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On Tanizaki: The long arc of Japan’s most highly regarded writers

Editor’s note: British theater company Complicite performs Complicite performs Shun-kin with Setagaya Public Theatre in Ann Arbor Septer 18-21, 2013. Shun-kin is based on a story by Junichiro Tanizaki.


Photo: From Shun-kin. Photo by Stephanie Berger.

In 1933, Tanizaki Junichiro published two of his best-known works: the novella “A Portrait of Shunkin,” which appeared in June, and In Praise of Shadows, an essay on Japanese aesthetics published in December of that year. In many ways these two works are suggestive both of the long arc of Tanizaki’s career as one of Japan’s most highly regarded writers – a career that had begun two decades earlier – and of a new direction Tanizaki’s work would take in the decades following the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923.

Although Tanizaki’s work was characterized from the start of his career by modern and even modernist aesthetic impulses, he was also intensely interested in Japan’s past.  His debut work, “The Tattooer” (1910), which the novelist Nagain Kafu hailed as a masterpiece of modern fiction and which would launch Tanizaki’s career, is set – like “Shunkin” – in Japan’s Edo period (1600-1868) and explores the aesthetic powers of traditional Japanese tattooing, in many ways anticipating themes to which Tanizaki would return two decades later.

But much of Tanizaki’s work in the intervening decades would take up distinctly modern subjects: his “detective” fiction, like “The Thief,” would explore aspects of psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis, and Naomi, Tanizaki’s best known work, uses a Pygmalion-like tale to explore gender relations in contemporary society under the influence of the West. Nothing in this work suggests a writer who would call, in 1933, for a return to the Japanese classics or who would spend decades translating the eleventh-century Tale of Genji into modern Japanese.

In the context of Tanizaki’s work from the 1920s, “Shunkin” represents a return to the themes he explored in “The Tattooer” but also a turn to an interest in traditional Japanese aesthetics that we see more fully developed in his essay In Praise of Shadows and that would occupy Tanizaki through the war years and for much of the rest of his life. And these turns and returns would themselves take place within the larger context of what, in 1938, the poet Hagiwara Sakutaro would call “a return to Japan,” a return to aesthetic practices that had disappeared in the wake of Western-style modernity.

The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 is often used to mark a dividing line in Tanizaki’s career. The earthquake completely leveled the city of Tokyo where Tanizaki was born and raised, and the novelist would spend the next three decades living in the Kansai region—first in Kyoto, then in Kobe, and then in Hyogo Prefecture. In the wake of this move, Tanizaki became preoccupied with aspects of traditional Japanese aesthetics that he would explore in works like “Shunkin” – which focuses on a blind samisen player and her disciple/lover in the first half of the nineteenth century.

But if “Shunkin” takes as its subject what Tanizaki himself would call the “traditional” world of old Japan, it does so through a very modernist narrative which constantly calls into question its own veracity through the device of an “unreliable narrator” – a technique that calls to mind the work of Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, and that Tanizaki had earlier explored in works like “The Thief.” What is interesting about this technique in “Shunkin” is how it seems to suggest a potentially wry reading of Tanizaki’s essay In Praise of Shadows and a more complicated picture of Tanizaki’s relationship to Japan’s past.

One of the most pronounced aspects of “Shunkin” is not just how the narrator himself repeatedly calls into question the veracity of the evidence he uses to piece together the “portrait” of these two nineteenth-century figures, but also how the narrator provokes the reader’s distrust of his own account and his own motives – even if we are ultimately unsure of who the narrator is or what his motives may be. The ‘past’ in “Shunkin” is dim and faded – like the lone surviving photograph of Shunkin – but it is also easily manipulated to tell any story that the narrator decides upon and Tanizaki must surely have sensed how similar was Japan’s past: one could create stories, even fantasies, out of whole cloth with the merest of support, create an entire aesthetic theory like what Tanizaki himself attempts in In Praise of Shadows, but this would always be filtered through the teller’s consciousness, easily manipulated to present a story only loosely based on reality.

It has been common to read In Praise of Shadows earnestly and to take seriously Tanizaki’s call in for a return to a subdued aesthetics that “would push back into the shadows the things that come forward too closely” based on principles most closely associated with Japanese Zen. But the narrative voice in this essay – Tanizaki’s own voice, we presume – is itself quite similar to the voice Tanizaki uses for the narrator in “Shunkin” (written six months earlier) who pieces together Shunkin’s story based on a short manuscript, a single photograph, gossip, rumor, and hearsay mixed together with his own mostly prurient speculation. And just as we begin to doubt the “Shunkin” narrator’s reliability through his digressions and idle speculations, Tanizaki seems intent on provoking his readers when he speculates how different certain technologies – the fountain pen, the camera, the phonograph – might have been had they been invented by the Japanese: “had we invented the phonograph and the radio, how much more faithfully they would reproduce the special character of our voice and our music.”

The idea is arresting but, like the “Shunkin” narrator’s own ruminations on his subject, it remains vague and speculative, and the reader is not always sure how seriously to take Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. But many of the ideas Tanizaki puts forth in this essay have taken hold in thinking about Japanese aesthetics both in Japan and in the West, and it has been common to ignore what the work’s translator, Thomas Harper, called Tanizaki’s “perverse habit of shifting without warning from a tone of high seriousness to something near facetiousness.”

When considering these two works from 1933 together, it has been common to search the ‘nonfiction’ In Praise of Shadows for clues to the world of traditional musicianship presented in the “Shunkin,” the work of fiction. But in many ways it is “Shunkin” itself that provides a clue to understanding not just In Praise of Shadows but so much of Tanizaki’s later career as an often self-conscious and ironic “unreliable narrator” of Japan’s past.