Seven Japanese Tales (Vintage International) (英語) ペーパーバック – 1996/10/1
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Junichiro Tanizaki’s Seven Japanese Tales collects stories that explore the boundary at which love becomes self-annihilation, where the contemplation of beauty gives way to fetishism, and where tradition becomes an instrument of voluptuous cruelty.
A beautiful blind musician exacts the ultimate sacrifice from the man who is both her disciple and her lover. A tattooist turns the body of an exquisite young girl into a reflection of her predatory inner nature. A young man is erotically imprisoned by memories of his absent mother. Shocking in its content and lyrical in its beauty, these stories represent some of the finest work of one of Japan’s greatest modern writers.
“Tanizaki was meticulous in language, scandalously cautious about sexual politics, masterful in storytelling.”
“At once strange and intimately moving, unfamiliar and yet filled with unmistakable emotions. It would be hard to exaggerate the sensuous beauty which pervades these stories.”
Junichirô Tanizaki’s Seven Japanese Tales are a collection of works from 1910 to 1953. They range in length from a few pages to near novella length. A common theme is the friction and conflicts between older Japanese traditions and the influence of modern sensibilities. His writing ranges from the matter of fact to the evocative. Tanizaki has a taste for the erotic. Where it appears in this collection is in a horrific story the Tattooer. In only ten pages we are exposed to the Japanese version of the demi monde. Its climax is a horrific attack on a younger female of that society who ends the story by accepting and returning this attack. These stories are worth the read. They stand alone as examples of the short story whatever there relation to transitions in Japanese literature from the pre-World War II era into the middle of the 20th century.
The Seven Japanese Tales begin and end with long stories with blindness at their center. In the first a woman from a wealthy family is struck blind at an early age. Her family provides her with a full time attendant and indulges her. She becomes a famous musician and teacher and her extremely loyal attendant follows her into music and even into blindness. In the last story is another blind person. This time a musician/masseuse and servant member to a famous, historic household. This time the story is a nearly historic retelling of the last of the warlord years that ended with the rise of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
The obvious contrast in the stories is the entirely domestic and in the home story arc in the first story and the near total focus on the schemes and betrayals across titled households in the last. Most of the stories between these two tend to the narrower view. A third story is the events of one afternoon between a well to do man and his mistress. She is focused on adorning herself in the styles of Western afluance while his struggle is with his inner neuroses and failing health.
The easy analysis is that these stories are like this last one, about east meet west. I am not a student of Japanese literature in general or Tanizaki in particular. My sense is that Tanizaki was initially interested in writing modern stories rather than traditional ones. By the end of the tales here collected this would have been a completed exercise for him and for Japanese literature. From that point of view the value in these stories is how well they stand absent any question of the traditional verses the modern or Japan versus the west. I think they read as well written stories.
The first brilliant story, "A Portrait of Shunkin" tells the story of a beautiful, sadistic blind woman and her "student" Sasuke. Their relationship is complex and lovely; part Master/Slave, part lovers, and part friendship. The subtle eroticism of this relationship is striking; we can almost feel the desire Sasuke has for the petite, blind, yet strict Shunkin. Tanizaki explores what to Western readers seems like abusive behavior, and makes the Eastern way of thinking crystal clear with these words by a master musician when discussing his strict, sadistic teacher:
"Except for that beating," he would say with tears in his eyes, "I might have spent my whole life as a run-of-the-mill performer."
This first story, "A Portrait of Shunkin" alone is worth the price of the book. The ending is stunning and I would never spoil it here.
There is more greatness here. The third story "The Bridge of Dreams" may be the most strangely erotic piece of writing I have ever read. Full of beautiful Japanese poetry in which has intensely erotic undercurrents, it will change the way you think about relationships. Again, it has a uniquely Japanese perversion to it which is tasteful yet arousing at the same time.
Everything is literal and metaphorical at the same time in this tale. And a poem like this one means more than it appears:
"The stony Shallow Stream-
So pure that even the moon
Seeks it out to dwell in it."
This is magnificent writing.
One of the shortest tales, "The Tattooer" is one of the most vivid. Again, the pages crackle with intense, yet subtle eroticism.
The final long story, "A Blind Man's Tale" is a epic within 50 pages of fighting Samurai and fiefdoms in feudal Japan. Tanizaki brings this potentially dry history to life, revealing the unique vision of the Eastern thoughts on battle and honor.
This may be the most interesting, best set of short stories I have read in the last 20 years. I am eager to read more of the great Tanizaki.
A pretty good collection.