Books / Reviews

‘Devils in Daylight’ and ‘The Maids’: The literary sleuthing of Junichiro Tanizaki

by Damian Flanagan

Special To The Japan Times

Question: Is it really the case that for a large part of the 20th century Japan enjoyed a golden age of literature? Or is this just misty-eyed nostalgia?

One of the hallmarks of a golden age is an atmosphere of competitive creativity in which a core of superlative talents are pushed to higher achievements by ever-present pressure from the attention of their peers. This was as true of the golden ages of Athenian and Elizabethan drama as it is of Japanese literature at the beginning of the 20th century.

For example, Natsume Soseki, the literary giant of his age, reacted explosively to the creative stimulus of his best friend, the poet Masaoka Shiki, and in turn Soseki entered into the competitive consciousness of the great contemporary novelist Mori Ogai. An entire array of Soseki’s disciples — a collection of both major and minor talents known as “The Soseki Mountain Range” and including the short-story maestro Ryunosuke Akutagawa — would go on to swell the ranks of the literati for the next half-century.

In 1912, Soseki penned a spoof of the outlandish plots and riddles of detective fiction called “To the Spring Equinox and Beyond,” a novel that eventually dispenses with detective narrative altogether, transforming itself into acute social and psychological observation. Soseki was advancing the idea that this is the most worthy form of “detective work” in life.

But rising up in the shadow of Soseki’s death in 1916 was a new generation of Taisho-Era (1912-1926) writers — spearheaded by Junichiro Tanizaki — who perceived that detective fiction was precisely the vehicle with which to bring the sexual and psychological demons that Meiji-Era (1868-1912) authors had so carefully hidden from view into the blinking light of day.

“Devils in Daylight” is a 1918 novella published when Tanizaki was just 31. It was only six years after “To the Spring Equinox and Beyond,” but a minor revolution in modernist sensibility had already occurred. Tanizaki loosely based his plot on Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Gold Bug,” in which a mystery-obsessed character cracks a code to reveal the location of long-buried pirate treasure.

But in Tanizaki’s version, which strikingly recalls Alfred Hitchcock in plot and style, the code-cracking mystery begins in a cinema and takes us on an adventure that leads into the voyeuristic enjoyment of a staged murder. The amateur detective, Sonomura, finally understands that he wishes not just to view murder but to place himself in the power of a femme fatale and be murdered himself.

What is being “dug up” and decoded in “Devils in Daylight” are the deeply buried, perverted desires of the human psyche, and this is an important work in understanding how the detective story in Japan underwent a post-Freudian transformation. In the hands of Tanizaki and his illustrious successor of the 1920s and ’30s, Edogawa Rampo, it becomes a medium for exploring profoundly taboo social, sexual and psychological subjects.

Tanizaki also works with the fascinating concept of advanced “fictive imaginations” — his characters embody the need of our imaginations to spin self-supporting fictions and fantasies, and indulge them on stage and screen, precisely because our deep-seated desires are not being fulfilled — in a word, catharsis. In “Devils in Daylight,” the supreme irony is that the only person who does not have this richness of imagination is the narrator, who works, of course, as a writer of fiction.

J. Keith Vincent offers a stylish literary translation with choice phrases in the story (e.g. “contracted an intimacy”) taken from “The Gold Bug.” There is also a useful afterword in which Vincent traces Tanizaki’s interest in voyeurism from “The Tale of Genji” to modern cinema.

If in 1918 Tanizaki was at the cutting edge of avant-garde fiction in Japan, by the time he published “The Maids,” his final work, 44 years later in 1962, he was a grand old man of Japanese literature. Pitched by New Directions as a kind of spin-off from Tanizaki’s major work, “The Makioka Sisters,” — thereby eliciting numerous reviews in the Western press — “The Maids” (fluently translated and with an afterword by Michael P. Cronin) seems a work of rather more parochial interest. Tanizaki describes, in occasionally over-zealous detail, the comings and goings of maids over a 27-year period in his own thinly fictionalized homes in Uozaki (near Kobe), Kyoto and the spa resort of Atami, Shizuoka Prefecture.

With the social revolutions of the postwar era, Tanizaki struggles to know even how to refer in retrospect to the maids, so transformed had social attitudes become between the 1930s and ’60s. Most of the maids hail from Kagoshima — Tanizaki waxes on about their strange vocabularies — and some are predictably naive, lacking knowledge of even the basic sexual facts of life, while others launch into various affairs.

Tanizaki resided in homes of modest size with the maids occupying a single tiny room and thus living in very close quarters to him. At one point his fictional alter-ego admits that he prefers the company of a maid to that of a geisha.

My mind wandered off while reading “The Maids” and I wound up thinking of Korean director Park Chan-wook’s recent film “The Handmaiden” and how he deftly managed to enclose within the fabric of that film the two aspects of Tanizaki’s fiction on display here: his early fascination with sado-masochistic desires and his delight in the daily intimacies and rituals of female company.

Given his early involvement with the art of cinema — Tanizaki had actually become a literary consultant to a film studio in 1920 — Park’s “The Handmaiden” seems precisely the type of Hitchcockian film that the young Tanizaki would have loved to have sunk his teeth into.