“I can’t get over all the sexual imperialism in Haruki Murakami,” a writer friend complained recently, as she made her way through the Japanese novelist’s tales of passive, rather feckless men lusting after dewy, elusive young beauties. I didn’t know quite how to tell her that, by Japanese standards, Murakami’s obsessions are mild. The “male gaze” so frowned upon in the West these days has long been the dominant point of view in Japanese literature, and although some writers may claim that what they’re ogling is an emblem of a pure and virginal Japan in danger of being corrupted, that doesn’t begin to diminish the unsettling effect of seeing nymphets being doted on by much older men.
The delicate, lyrical works of Yasunari Kawabata nearly always turn upon a male’s connoisseur interest in a snow-white younger beauty; The Doctor’s Wife, by Sawako Ariyoshi, gives us a woman’s take on a world—the late Edo period—in which a couple feels slighted if a visiting lord doesn’t enjoy fondling their daughter after dinner; even Yukio Mishima, in his early, romantic The Sound of Waves, offers up twenty-two short paragraphs in a row on female divers who are comparing and exulting in their breasts. These days, Japanese women occasionally get their own back, as Amy Yamada, for one, devotes her novels to anatomizing the attractions of hunky black American men; but still, one of the most useful words I learned upon arriving in Japan thirty years ago was the typically cheeky and ingenious Japlish portmanteau term “Loli-com,” to describe an entire nation that can seem afflicted with a “Lolita complex.”
Even against this background, though, Junichiro Tanizaki (who lived from 1886 to 1965) is a special case. Part of what gives his works their often lurid fascination is the gusto with which the novelist indulges his delight in everything girlish: the handwriting, the regional dialects, the hands, and especially the feet of the women on whom his novels are fixated. But the other part is that he so unflinchingly measures the cost of such obsessions. His slippery, impenitent early novels give us the world through the voyeuristic gaze of his heavy-breathing alter egos—but they also step outside those men to expose them as dupes. “For Kaname,” Tanizaki writes of the protagonist of Some Prefer Nettles (1929), “a woman had to be either a goddess or a plaything”; it doesn’t take much to notice that in either case marriage—the central theme of this, as of many of his novels—is not a happy prospect. Tanizaki’s seminal novel, translated as Naomi, bears a Japanese title that literally means “A Fool’s Love,” and much of his early work could bear the same title. Lurching erratically between tragedy and farce, these young books somehow end up becoming juicy first-person accounts of sexual infatuation that can also be read as cautionary tales.
What gives his writing an even wider importance, however, is that,…
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