A 55-year-old science lecturer is found naked on a university campus. His student lover has made him strip as a show of devotion — “Get naked to show me your love,” she reportedly demanded — and then scampered off with his clothes. The lecturer resigns, apologizes for “causing considerable trouble,” and returns to living with the student.
This real-life incident happened at Taisho University in 2014 — a testament to the fact that, on the 50-year anniversary of the death of writer Junichiro Tanizaki, there still are fools for love in Japan.
Once deemed by censors as “injurious to public morals” and banned from publishing during World War II, Tanizaki — like no other writer — mined the realm of forbidden fantasies. From subtle eroticism to full-blown pathology, he made poetry of pleasure and torment, the confessions of men who outrageously and deliciously carry things too far.
Fixations and kinks were the fuel of Tanizaki’s oeuvre, from his short story “The Tattooer” in 1910, which has an artist ink a huge spider onto a teenage girl of uncanny beauty, all the way to “Diary of a Mad Old Man,” first published in 1961, in which the protagonist lusts after his daughter-in-law, dreaming that she will trample his grave with her lovely naked feet.
Erotic obsession can be very funny and, for Tanizaki, the eager sheepishness it entails was also very human. He shared the Japanese notion that love always means dependency — somewhere a lecturer is nodding his head — which doesn’t diminish the quality of the sentiment.
Still, the writer’s motif of transgressing characters — men who construct an ideal beloved and then masochistically throw themselves at her feet — begs the question in real life: How does a woman-worshipper, a man hooked on obsession and idealized passions, love a partner of flesh and blood?
Now the Japanese publisher Chuokoron-Shinsha offers answers by releasing “Tanizaki Junichiro-no Koibumi” (“The Love Letters of Junichiro Tanizaki”) — unfortunately, no English translation is currently available. This collection of 288 missives, addressed to his third wife Matsuko and her younger sister Shigeko, starts with the courtship to Matsuko in 1927 and spans 36 years of deepening ambiguity.
To the reader’s delight, Tanizaki behaves like a man in his stories. So much, in fact, that one wonders what the eternal voyeur — whose novel “The Key” has a married couple secretly reading each other’s diaries — would say now about the release of his own love professions, found at his family residence in Tokyo.
“I will give you my body and soul, and everything else,” Tanizaki writes Matsuko in April 1933. At the time, Matsuko was still married to an Osaka merchant, while Tanizaki had a wife and child. In overblown language and excessively honorific terms, he addresses his future wife as his “master” and vows to serve her loyally “even if it should ruin me.”
In December 1933, he aches to Matsuko: “Who massages your back and feet every night? Who do you ask to remove your toilet? Are your toe nails growing too long? How I regret this terrible inconvenience.”
Another show of self-deprecation made Tanizaki alter his signature, from the more noble-sounding “Junichiro,” unfit for a servant, to the lower-class moniker “Junichi,” whose kanji characters imply obeisance. In 1935, when he and Matsuko finally got married, Tanizaki switched again to “Junchi,” which connotes the meaning of “foolish.” A sign of devotion, but also an omen of future peccadilloes.
Worship needs distance to be sustained and, during their childless 30-year marriage, the Tanizakis often lived separately. Junichiro needed a goddess and feared the mundane exposure of marriage would dampen his admiration. A servant to his master in Osaka, he sent letters and money while moving around to new places, citing the need for seclusion to do his writing.
Matsuko inspired the masterpiece “A Portrait of Shunkin” (a tale of literal blind devotion) and, later, along with her Osaka family, a character in the classic “The Makioka Sisters” was modeled on her.
For a time she was everywhere in Tanizaki’s writing and, in a letter from September 1932, he admits his need to revere a woman in order to create:
“You have released my art from a slump. Without a noble lady to worship, I cannot write anything … even thinking of you brings me endless creativity.”
But in the end, the inevitable happened. With the caprice of a footloose sensualist, Tanizaki chased new kicks after WWII, sending letters with money and poems to his wife’s younger sister Shigeko.
In a cruel exchange of muses, he writes to Shigeko in January 1948: “You always make me work quickly. Without you, I couldn’t complete my new piece.”
There is no mention of intimacy, but Shigeko allows that she saw herself as a second Mrs. Tanizaki. Using English loanwords after the war, Junichiro called her his “baby gyangu” — a juvenile gangster princess.
As in some Tanizaki stories, ellipses pervade the correspondence, disrupting the flow of time and hiding emotions. The feelings of Matsuko, who outlived her husband and passed away in 1991, remain mostly unknown.
The last entry of the collection, a 1958 letter from Matsuko to Tanizaki, ends with her abrupt announcement of a visit: “I am coming to Tokyo.” As to the final years of their marriage, both Tanizakis seemed to have remained silent.
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