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Monday, December 25, 2006

Junichiro Tanizaki - Seven Japanese Tales

"Here, the exploration...leads into a tangle of relationships as bizarre and unhealthy as those of Tanizaki's earlier novel, The Key,"
-from the introduction by translator Howard Hibbett

"Unhealthy" is an apt word to describe the fictional world of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki. Although now accepted as a pillar of modern Japanese literature largely on the basis of his re-translation of Genji and the sprawling novel The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki's early work was better known for its aesthetic obsessions and outre subject matter - a typical Tanizaki story would concern something like stealing a girl's used handkerchief and licking it, or the joys of prostitution in China (John Updike memorably called him 'the most masculine writer of the 20th century'). Compared to Mishima, who dealt with characters at least as fucked up, Tanizaki's protagonists are far less self-conscious, less guilty or conflicted - where a Mishima character would analyze their neuroses in a dense psychological monologue, a Tanizaki protagonist is usually enjoying himself too much to be at all reflective.

As Tanizaki got older, his novels took on more 'literary' themes (i.e., conflict between changing social models, nostalgia for ye olde Japan, and a bunch of other boring shit that usually wins Nobel Prizes). But in these seven tales (they can't really be called 'short stories', as I'll explain later), the old-style Tanizaki comes through. Although their timespan varies greatly, with later-life pieces jostling against early-career stories, the dominant concerns are fairly consistent: incest, masochism, death, and sheer bugfuck insanity.

Okay, so it's not necessarily as out there as that might make it sound: Tanizaki is usually subtle, and cares greatly about prose and narrative framing (just as the wrapping and presentation are often of more importance for the Japanese than the actual gift). In the three novella-length works included here - 'A Portrait of Shunkin', 'The Bridge of Dreams', and 'A Blind Man's Tale', the stories' intrinsic deviance is couched in complex structures that allow for distance and ambiguity. "A Portrait of Shunkin" probably the best-written story here, and wisely sequenced as the first - is a third-person narrative recounted from primary sources, principle among them a biography of Shunkin - a beautiful blind samisen player - likely written by her pupil, servant, and lover Sasuke. As the narrator comes across a picture of Shunkin and other documents, he pieces together the story of Shunkin and Sasuke: their beginnings as master and servant, and the eventual progression, as Shunkin is horribly disfigured and Sasuke blinds himself so as not to lose his mental image of her beauty. Sasuke and Shunkin's relationship, despite its peculiarities, is probably the closest thing to conventional romantic love among all these stories: from then on, it's rough going. Case in point: 'The Bridge of Dreams." See for yourself:

"'You needn't go - I'll be done in a moment. Just stay where you are." And then: "Look! My breasts are so full they hurt!'
I said nothing, and she continued: 'You must remember how you tried to nurse at them till you were twelve or thirteen. You used to fret because nothing would come out, no matter how hard you sucked.'
Mother removed the milking device from her left nipple and placed it over the right one. Her breast swelled up inside the glass receptacle, almost filling it, and a number of tiny streams of milk spurted from her nipple. She emptied the milk into a drinking glass and held it up to show me.
'I told you I'd have a baby someday and there'd be lots of milk for you too, didn't I?'...The next moment, before I realized what I was doing, my hand reached out for the glass, and I took a sip of the sweet white liquid.
'I wonder if you remember how to nurse,' she went on. 'You can try, if you like.' Mother held one of her breasts in her hand and offered me the nipple. 'Just try it and see!'

As you can see, with this story Tanizaki establishes a direct lineage to Miike Takashi, who used the same premise in films like Gozu and Visitor Q (Tanizaki would have loved Miike's work). A novella concerning an old-fashioned Kyoto household and the narrator's relationship with his family, 'The Bridge of Dreams' is about the narrator's stepmother, the young woman encouraged by his father to imitate the previous mother in all ways. Now, this is about the point at which a conventional story would pick up - that is, the new wife's conflict of being compared to her predecessor (i.e., something like Daphne DuMaurier's Rebecca). But Tanizaki doesn't care about any of that; to the narrator of 'The Bridge of Dreams', neither mother can really be distinguished, since both exist solely to fulfill his needs. As the story progresses, the narrator marries a young woman from an aristocratic family, but is less interested in her than in his step-mother, now entirely conflated with his birth mother. The unreliable narration seems to suggest that there never was an original mother to begin with; that the step-mother is in fact the narrator's birth-mother and that Takeshi is his son by her, and the step-mother's hazy history as a geisha in the Gion district is just a fabrication used by the narrator to avoid the psychological reality of incest. This is almost reminiscent of Nabokov in its subtle convolutions, with the uncertainty all the greater in that the chronicle appears to be fairly straight-forward and reliable at first. Just as Sasuke's self-romanticizing account of Shunkin's life can't necessarily be trusted, so the narrator throws doubt on the veracity of his chronicle:

'Of course, all that I record here is true: I do not allow myself the slightest falsehood or distortion. But there are limits even to telling the truth; there is a line one ought not to cross. And so, although I certainly never write anything untrue, neither do I write the whole of the truth. Perhaps I leave part of it unwritten out of consideration for my father, for my mother, for myself...If anyone says that not to tell the whole truth is in fact to lie, that is his own interpretation. I shall not venture to deny it.'

"A Blind Man's Tale" takes advantage of a different narrative form: it's told by a blind masseur to a traveller at an inn, and recounts the blind man's role in taking care of a noble lady at the court of a feudal lord. Apart from the costume-drama window dressing, this is essentially a retelling of 'A Portrait of Shunkin', with the theme of - extremely literal - 'blind devotion' repeated exactly. But 'Shunkin', to my mind, is the better work - while it's interesting to see real-world historical figures like Nobunaga and Hideyoshi caught up in the drama, the protagonist of "A Blind Man's Tale"'s extremely passive role throughout makes the novella feel lifeless at times. The historical approach means events are for the most part just recounted rather than dramatized, and the ending is fairly unspectacular.

As for the shorter pieces, early stories like 'Terror' and 'The Thief' are especially primitive compared with the later constructions, being little more than brief sketches. 'The Thief', in particular, could almost be an Akutagawa story, with the Western equivalent being something like the work of O. Henry or Guy de Maupassant - the operative word being tales rather than short stories, more dependent on twist endings and corkscrew plots than any real character depth. Characterization is not really a strong point here - in fact, Tanizaki can hardly be said to build characters at all. The stories are less the psychological realism often expected of short fiction than they are the enactments of elaborate fantasies. This comes to the fore more in the shorter pieces, most of them written quite early in Tanizaki's career, the earliest ('The Tattooer") dating from 1910. That story is actually one of the more distinctive: it takes advantage of a historical setting like the others, but uses it even more to couch Tanizaki's characteristic concerns of decadence and gaudy beauty. In it, a cruel tattoo artist in the Tokugawa period enjoys tormenting clients with his needles, until he meets, or in fact, creates his match: a beautiful young woman with a hidden streak of evil. After tempting her with scrolls of Chinese princesses strolling among severed heads, the tattooer eventually drugs her and inscribes a tattoo of a giant spider on her back. As she awakens, the girl realizes her true nature, and promises to make the tattoo artist her first victim - much to his relief.

'The Thief' is a more strictly 'tale-like' story, in which the title character is always literally honest in his statements but manages to mislead both his friends and the reader - similar to 'The Bridge of Dreams', but perhaps less subtle. 'Aguri' is about a man who feels his vitality being drained by his fourteen year old mistress as he takes her on a shopping trip for expensive Western clothes. Aguri is a near-duplicate of Naomi, the eponymous protagonist of one of Tanizaki's best novels (discussed by Swifty here). But whereas Naomi was allowed to come to life over the course of a whole novel, becoming a strangely believable embodiment of demonic energy and selfishness, Aguri is in every sense of the word a fiction, just an external embodiment of the narrator's obsessive desires. The story, consisting of little more than the shopping trip, has no real narrative energy, and is largely an excuse to describe Aguri. Particular, perverse attention is paid to the clothing, with its 'fastened buttons and hooks' and the process of measuring Aguri's body. 'Terror' is even more skeletal: a quick sketch of a man afraid of trains. There's some nice fin de siecle paranoia, but little else.

Why read these stories, then, if there are few real sympathetic characters, occasionally weak structure, and no psychological reflections except for the obvious, barely-examined pathologies?

The intensity seems to me the primary reason. When Tanizaki is on, when his interest in a story suddenly peaks, you immediately know - he's capable of hallucinatory freakouts that would give even Mishima and Akutagawa pause, explosions of terror and lust that seem to destroy the fabric of the story itself in their desperate need for expression. Here's this, from 'Aguri':

"Look, Mr. Ghost! I bought this wonderful ring with your money. I bought this beautiful lace-trimmed skirt. And see!' (she pulls up her skirt) 'See these legs you're so fond of? I bought a pair of white silk stockings, and pink garters too - all with your money! Don't you think I have good taste? Don't you think I look angelic? Although you're dead I'm wearing the right clothes for me, just the way you wanted, and I'm having a marvelous time! I'm so happy, really happy! You must be happy too, for having given me all this. Your dreams have come true in me, now that I'm so beautiful, so full of life! Well, Mr. Ghost, my poor Mr. Ghost who can't rest in peace - how about a smile?'
Then I'll hug that cold corpse as hard as I can, hug it till its bones crack, and he screams: 'Stop! I can't bear any more!' If he doesn't give in, I'll love him till his withered skin is torn to shreds, till his last drop of blood is squeezed out, till his dry bones fall apart. Then even a ghost ought to feel satisfied..."

I have to make a note on the translation. Although Howard Hibbett is a consistently excellent translator of Japanese literature who completely pwned on books like Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness, I'm not positive he's the right choice for Tanizaki, a writer of very different emphasis. Take 'The Tattooer', for instance: I feel as if some of the earlier translations better captured the gaudy beauty and decadence of the story. In an earlier translation, a bit at the end where a shaft of light hits the girl's spider tattoo was rendered as 'set fire to the spider' whereas Hibbett has that it was 'wreathed in flame'. "set fire to the spider", to my ear, sounds better than "was wreathed in flame" - the latter is almost a cliche, while the former maintains both the active voice and a nice consonance (the 'f-i-re, sp-i-der sound). Not having read the source material myself I can't comment on the literal accuracy; for all I know, Hibbett got down exactly what Tanizaki intended. Opinions will differ, I guess. (these translation issues, incidentally, are the reason I'm going to retire from reading translated J-lit shortly - I feel like the original version is the only way to go, even if it's a pain in the ass to look up kanji).

The Verdict: Doesn't really work as a collection. The extreme difference in the stories' dates of composition shows, making for a jarring read. Other Tanizaki stories like 'The Golden Death' should have been included instead, and sequenced chronologically (or by length). Why include weak or brief pieces stacked against stand-alone novellas composed decades apart? Why not just put all Tanizaki's novellas ('Captain Shigemoto's Mother', 'The Reed Cutter', 'The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi', as well as those included here) into one large collection and then include all the shorter stories in another? Logic...

Still, any Tanizaki is better than none, and a read-through of 'A Portrait of Shunkin' and 'The Bridge of Dreams' will show why he's held in regard; while the strongest moments from everything else here give an impression of his characteristic obsessive intensity.

Tanizaki hides inside this giant ass until the members of Berryz Koubou wander by. Then he GRABS em!