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Junichiro Tanizaki, the Greatest Epic Novelist You’ve Probably Never Heard Of

R. William Attwood By R. William Attwood Published on April 16, 2017
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In Japan, Junichiro Tanizaki is a household name—at least in the households of book-lovers—but he’s not well known in the West. A first encounter with his masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters, can be unnerving for a Western reader. Here is an epic novel of family life to compare with Middlemarch or War and Peace, but somehow you’ve never heard of it.

The Makioka Sisters concerns itself with the classic problem of the novel: who should the younger members of the family marry? And like Middlemarch or War and Peace, it spins from this intimate problem a portrait of an entire society in crisis. Despite these similarities with the most familiar of European novels, however, Tanizaki’s masterpiece is distinctively Japanese, and even with its nineteenth-century concerns it’s a thoroughly twentieth-century work of art.

It opens in a dressing room. Two sisters help each other with powder and underclothes while they discuss a potential suitor for their sister Yukiko. Nothing, in other words, to embarrass Jane Austen. But this suitor ‘works in an office, M.B. Chemical Industries.’

‘Is he well-off?’

He makes a hundred-seventy or eighty yen a month, possibly two hundred fifty with bonuses.’

‘M.B. Chemical Industries—a French company?’ 
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Taeko, the youngest sister, understands something her older sister grasps only faintly. In Osaka in 1936, with the Second World War looming, a European language is a potent asset. But Taeko’s intimacy with Western mores has severe drawbacks. Her belief that marriage should be an expression of romantic love led her to elope with an unsuitable man. She returned to her family, but not before a local newspaper got hold of the scandal and to make matters worse accidentally printed Yukiko’s name instead of Taeko’s. Yukiko is almost thirty, and where the proud Makiokas once turned away suitors for her hand, now they must take seriously even a man who ‘you can tell at a glance’ is ‘a middling office worker.’

Junichiro Tanizaki was born in 1886 in Tokyo, to a prosperous family. He studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University, where he began writing fiction, but like the Makiokas’ his family’s fortunes declined and he was eventually forced to drop out because he couldn’t afford the tuition. He developed an infatuation with Western culture and moved to Yokohama in order to live in a Western-style house in an expatriate neighborhood.

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His first published work of fiction was a short story called ‘The Tattooer,’ in which a young woman is transformed into a sadomasochistic femme fatale by the acquisition of a giant spider tattoo. Although Tanizaki’s early work went on to explore many themes and styles, an interest in the erotic—sadomasochism, voyeurism, incest—remained a constant. To the many readers who discover Tanizaki through The Makioka Sisters, this comes as something of a surprise. The Makioka Sisters is completely free of anything overtly erotic, and while you might expect the author of ‘The Tattooer’ to have difficulty creating fully-rounded female characters, the titular sisters of his greatest novel are some of the most lifelike characters in all of literature. So how did the author of ‘The Tattooer’ become the author of The Makioka Sisters?

One of the Western imports that fascinated Tanizaki in his youth was cinema, and during his time in Yokohama he wrote several screenplays. He is credited with bringing to Japanese cinema the modernist themes that were developing at that time in the West, but more important than his influence on cinema is the influence cinema had on him. When he returned to fiction—after an earthquake destroyed his house in Yokohama—his style was transformed.

Some Prefer Nettles (1928) is the novel in which he first wrestles with his love of Western culture and turns towards Japanese 

tradition. Its protagonist Kaname finds his obsession with Hollywood movies and their starlets displaced by a new obsession, with his father’s traditional bunraku puppets and Japanese mistress. 

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In spite of this theme, the prose of Some Prefer Nettles has a visual clarity and a detailed naturalism that feels cinematic. Hand-in-hand with this more cinematic style comes a more sophisticated approach to erotic themes. Tanizaki pokes fun at Kaname’s objectification of the women in his life by having him discover his ideal partner in a painted bunraku puppet.

By the time he came to write The Makioka Sisters (around 1943), Tanizaki had developed a still more cinematic style, whose techniques mimic those of the modernist filmmaking he espoused. The Makioka Sisters patiently records each detail of his characters’ lives with the unblinking and non-judgmental gaze of a camera. Ordinary events are captured with a close-up clarity which makes them dazzling.

Although there is nothing explicitly erotic about this vision, there is a kind of voyeurism to it.

In the novel’s opening dressing-room scene, we are watching the characters dress, after all. But the ‘camera’ doesn’t linger on Sachiko’s under-kimono for a moment longer than it lingers on Taeko’s moment of condescension as she explains to her older sister that M.B. Chemical is a French company. The ‘camera’ of the novel sees everything, and it cares about everything.

This level gaze can be audacious. Taeko’s near-death experience in a devastating flood shares equal billing with her efforts, when she gets home, to dry her clothes. Nor does the ‘camera’ flinch from the kinds of embarrassing mishaps that don’t normally make it into novels—memorably, Yukiko is struck with diarrhoea on a train—or from moments of pointless, unheroic suffering. We observe fevers, infections, gangrene.

Sachiko, the first sister we meet and the novel’s main character, is modelled on Tanizaki’s third wife, and it’s tempting to feel that the novel’s constant gaze invites us to see Sachiko as the novelist sees his wife. Each and every fleeting moment of her life is precious to him, worth recording in detail. If this gaze—constant, unwavering, even hungry—is voyeurism, then it is the voyeurism of a grown-up. 

The incestuous anxieties of Tanizaki’s early writing have also matured, in The Makioka Sisters, into an understanding that familial love and married love have a great deal in common. One of the novel’s most sensual and joyful moments occurs when Taeko allows her kimono to hang open as she dresses with her sisters. We sympathise with Taeko’s pleasure in her ‘Western’ liberatedness, as well as with her sisters’ shock and, perhaps, envy. Sister-love is every bit as hungry and devoted as husband-love.

After the latest in a long series of miai—the ceremonial first meeting between a woman and a prospective suitor—Yukiko waits to be summoned to Tokyo, to the house of her stern oldest sister, away from Sachiko, who has done her best to help Yukiko through what has turned out to be a bruising experience. Throughout, Sachiko has herself been pregnant, and now she has lost the baby. As she steps outside for the first time since her miscarriage, Sachiko spots Yukiko in the garden. She observes her sister with the same loving attention the novel lavishes on its characters:

Yukiko circled the flower bed, inspected the budding branches of the lilac by the pond, picked up the cat Bell, and knelt for a moment under a round-clipped gardenia bush. Sachiko, who could only see her head bob as Yukiko rubbed her cheek against Bell, knew well enough without seeing her face what Yukiko was thinking: that she would soon be called back to Tokyo, and that she hated to leave spring in this garden behind. And she was perhaps praying that she might still be here to see the lilac in bloom.

Tanizaki’s English translator, Edward Seidensticker, decided that there was no way to the convey the full sense of the novel’s Japanese title. It’s Sasameyuki, which means ‘Lightly Falling Snow’ or ‘Light Snowfall.’ This image is often paired with the image of falling cherry blossom in Japanese poetry and invokes hanami, the traditional pastime of ‘flower viewing.’ The sisters engage in this ritual every year, going to Kyoto to view the first falling cherry blossoms, and the arrival of this season marks time in the novel. The Makioka SistersSasameyuki—is preoccupied with the beauty and the sadness of transient moments, but in the end it shows us how life’s flurry of fleeting moments drift and bank into something substantial and enduring: love.

I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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