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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 少将滋幹の母 (Captain Shigemoto’s Mother)

This is another historical tale from Tanizaki, set at the beginning of the tenth century. We start with Heiju, who is mentioned in The Tale of Genji. Heiju is described by the translator as an amorist, not a term I have ever used. However, what is meant is what we would call a womaniser or a Don Juan. He appears in the Heichū Monogatari, with some of the story appearing in this novel. Heiju, as he is called here, is a fairly low-ranking official and also lazy in his duties. He spends much of his time chasing (and catching) women but has never remained faithful. However, as Tanizaki tells us early on, there is one exception, Jiju of Hon’in, with whom he fell in love, a love that brought about his downfall. Heiju manages to have good connections. In particular, he is on good terms with the powerful and influential Fujiwara no Tokihira, minister of the Left, who has risen in importance and has recently managed to get his main rival sent into exile. Fujiwara no Tokihira likes a good gossip and Heiju is a good source, as he seems to have slept with virtually every woman of influence in the capital, so Heiju often comes to his house in the evening and they drink and chat. However, Heiju has an ulterior motive. In Fujiwara no Tokihira’s household is a beautiful woman, a woman Heiju wants to seduce. This, of course, is Jiju.

Heiju has found a servant woman, whom he uses to pass messages. However, the messages he passes to Jiju are ignored. Finally he writes to her, asking her to at least acknowledge that he has seen his message. She merely replies I have seen it. Even Heiju, with his success and reputation, decides to give up. This also means he appears less frequently at Fujiwara no Tokihira’s house. However, one day, he does reappear at Fujiwara no Tokihira’s house. When he leaves, it suddenly starts pouring, so he decides to head off to the household quarters and passes a message to the servant woman. Initially, he is again rejected but then, when the door is left open, he goes in. It is dark and he gingerly makes his way to the bed. There is someone there and it seems to be Jiju. She tells him that she has to go and latch the door but then leaves and he is left lying there on his own. However, later in the book, it does seem that there was some relationship between the two.

He again visits Fujiwara no Tokihira but, this time it seems that Fujiwara no Tokihira is aware of the woman and extracts the information out of a reluctant Heiju. We learn that Jiju is, in fact, married to Fujiwara Kunitsune, who is Tokihira’s uncle, though a man of a lower rank than Tokihira. Kunitsune is over seventy but has managed to father a child with Jiju – we soon guess that this must be the eponymous Captain Shigemoto. Kunitsune seems to be admired for his longevity and stamina rather than anything else. Kunitsune had been planning to invite his nephew to his house but realised this would be not in accordance with protocol, so when his nephew invites himself, he is overjoyed, and lays on a lavish reception. Tokihira gets drunk or, rather, seems to get drunk. He mocks Heiju, who is also in attendance, and successfully persuades his uncle to drink a lot and get very drunk. When the reception is over, Tokihira claims he is too drunk to leave so his uncle invites him to stay. Tokihira insists that his uncle should give him a gift greater than the ones he has already given him and eventually Kunitsune gives his nephew the present he wants – Jiju. Tokihira takes her away and she becomes his wife. The next day, with a massive hangover, Kunitsune realises what he has done. He partially regrets it but accepts that, he is now past it and that it is perhaps for the best that she go to Tokihira. Of course, there is one other person who is not happy with the situation – Heiju.

The rest of the book is somewhat bitty. Tokihira dies only a few years later, at the age of thirty-nine. He does, however, have a son by Jiju. Tanizaki takes the view that, because of his treatment of his rival, Michizane Sugawara, the Minister of the Right, Tokihira is being punished, as not only does he die prematurely, so do his sons, both his son by Jiju and his sons by a previous marriage, as well as his other relatives. Indeed, the clan is greatly reduced as a result of this curse. Meanwhile Shigemoto is living with his father. Both father and son are very much missing Jiju. Kunitsune takes to drink and then a Buddhist ritual. Like Heiju, he will find a way to turn against her. However, Shigemoto, who has only seen her briefly since he was seven, never forgets, even when he grows older and this becomes an obsession for him and the best part of the latter part of the book.

Tanizaki, of course, has to stick (to a certain degree) to his sources, which he not only does but explains in great detail what his sources are and what they say. The book inevitably becomes better when he is being creative, such as the dinner when Tokihara snatches Jiju away from her husband his uncle, and the final section. Though published only a year after his great work 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters), it clearly is a lesser work but nonetheless a very enjoyable read.

Publishing history

First published by Mainichi Shinbunsha in 1949
First English translation by Knopf in 1994
Translated by Anthony H Chambers