligible for blogging at all. There are huge gaps in my background, and the older I get, the more they become apparent. Why did I only get two B.A.’s, neither in Literature?

  8. I'm just saying, don't expect seven marvels out of seven, that's all.

    1. Neither do I. Even in Japanese literature.☺️