|BIG IN JAPAN
Lauded as the "the
greatest Japanese novelist of the 20th century," Junichiro Tanazaki' baroque and
titillating writings nearly won him a Nobel Prize for literature his death in 1965 meant
that Kawabata Yasuniri would be the first Japanese writer to take that honor three years
later. From his earliest writings to the infamous "Diary of a Mad Old Man," his
masterpiece of elderly eroticism written at age 76, Junichiro's key theme was women and
sexual obsession, driven, say the critics, by a Freudian obsession with his mother. As one
critic notes, "the typical Tanazaki 'hero' is the Eternal child in pursuit of Eternal
Born in the shitamachi or downtown Tokyo in 1886, Tanazaki was apprenticed as a
writer from an early age, and by his late teens his definitive style, set in opposition to
the prevailing influence of French naturalism, gained him a strong reputation within
Tokyo's literary circles. His key early work, "The Tattooer," the story of a
tattoo artist who wants to engrave his soul, in the shape of a spider, into the skin of a
beautiful women, and thus be enslaved in the web of a sexual demon. This plot set the tone
for a literary oeuvre that would long draw the ire of censors.
But while remembered for his foot fetishes and penchant for sado-masochistic sex,
Tanazaki's first successful novel, "Naomi," published in 1924, is best known for
its insight into Japan's emerging fascination with Western popular culture. A
semi-autobiographical account of a "modern" couple who liked to dress in Western
clothes, watch American movies and engage in the risquEpractice of social dancing -
banned in much of Japan when introduced in the early 1920s - Tanazaki's "Naomi"
played out his own infatuation with the West. Serialized in the Osaka-based Asahi
newspaper, the promiscuous and socially irreverent exploits of Naomi, an aspiring flapper
who wants look and live like a Hollywood movie star, was a bit much for Japan's
conservative reading public and was promptly banned by the censors.
Drawing comparisons with Nabokov's "Lolita," the 15-year-old Naomi portrayed in
the novel displayed the sexual and psychological venom missing from Tanazaki's unhappy
first marriage. In an effort to satisfy his illicit passions, Tanazaki engaged in numerous
affairs, and by the end of a decidedly "active" life was married four times -
usually to women much younger than himself, with his last wife 17 years his junior.
The Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, which forced Tanazaki to relocate his family to the
Kobe-Kyoto area, marked a turning point in his career, and he would never again live in
Tokyo. While having been strongly influenced by Western writers such as Baudelaire and
Oscar Wilde, Tanazaki's exposure to the traditional arts and culture that survived around
Osaka and Kyoto kindled in him the aesthetic splendor of Edo Japan. This "new
exoticism" upset his faith in modernity - a conflict that formed the basis of his
1928 novel, "Some Prefer Nettles" - and Tanazaki was out his three-piece suit
and back into the kimono, spending much of his remaining years reinterpreting Japanese
classics such as the quasi-polygamous "The Tales of Genji."
Women continued to have a big influence on the irrepressible author's work, but they were
now recast as symbols of old world beauty and aesthetic sensibility. Tanazaki's third
wife, Matsuko-a refined beauty well-versed in the traditional arts-is not only said to
have satisfied Tanazaki's disposition for being "treated cruelly," but was the
inspiration for his most revered work, "The Marioka Sisters" (1946), the story
of a family's struggle to maintain the rituals of Japanese life.
Tanazaki's worship of the womanly, or "motherly," form continued until his final
days, and his "Diary of an Mad Old Man" (1965), written in the aftermath of a
severe heart attack, is regarded as the greatest crystallization of a lifelong obsession.