First I’d like to talk about professional wrestling.
Of course, my intention was to write about Jun’ichiro Tanizaki, but when I reread his works and sat down to think about him as an author, I couldn’t help but want to talk about pro wrestling. Bear with me for just a moment.
These days, pro wrestling is having a boom in Japan. This boom is being driven primarily by the tremendous popularity of the New Japan Pro-Wrestling (NJPW) promotion, which has been churning out various star wrestlers. (Some of you may be familiar with Shinsuke Nakamura, who is active in the United States with World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE)—he was originally an NJPW superstar.)
With such a mass output of star players, though, comes an inevitable oversaturation. For example, in pro wrestling there is the good-guy hero—known as a face (or babyface)—and the bad-guy villain—known as a heel. Lately there has been a proliferation of heels.
Of course, if you were to take the spectacular world of pro wrestling seriously, this would seem like a good thing. But the fact is that, for purely dramatic entertainment value, pre wrestling demands the creation of “characters.” Wrestlers are forced to differentiate themselves from other performers. And therein lies the challenge. Each one needs to set themselves up as a counter to something, but if there are too many counters, you lose track of what they are fighting against.
Then there is Tetsuya Naito.
Originally Naito made his debut as a face. But despite his incomparable physical power as well as remarkable athletic ability, for a long time he remained a lackluster player. There were times when, even though he was a face and his moves were clever and skillful, he actually drew booing from the crowd. No matter how talented he was, or how exciting the matches were, he still got no respect.
Vexed, he went on tour in Mexico and returned triumphantly—but what had happened while he was over there? He had gone rogue.
I had never seen anyone make a lazier entrance. He would thumb his nose at opponents. He was undaunted by the arena. He insulted the very belts that he was competing for.
At first, of course, the crowds booed him furiously. Fans jeered, saying the only reason he had flipped was because nobody liked him anyway. But Naito kept it up. Rather than a deliberate ploy, maybe he’d really just had enough with it all. His true feelings came across. And before they knew it, people fell for Naito. His fan base started to grow, and now Naito is the most popular NJPW wrestler, if not the most popular wrestler in all of Japan.
His strategy of going rogue with sincerity was completely novel. It was a genuine countermove, one that nobody in pro wrestling had ever seen before.
And now, Tanizaki makes his appearance! (Forgive my slip into ringside style.)
He too offers an authentic counterbalance. Let us look to his novel The Makioka Sisters for an explanation as to how and why.Seeing that Tanizaki’s works are being translated again feels just like when you’re ringside and the crowd goes wild.
This work of fiction is said to be a literary masterpiece, held up as a model of beautiful writing style. I agree with this, of course. But, at least when I was younger, I found his descriptions a bit—or perhaps, rather—relentless. The portrayal of the daily lives of these four sisters is meticulously beautiful—however, frankly, sometimes they pushed me to the point of wondering, “Who gives a fuck?” I mean, the kimono patterns, the flower blossom viewings, their favorite foods, the arrangement of their rooms…
But when I reread this book, keeping in mind the period in which it was written, I had a different impression than the first time I encountered it. The story follows an old Osaka family, from the autumn of 1936 through the spring of 1941—in other words, the backdrop is a household just before World War II. Tanizaki began writing it the year after the war broke out.
The sisters’ (and thus, Tanizaki’s) obsession with things was perhaps the most condemnable offense during wartime. That is to say, it was an indulgence, a luxury. This was the era in which people were told that selfless devotion for the sake of their country was paramount, exemplified by the propaganda slogan, “We shall not want until we win.” Heaven forbid the concept of spiritual comfort or material affluence.
In fact, The Makioka Sisters first appeared in 1943, serialized in the January issue of the literary magazine Chuo Koron, and was expected to continue through July, but publication was halted in April 1943 after the second installment. The Information Bureau of the Japanese Army Ministry deemed it “unsuitable for wartime.”
But Tanizaki wrote it anyway. And he kept on writing, relentless in his adherence to those sisters’ daily lives that I could give a fuck about. (In 1944, he even printed a private edition of Book One, which was distributed among his acquaintances, but that too seems to have been halted by the military.) I don’t need to point out that this reckless tenacity was, at the time, the ultimate countermove.
I’ve always thought that the way the novel ends—with one of the younger sisters, Yukiko, suffering from diarrhea—had to be meant as tongue-in-cheek, and exhilaratingly so. Even amidst the various counters that must have existed during wartime, that Tanizaki managed to pull off a finale like that was a feat that no one else had yet accomplished.
Which brings me to The Maids and Devils in Daylight.
The former is a loving and humorous portrayal of the maids who have worked in the Chigura household for generations, while the latter is an eerie and erotic tale, reminiscent of Edogawa Ranpo (and his inspiration, Edgar Allan Poe). These two works exhibit vastly different literary styles, and are thus difficult to summarize together.
Nevertheless, they both share fundamental similarities—that is, an extraordinary obsession with and fetishism of describing the characteristics of women. You might even say that this was a constant theme throughout Tanizaki’s life. For instance, his fixation on the whiteness of the sole of a woman’s foot, the tips of her eyelashes shaped like the teeth of a comb, her lush eyebrows as they draw together. Ah, he’s so meticulous!
But this, too, is a countermove.
Consider the act of reading Tanizaki in modern times—try going to a bookstore. Among the many business and self-improvement books lining the shelves, see if you can count the number of times you see the word “efficient” being used. Get rid of all the things you don’t need! Never waste a single second! Run, run, run! I can’t be the only one who feels as though I’m being barraged with advice.
Some people may not even have the time to get to a bookstore. As the internet continues to change at light speed, social media compels our every response. Click, click, click. We keep scrolling, without even knowing what we’re looking for, forgetting the latest news item as quickly as we ingest it and move on to the next. Almost all of our time has effectively been robbed from us.
Observing things up close and in minute detail, and then meticulously and fetishistically putting everything down in words—not to mention the act of thoroughly reading over all of it. Doesn’t that, in and of itself, run counter to our busy (too busy) modern lives?
Tanizaki’s short story, “The Tattoo,” begins: In those days people still possessed the noble virtue of folly, the world was not the grating struggle that it is now.
Human beings are foolish. Affirming that foolishness, finding light within our foolishness, while serving as a counterweight to enormous power: that is the work of an artist. Seeing that Tanizaki’s works are being translated again feels just like when you’re ringside and the crowd goes wild—and surely there’s nothing wrong with that.
Translated by Allison Markin Powell
The preceding is from the Freeman’s channel at Literary Hub, which features excerpts from the print editions of Freeman’s, along with supplementary writing from contributors past, present and future. The latest issue of Freeman’s, a special edition gathered around the theme of power, featuring work by Margaret Atwood, Elif Shafak, Eula Biss, Aleksandar Hemon and Aminatta Forna, among others, is available now.