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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 蘆刈 (Ashikari; later: The Reed Cutter)

This is not a novel; it is barely even a novella but it has been published jointly with 少将滋幹の母 (Captain Shigemoto’s Mother) in English and, as I read the two together and they have similarities, I have included it here. The similarities between two concern the subject – both deal with Tanizaki’s fascination with the past of his own country and also with his fascination for the somewhat offbeat erotic. In this story, the narrator decides to go and visit the Minase Shrine, built on the site of the Detached Palace of Emperor Gotoba. He tells us something of the history of both the shrine and the emperor. He then wanders off a bit and sees a magnificent view of the river and nearby hills, which he had expected to see, from having read a poem about them that had been written by the emperor. After a meal and some sake, he takes a further flagon of sake with him to admire the view of the moon over the river, a famous view (he also tells us why). When he has finished, he throws the bottle away and immediately hears a voice. It turns out that another man had been watching the moon. They start talking and the other man tells him a story, which is the story of this novella.

The man tells him how his father used to take him every year to Lake Ogura as a child to look at the moon. When they came, they always stopped at mansion, which looked like the mansion of a rich man, and and peered into it. One time, there was a moon-watching party going on and the boy and his father watched it, for while. His father told him that the lady whose party it was was Lady Oyu. Eventually, when he was ten, his father told him why they came. His father had been something of a playboy and had not settled down. Indeed, at the age of twenty-seven he was still single, unlike, for example, his younger sister, at a period when it was customary for people to marry at a relatively young age. His reason was that he had not met any woman he wanted to marry. His father told him about Lady Oyu. She had married when still very young – aged sixteen – into a rich family. She was chosen because she was very beautiful. However, her husband died four or five years later, leaving her a widow at a very young age. However, as she had a son, the custom of the time meant that she could not consider remarriage. Her compensation was that she was looked after by a retinue of servants and had very little to do herself.

One day, the father went to the theatre with his sister and her husband. Lady Oyu was in the box behind them. It turned out that his sister knew Lady Oyu and Lady Oyu’s younger sister, Oshizu. The father was immediately smitten with Lady Oyu but it is made very clear to him that there is no way he can expect to marry her. The father soon became friendly with the two sisters. As he cannot marry Oyu, it is suggested that he marry Oshizu. He is reluctant but Oyu seems to be enthusiastic about the idea. However, when Oshizu tells him that Oyu is attracted to him and that she, Oshizu, is prepared to marry him in name only, so he and Oyu can be close, he concurs. This arrangement seems to work fairly well, though there are rumours, rumours which reach the family. Inevitably, as this is Tanizaki, things take a decidedly erotic turn and also they go wrong, particularly when Oyu neglects her son and he dies.

Tanizaki very cleverly shows the gradual development of the erotic relationship between the father and the two sisters as well as the complications that arise. Both the narrator and we the readers, of course, have one key question – who is the story-teller’s mother – Oyu or Oshizu? And is the story-teller still coming every year to see both the moon and Lady Oyu, who must now be eighty years old? Naturally, Tanizaki gives us a little twist at the end of what is another excellent tale by him.

Publishing history

First published by Sōgensha in 1932
First English translation by Greenwood Press in 1970
Translated by Anthony H. Chambers