Darkness aside, beauty exists in Tanizaki’s shadows

by Stephen Mansfield

Contributing Writer

In striking contrast to their ancestors, contemporary Japanese seem to adore light, their great cities are electromagnetic centers of brilliance, their living rooms flood-lit like sports stadiums.

In Praise of Shadows, by Junichiro Tanizaki, Translated by Gregory Starr.
98 pages
SORA BOOKS, Nonfiction.

The rallying call of those who survived the “dark valley,” as the 1930s and war years were dubbed, was “akarui seikatsu,” a “bright life.” Postwar shadows, side lighting and intermediate tones were banished, memories of the war subjected to collective amnesia and the eviscerating rays of new forms of illumination. The appreciation of muted light, as Tanizaki infers in his long 1933 essay, “In Praise of Shadows,” had already begun to lapse into a cult of quaintness.

Tanizaki, in Gregory Starr’s new and highly accomplished translation, samples a number of instances where the use and perception of light differs from the West, noting that, where Western paper reflects light, traditional Japanese paper absorbs it. Here we have a preference for the soft and pliant over the brittle. Donald Richie (1924-2013) in his book “A Tractate on Japanese Aesthetics,” posited that the study of aesthetics in the West was “mainly concerned with theories of art, that of Japan has always been concerned with theories of taste.”

The breadth of Tanizaki’s interests include Japanese cuisine, architecture, interior design and the treasures that are concealed or obscured in the shadows and dim recesses of temples. The author celebrates the merits of meager light and perishable, organic materials, noting in the case of the zashiki, the Japanese tatami room, that walls are deliberately made from soil and sand, in order to “let the frail, melancholic, ephemeral light saturate the solemn composure of their earthy tones.”

The writer holds that, for a true appreciation of the beauty of lacquerware, it must be observed in the dimness of half-light. Tanizaki pays keen attention to the shadows that lurk in lintels and in alcoves, sensitive to minute details like the solemn, trance-like beauty of gold-leaf covered doors and screens, caught in morsels of light entering a room from the garden.

An early, and rather famous object of interest in the essay is the traditional Japanese toilet. Tanizaki writes a paean to its aesthetic and experiential virtues, waxing lyrical on the opportunity its use provides to soothe mind and soul while listening to the drone of mosquitoes, drizzling rain or inhaling the scent of leaf-mold in the adjacent garden. The author ultimately reaches the rather extraordinary conclusion that, “of all the many aspects of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the apex of refinement.” The disgust felt by most Japanese now for the traditional squat latrine is a measure of how much they have changed, or an indicator, perhaps, of how sanitation can erase tradition.

Citing the faces of young women in ancient times, lips painted in iridescent reds and greens, teeth blackened, Tanizaki draws our attention to how darkness ignites light, their visages transfixing in the gloom. He also admits that the transcendent, otherworldly beauty reflected on the complexion of such women may be an illusion, a trick of light, time and place.

When reading the text, one senses that Tanizaki, in taking Westerners to task for their putative shortcomings in aesthetic sensitivity and his fellow countryman’s drift away from the shadows, is quite enjoying himself. I ask Starr if he agrees and the translator acknowledges that the author no doubt experienced a frisson of pleasure in finding prose to express the “nostalgia, sorrow, humor, shock, resignation and even anger that he feels from what is going on around him,” adding, “One thing that amazes me is, I didn’t find any real bitterness there.”

One would have to go to considerable lengths today to experience the aesthetic sensations advocated by Tanizaki. Such exquisite moments, far removed from everyday life, might include reading sutras in the light from a votive candle or listening to the scratching of small metal particles placed at the bottom of an iron teapot, an effect said to evoke the souring of wind in pine trees.

Asking Starr what he thought might be the relevance, if any, of a book like this for today’s reader, his view is that little has changed since Tanizaki’s day and that while “much of society seems to feel not the slightest unease at tossing out certain traditions, there are those who find value in looking back and finding new ways to incorporate the past into their present.”

One such person is the notable architect Kengo Kuma, who contributed a well-considered preface to the book. The title remains relevant, Starr concludes, “because darkness and silence is beautiful, and both are getting harder and harder to find.”

The darker spaces, as Tanizaki seems to infer, decelerate time; the absence of light heightens our perception of what little exists. One recalls that in the ghostlier scenes of Edo Period (1603-1868) kabuki, young children were employed to follow actors on stage, illuminating their faces from below with candles, an effect that must have magnified the intensity of the performance.

The shadows, like us, are sentient.