It took the wise Junichiro Tanizaki, partial to hanky-panky of all shades, to see that a perfect love triangle (oops — make that a square) involves a cat. True to form, in “A Cat, a Man, and Two Women” Tanizaki flips master and servant, and one of the charms of this light-hearted work, first published in 1936, is to watch feminine ruses get bested by feline cool.

A Cat, a Man, and Two Women, by Junichiro Tanizaki
164 pages
Kodansha International, Fiction.

Set in the Osaka/Kobe area, the story features perhaps the most domestically happy of Tanizaki couples — the slacker Shozo and his tortoiseshell cat Lily. The two roughhouse and cuddle together at night, so intimate that they even share farts under the quilts.

The idyll is ruined when Shozo’s spurned ex-wife, the tough seamstress Shinako, demands Lily as compensation for her loneliness. Is she trying to lure Shozo back, with the cat as bait? Once poor Lily is installed in Shinako’s house, will the bumbling Shozo be able to stay away from the female he cares about most? The plot thickens when the extravagant Fukuko, Shozo’s new wife, gets wind of her husband’s temptation.

This novella was the only fiction Tanizaki wrote during his five years of translating “The Tale of Genji” into modern Japanese. An advocate of the simple life, he must have enjoyed moving from Genji’s refined aristocracy to the kitchenware storeowner Shozo. With psychological insight and keen descriptions of power dynamics and feline caprice, Tanizaki shows real understanding of the “soft paws on tatami” — and perhaps, by extension, also of women.

Read archived reviews of Japanese classics at jtimes.jp/essential.

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