Complicated Liaisons

As one explores Japanese literature, one cannot miss out on Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, one of the most prominent and influential writers in the ambit of modern Japanese literature. Born on July 24, 1886, in the Nihonbashi section of Tokyo, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s literary inclinations manifested at a young age. While attending primary school, he joined a group of friends in starting a hand-copied magazine. His interest in literature grew further once he entered middle and high school. He regularly contributed to his school’s literary journals. When he gained admission to the Tokyo Imperial University, he pursued a degree in literature. Because it was less demanding, Tanizaki majored in Japanese literature, thus, allowing him time to pursue his own writing. A year after entering university, Tanizaki published his first major literary work, a one-act stage play, in a literary magazine of which he was one of the founders.

He started gaining more attention when his short story Shisei (The Tattooer) in 1910. Unfortunately, he was forced to drop out of the university in 1911 because he was no longer able to pay his tuition. While he was born into an affluent family – he even attended private academies to study English and classical Chinese when he was younger – his family experienced a reversal in fortune following the death of Tanizaki’s grandfather, Kyuemon. Kyuemon, a cunning merchant, built the family’s fortune but it was mishandled by Tanizaki’s father, Kuragorō who was not as skilled a merchant as Kyuemon was. This setback, however, did not stop Tanizaki from pursuing his dreams. Driven by passion and dedication, he rose from the quagmires of poverty to become a household name in Japanese literature. He was, at one point, on the cusp of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Among the major works in Tanizaki’s prolific career was Quicksand. Like some of the important literary works of the period, Quicksand was originally published in serial form from 1928 to 1930 for the magazine Kaizō. In 1931, the series was published as a single volume with the title 卍 (Manji). However, it would take six and a half decades before the book would be translated into English. The original version of the book used the Osaka language, considered to be an innovation during its publication. Capturing and preserving the correct tone of the dialect, however, presented a challenge for translators, hence, the lengthy period it took for it to be translated into English. The book was translated into English by Howard Hibbett.

I’m sure you know this better than I, seince you’re a novelist, but our state of mind does seem to change completely, depending on circumstances, doesn’t it? Before, I would have felt a pang of regret, and thought: Ah, I shouldn’t have done that. But by then I was rebellious enough to ridicule my own faintheartedness, asking myself why I was so weak, how I could be so easily intimidated.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Quicksand

Set in Osaka in the 1920s, Quicksand was narrated by Sonoko Kakiuchi to the author of the book. Sonoko approached the writer. Recently widowed, there seemed to be something that she wanted to get out of her chest, burgeoning a pressure she wanted to ease: “Do forgive me for bothering you again, but I simply had to see you today – I want you to hear my side of the story, from beginning to end?” And thus the story commenced. It immediately grabs the reader’s attention. But this also makes the readers wonder what the urgency of the story was about that Sonoko had to reach out to the renowned novelist: “Really, I only wish I could put it all down on paper, like one of your novels, and ask you to read it.” To get to the heart of her dilemma, Sonoko narrated her story, with the occasional interjection of the author’s notes.

For a bit of background. Sonoko was born into an affluent family and was married to Kotaro, a lawyer. Kotaro initially had no plans of practicing law, rather, we wanted to be a part of the academia. However, his German law education was supported by Sonoko’s parents who deemed him the ideal husband for their husband. Although it was never mentioned, this played a seminal role in deciding to ditch his dream of becoming an academic and instead establish his small law practice. His reasons for doing so were never made clear but Sonoko suggested that he was ashamed of taking any form of further support from Sonoko’s well-to-do parents. Despite having a limited clientele due to his inability to get along with other people, Kotaro religiously reported to his office leaving Sonoko to her own devices. But Sonoko is not the type of woman to be shackled to the ground. She was willful and restless.

Sonoko’s restlessness made her enroll in an art class at the Women’s Arts Academy as a form of distraction. But even at the art school, Sonoko was strong-headed, refusing to conform to the norm. Her belligerence caught the attention of the school director who pointed out that her painting of the Willow Kannon bodhisattva barely resembled the live model. Sonoko was not one to back down, arguing that her version was an ideal, not a faithful representation of the model. Soon after, Sonoko found herself at the center of a rumor with a fellow female student from a different class. Sonoko, it was said, made indecent advances to Mitsuko; it was also said that Mitsuko resembled Sonoko’s drawing. Ironically, the two young women never had any interactions until Sonoko arranged for a meeting with Mitsuko to apologize for the rumor.

Mitsuko was beautiful and, like Sonoko, was born into an affluent family. She was single although her parents already have a suitable husband in mind – arranged marriages used to be ubiquitous and so is adopting a prospective husband to preserve the family name which was nearly the case for Kotaro and Sonoko – but Mitsuko did not like the man her parents had in mind. The two young women became closer as one lunch meeting led to another; this further fanned the rumors. They regularly wrote to each other, addressing each other as sisters. They did little to dissuade the rumors. In a way, it was beneficial for Mitsuko as any scandal will suffice for any marriage arrangements to fall through.

Drip-drop, drip-drop… Toinght the gentle spring rain is falling. As I listen to it drenching the paulownia flowers outside ny window, I sit here quietly at my desk in the glow of that red lampshade that you crocheted for me. Somehow it’s a gloomy evening, but when I strain to hear the raindrops run from the eaves I can’t help imagining they’re whispering softly to me: Drip-drop, drip-drop… What can they be whispering?

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Quicksand

In a strange turn of events, the rumors slowly started becoming a reality. The turning point was when Sonoko invited Mitsuko over to her house in order to complete her painting of the Willow Kannon. When Mitsuko undressed, Sonoko was seized by a burning desire that turned into a seduction of the deferential Mitsuko. This snowballed into a torrid love affair. Cognizant of the consequences of the scandal, the two women pretended to be just best friends. Meanwhile, Sonoko has been neglecting her husband, something that did not escape Kotaro’s attention who, at first, was in favor of his wife’s friendship with Mitsuko. A further complication came one evening when Sonoko received an urgent call from a voice she did not recognize at first. This would start the unraveling of the story as this unexpected call ushered in a new character, Watanuki Eijiro, Mitsuko’s fiance.

It was an intricate web and, as the story moved forward, there were more key players than Sonoko expected. The deeper she found herself in love, or at least overcome by her passion, the deeper she found herself in dire straits. She was sinking deeper into a metaphorical quicksand, hence, the book’s English title. She, and the three other main characters, are being sucked into a vortex where actions are irreversible and have paramount consequences. The book’s Japanese title is the four-pronged Buddhist swastika which was an explicit symbol representing the four lovers caught at the center of the narrative.

Love and marriage are indeed complicated businesses. It gets further complicated once passion and lust are thrown into the mix, as portrayed in the story of Sonoko. She was forced into a loveless and passionless marriage which made her channel her passion into other avenues she referred to her husband as “worthless”. Before Mitsuko, she had an affair with another man which Kotaro again noticed but was too passive to act on it. Mitsuko, like Sonoko, was about to suffer the same fate. Love and passion can blind us, and cloud our vision and our logic. This makes us vulnerable to manipulation, especially when our love is unrequited, and in this Tanizaki novel, one-sided love is the norm.

Deceptions, scheming, and histrionics start to figure in. Love and passion turn into obsessions. Obsession then turns into jealousy. But despite the deceit, we tend to overlook the flaws that the person we love has. In today’s parlance, these are red flags. Even if the red flags are waving mightily up in the sky, we turn a blind eye, believing that our love is a stronger force and that our love can transform. It then turns into a cycle of forgiveness and forgetting. The worse thing is that we refuse to see the situation for what it is; again, we are blinded by love, or maybe even by our physical desire. We refuse to acknowledge that we have been deceived by the person we loved the most. This was most palpable in the author’s observation: “The widow Kakiuchi seemed unaffected by her recent ordeal. Her dress and manner were bright, even showy, just as they had been a year before.”

Gasping for breath, I was on the verge of crying out: How dare you all try to make such a fool of me! Just wait and see! But even as that thought obsessed me, I realized that my heart was beating wildly, like the throb of sake being poured from a cask; soon I noticed that my husband’s heart was throbbing the same way and that his hot breath was coming out in gasps too. Our breathing and our palpitations grew more and more violent, in the same rhythm, till it seemed that both our hearts were about to burst, when all at once I felt my husband’s arms tight around me.”

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Quicksand

Tanizaki is a skilled storyteller and he also has a gift for fleshing out eclectic, complex, and contrasting characters. The four individual merits of the main characters gave the story interesting textures. Sonoko, the catalyst for the novel’s main action, while subtly resisting society’s expectations of women, was also immature and decadent. Kotaro, on the other hand, was her antithesis. He was naive, timid, and lacked passion. This veneer, however, belies an opportunist. Watanuki was impotent – Sonoko described him as effeminate – but he was charming. His charm masked his narcissistic tendencies. The heart of the story, however, was Mitsuko. She possessed a beauty that was beguiling, the very definition of a femme fatale. She knew the power she holds and she had no scruples in using it to her advantage. This makes her an even more dangerous, if not interesting character.

Quicksand, however, is no mere story of entangled lovers. Tanizaki grappled with the complexities of human nature by diving deep into our desires, something that is common in the ambit of literature. However, in a society renowned for being patriarchal and conservative, Quicksand stands out in its exploration of erotic obsession and lesbian relationships. In a way, Tanizaki was challenging social norms and, in effect, making literature straddle uncharted territories. It was also a depiction of the changing attitudes as the story was juxtaposed to a traditional society on the brink of modernity.

At once the story of four lovers and of a society in transition, Quicksand is a lush novel with an intricate plot brimming with twists and turns that keep the readers riveted. But what also keeps the readers riveted was Sonoko’s narration. Lest we forget, the story was told entirely from her point of view. How reliable of a narrator is she? But this is a secondary concern because, overall, Tanizaki delivered an intriguing story while scintillating with his descriptions of the pre-war Osaka Showa era. He made readers walk through Osaka’s pleasure quarters while contrasting it with the refined homes in Hanshin. Meanwhile, sexual tension permeated the story’s atmosphere but, ironically, there were scant details of any explicit sexual acts. This further underscored Tanizaki’s skills as a storyteller and writer.



Characters (30%) – 23%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

My journey across Japanese literature has introduced me to writers whose works I wouldn’t normally read. Must-read lists were a great factor too. Among these writers was Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965), who I eventually learned is one of the most influential and most popular names in the ambit of Japanese literature, and world literature in general. He was even on the cusp of being awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. One of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes was named after him. He first delighted me with Some Prefer Nettles, perhaps his most popular work. This prompted me to explore his prose further. The Makioka Sisters was one of the books I have been looking forward to. It lived up to my expectations. Now Quicksand is an entirely different matter. Compared to the first two novels by Tanizaki I read, this was more provocative. What drew me in was the fact that it grappled with a subject – lesbian/homosexual relationships – I have, so far, not encountered in Japanese literature. It is also important to note that it was set in the 1920s when societies were more conservative. There were some blips but that was expected. Quicksand was, nevertheless, a riveting read that showed me a different dimension of Tanizaki’s prose.

Book Specs

Author: Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (谷崎 潤一郎, Tanizaki Jun’ichirō)
Translator (from Japanese): Howard Hibbett
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
Publishing Date: 1993 (April 1931)
Number of Pages: 224
Genre: Literary


The voice is insistent, attractive, persuasive – the voice of a cultured Osaka lady, unfortunately, widowed young. Sonoko Kakiuchi’s story, however, is unsettlingly at odds with her image. It is a tale of infatuation and deceit, of deliberate evil. Its theme is humiliation, its victim Sonoko’s mild-mannered husband. And at its center – seducing, manipulating, enslaving – is one of the most extraordinary characters ever created by the great Japanese novelist Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, the beautiful and totally corrupt art student Mitsuko.

Partly a black comedy – the plot sometimes resembles bedroom farce – partly an exploration of sexual obsession and pain, Quicksand is the last major Tanizaki novel to be translated, largely because of the extreme difficulty in capturing the narrator’s precise tone in English. In this Howard Hibbett has succeeded brilliantly. As a masterwork on the level of Some Prefer Nettles and Diary of a Mad Old Man, and as a triumph of the translator’s art, Quicksand is both important and totally engrossing.

About the Author

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