IN 1964, A YEAR before his death at the age of 79, Junichiro Tanizaki was elected to honorary membership in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, the first Japanese to be so honored. Yet a mere ten years earlier Tanizaki's work had been virtually unknown in the English-speaking world. It was in 1955 that Knopf brought out Edward G. Seidensticker's translation of Some Prefer Nettles (originally published in 1929), a novel exploring the pernicious effects on Japan of imported cultural values, and the work of the man whom Donald Keene has called Japan's "finest modern novelist" began to become available.
The mid-'50s marked a time of creative ferment in the introduction to the West of contemporary Japanese literature, with men like Keene, Seidensticker, the late Ivan Morris, Howard Hibbett, John Nathan, and other linguists and scholars (whose study of Japanese had frequently begun in military language schools) turning their talents, postwar, to the formidable literary task. The rest of that decade brought us Snow Country and Thousand Cranes, novels by Yasunari Kawabata, who would be the 1968 Nobel laureate for literature; it marked the beginning of the flow of work into English by Yukio Mishima (still probably better known here for his politically-motivated ritual suicide in 1970 than for splendid fictions like The Temple of the Golden Pavilion); those years introduced us also to the startling novels of Dazai Osamu, as well as to the work of numerous writers of somewhat lesser rank.
Tanizaki's own dense postwar opus, The Makioka Sisters, appeared in translation in 1957, and was followed by The Key in 1960 and The Diary of a Mad Old Man in 1965. But he was a man of letters of enormous energy and productivity, translating European writers, rendering the 11th-century classic The Tale of Genji into modern Japanese, all the while continuing his own prodigious output of stories, essays and novels. An edition of his "Collected Works" was issued while he was still in his forties, but he continued writing for the next 35 years. So it is fortunate that a new crop of Oriental scholars and translators (many of them students of the '50s' pioneers) has now come along to continue the labor of love.
These two novellas were written in the early 1930s, and are said to have been among Tanizaki's own favorite works. In The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi the author invents two "historical" documents which purport to gloss the more conventional and uplifing accounts of the life and times of a 16th-century warlord named Terukatsu (the lord of Musashi). As a lad of 12, Terukatsu witnesses the ceremony of "dressing heads," a barbaric business of making presentable the heads of the enemy taken on the battlefield. This is woman's work, and in a dark, eerie scene, "the air smelling of incense and blood," he is vanquished by the smile on the face of a comely young girl as she goes about her work.
Terukatsu is neither the first nor the last Japanese hero to find a stirring equivalence between sex and mutilation, but in his case the kinkiness goes somewhat further: on his third visit to the grisly salon, he sees the same young woman dressing the head of a samurai without a nose. (Warriors in the thick of things did not always have the leisure to decapitate a fallen enemy; sometimes they would slice off a nose to permit identification at a later time.) Terukatsu feels a strong kinship. "He envied the head for having the girl dress its hair. . . . Becoming a severed head was a necessary condition."
Not long after, Terukatsu himself slays and denoses a feckless enemy daimyo, and at age 15 becomes involved with the beautiful Lady Kikyo, daughter of the man he killed. Kikyo is unaware that Terukatsu is the culprit and tends to blame her husband, Norishige, whose nose (but not his life) she vengefully pursues. Terukatsu is her instrument, and eventually they succeed, the hapless Norishige losing an ear and part of his lip (causing him to "mumble unintelligible blandishments" in his nightly visits to his wife's bedchamber) on the way to the ultimate humiliation.
Arrowroot, the second story, is as different from this intricate, bloody spoof as may be imagined. A writer in quest of material for an historial novel journeys, in 1912, into the mountainous country of Yoshino, southeast of Kyoto. He is accompanied by a friend from college days who is seeking to find out more about his dead mother-- she had been born in that area, but had been "sold as a child into one of the Osaka pleasure districts, and then been adopted by a respectable family before her marriage." Here the author's historical material, and his re- creation of ancient legends, are as accurate as he can make them, yet he is at pains to distinguish the unnamed narrator from himself: Tanizaki had a certain impatience with the narrowly autobiographical approach embraced by many of his contemporaries. The tone of Arrowroot is elegiac, lyrical: The Yoshino River's "rippled surface was like crepe in the path of the wind." Tanizaki cannot resist inventing a document or two, however: the college friend, Tsumura, finds a letter written by his grandmother to his mother, which contains "a lengthy admonition not to waste paper. 'This paper was made by your mama and Orito. . . . Our hands are chapped and cracked and the tips of our fingers torn.' " Tsumura eventually marries his first cousin once removed, but the narrator "never wrote the historical novel I had planned: there was a bit more material than I could handle."
Tanizaki, certainly, wasted no paper. For anyone unfamiliar with his work, these elegant, subtle translations by Anthony H. Chambers, professor of Asian languages at Wesleyan, would make, I think, a splendid place to begin. Certainly the novellas are a valuable addition to the corpus of this 20th-century literary giant, which for us is still emerging.