Junichiro Tanazaki


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 mother."

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 risquEpractice 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.

Stuart Braun

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ISSUES 248/9-