Author: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publisher: Vintage International
Publishing Date: October 1995
Number of Pages: 202 pages
Genre: Fiction, Japanese Literature
It is the 1920s in Tokyo, and Kaname and his wife Misako are trapped in a parody of a progressive Western marriage. No longer attracted to each other, they have long since stopped sleeping together and Kaname has sanctioned his wife’s liaisons with another man. But at the heart of their arrangement lies a sadness that impels Kaname to take refuge in the past, in the serene rituals of the classical puppet theater – and in a growing fixation with his father-in-law’s mistress.
Japanese Culture and the Essential Tanizaki
Japanese fiction will always be close to my heart. I started with Murakami before diving into the diverse works of the likes of Kazuo Ishiguro, and Yasunari Kawabata. Their impressive mastery of the prose made me explore other Japanese authors and the latest one of them is Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. My familiarity of him and his works was derived from my countless encounters with his works in must-read lists. True to my resolve, I was led to my first Tanizaki work – Some Prefer Nettles.
In Some Prefer Nettles, Tanizaki introduces his readers to Kaname and Misako, a couple whose marriage is slowly descending into oblivion. As the chasm that separated the couple keeps on getting wider, divorce is starting to become an inevitable solution. Their marriage lacks the very essential foundation of the institution – love. Bereft of this chief emotion, they have long since stopped sleeping together; the direction their marriage is descending into is palpable.
However, there are important matters that they must consider before trudging down that path of finality. The most important consideration is their son. How are they going to deliver the news to him? Then there is Misako’s father, a traditionalist who abides by the laws of his culture. Yes, the novel is 1920s Japan, a period when Japan is showing stern resistance against the influence of other cultures, particularly that of the West.
“She was in many ways timid and indecisive, but she had a hard core that made her resist he demands of custom, duty, friendship, more strongly than Kaname himself could.” ~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles
Some Prefer Nettles is sprinkled with some details of Tanizaki’s life. The primary inspiration of the story is, coincidentally, his own stormy marriage. Amongst his works, this is the most autobiographical. It seems that writers from his era love incorporating personal details into their works. Take F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night for instance.
It is in the guise of Kaname and Misako’s embattled marriage that Tanizaki shrouded the novel’s centrifugal point – the shift of Japanese culture towards western ideals. Tanizaki is renowned for his takes on this shift as he was writing in a period when these kinds of shifts are viewed as essentially taboo. Japan is, after all, remains a strongly traditionalist nation.
Tanizaki broke down the nuances of Japanese culture in carefully structured passages and sentences. The novel is awash with several allusions to different facets of Japanese culture and society. One fine example is the usage of Japanese cuisine to embody the complexity of relationships amongst the characters. The characters are very critical of the preparation and even the origin of food as this serves as bases to their judgments.
Another aspect of Japanese culture that was highlighted is the Japanese’s fascination with the traditional Japanese theater. One of the puppets, Koharu, caught Kaname’s attention as he deems her the epitome of the ideal woman. This blur between what is reality and what is fantasy is showcased as well on Kaname’s perception of divorce, the Western version of it that is. Kaneme’s fascination with fantasy is highlighted through out the narrative, especially romanticized perception of Western ideals.
“He preferred to live quietly, unobtrusively, casting no dishonor on his ancestors, a member of the leisure class—a marginal member perhaps, but still a member—with the capital, somewhat diminished, that his father had left, and with at least the nominal title of director of his father’s company.” ~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles
The role of culture and tradition plays in the Japanese’ daily lives was palpably portrayed. Misako’s father tried to engage Kaname and Misako in the arts of Japan in order to extricate the deepening influence of Western culture. The stern stance of the traditionalist against Westernization of their culture is a major plot device in Japanese novels. The dichotomy and the rift between these two cultures can also be gleaned from the works of Ishiguro and Kawabata.
The shift towards more liberal mindset was highlighted all throughout the novel. It wasn’t just about the culture but also was also in the perceptions about things that were digression from the Japanese culture. On a query about having extra-marital affair, Misako responded, “But I’ve wanted to be loved more than I have been, even if it meant being used.” In spite of their proclivities, the Kaname and Misako still opted to tiptoe around sensitivities of their own culture.
Technically, one of the most riveting facet about the novel is its structure. The novel’s structure was patterned after that of a theater performance. Ironically, at the onset of the story, the couple, together with Misako’s father and his mistress, watched a bunraku performance. This performance is a foreshadowing and possesses deeper implications in the story.
The main characters’ life was filled with artifice; it is but a series of performance to appease the society. Kaname and Misako’s marriage is a parody that slowly skidded into a farcical loop that the couple is forced to live with. Throughout the narrative, Tanizaki reminded the readers of this aspect of the story. Even the couple’s son became immersed in the performance. The biggest allusion to a performance is found in the novel’s parting words as a wooden doll transformed into a woman.
“The reason for their decision to separate, after all, was that they did not want to grow old, that they wanted to be free to live their youth again.” ~ Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Some Prefer Nettles
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki without a doubt was bestowed with the same gift that his fellow Japanese authors possess. The Japanese do have a long tradition of great writers spanning more than a millennium. Tanizaki carried on this tradition and using his pen, he skillfully painted an exquisite narrative. In the process, he also shared a part of his own story. His writing, for the lack of a better word, is impeccable.
Some Prefer Nettles has the blueprint that Japanese fiction is quite known for. On the surface, it is about marriage, particularly that of the author. But it is more than that, it is about the dissonance between Western culture and a traditionalist culture. It is my first Tanizaki novel and I am already impressed although I heard that this is not one of his best. It is still an impressive feat considering the complexity of subject matter that he dealt with. Or perhaps Japanese fiction simply has a place in my heart that is difficult to replace?
Whatever it is, I am very much looking forward to my next Tanizaki novel. I am fervently hoping that I can avail a copy of his The Makioka Sisters because many deem it as his chef-d’oeuvre. For now, happy reading!
About the Author
(Picture by Wikipedia) Jun’ichirō Tanizaki was born in Tokyo, Japan on July 24, 1886
In spite of financial problems, Tanizaki attended the Tokyo First Middle School. After graduating, he attended the Literature Department of Tokyo Imperial University. Due to his inability to pay his tuition, he had to drop out in 1911. During his university days, he started his literary career. His first published work is a one-act stage play but it was in the publication of the short story Shisei (“The Tattooer”) in 1910 that he gained attention for his literary skills.
After the earthquake of 1923, Tanizaki moved to the Kyoto-Osaka region. After his move, he published his first successful novel, Chijin No Ai (“Naomi”, 1924-25). His other works include The Makioka Sisters (1943- 48), Some Prefer Nettles (1928), Arrowroot (1931) and A Portrait of Shunkin (1933). Tanizaki also published translations of the Japanese classic The Tale of Genji. Several of his novels, like Quicksand (1930), The Key (1956), and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961) were adapted into films.
Through his literary endeavor, Tanizaki earned several accolades including Japan’s Imperial Prize in Literature in 1949. In 1964, he was one of six writers shortlisted for the Nobel Peace Prize in Literature. In 1965, he became the first Japanese writer to be elected as an honorary member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Tanizaki passed away on July 30, 1965.