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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 猫と庄造と二人の女 (A Cat, A Man and Two Women)

As the title shows, there are four main characters in this book but by far the most important is Lily, the cat. Shozo is something of a wastrel. He has drifted around from job to job. He ended up living with his mother and they ran a not very successful kitchenware shop together, with the mother doing most of the work. When he had worked in a restaurant, he had adopted a cat, an English-style tortoiseshell, not very common in Japan. When he left the restaurant, he took the cat, Lily, with him. She is a very affectionate animal and Shozo is very attached to her. His mother is less enthusiastic. She does not like the smell of the cat’s litter tray nor does she like the fact that the cat can open doors but, of course, does not close them, leaving a draught. She eventually persuades Shozo that he should give up the cat, which he reluctantly does. However, despite the fact that the cat is quite a distance away, a few weeks later it turns up at the door, thin and bedraggled but eager to return. Shozo’s mother is so impressed by this display of affection that she agrees to let Shozo keep the cat.

Shozo spends much of his time playing billards and chasing waitresses in cafés but, eventually, he meets a maid, Shinako, and they marry. Shinako is dutiful and well-behaved towards her mother-in-law but shows no affection. Soon Mrs Isshi is spending time with her brother. She disappears for a few days and then Shozo is summoned to collect her, spending a day or two with his uncle and also with his cousin Fukuko, who is as flighty as Shozo but has the advantage of a rich father. Meanwhile, the shop is not doing well and, despite Shinako doing some sewing to help make ends meet, the family is getting into debt. Eventually, Shozo, who is attracted towards the more outward-going Fukuko, divorces Shinako and marries Fukuko. This is the situation at the beginning of the book. Fukuko is no fonder of Lily than Shinako. For example, Shozo says that his favourite food is marinated horse mackerel, which Fukuko does not like. However, she prepares it for him. But when he eats it, he feeds most of it to Lily, to Fukuko’s disgust. When Fukuko receives a letter from Shinako, who is now living with her younger sister and brother-in-law, saying that she is lonely and would like to have Lily, Fukuko is happy to comply, not aware that Shinako has ulterior motives. She, albeit with some difficulty, persuades Shozo to give up Lily, which he eventually does, hoping, of course, that she will return as she did last time.

Shinako has her ulterior motives but, in fact, never really liked the cat and is not too happy about having her. She has difficulty finding sand for the litter box and, with her difficult financial situation, it is hard for her to feed her well. Initially, Lily is clearly not happy. She will not eat or use her litter box. Eventually, she comes round and settles in but when she manages to get out, Shinako is sure that she has gone back to Shozo. Meanwhile, Shozo is missing her terribly and is wondering how he can get to see Lily and, perhaps, entice her back, without either Shinako or Fukuko finding out.

While he was writing this book, Tanizaki was going through his own divorce, though his own story was very different from this one, and he was also in the middle of his massive translation of The Tale of the Genji into modern Japanese. This was something of a distraction for him, not least because he would not write any other novels for some while, because of the political situation. It is certainly light-hearted and none of the characters – with the possible exception of Lily – is anyone we can admire or identify with. Shozo and Fukuku are wastrels, Shozo’s mother sour and poor Shinako, perhaps the only one we can feel sympathy for, is colourless. But it is Lily who rules the novel, who decides what her needs are and who twists the other characters round her paws. It is she who makes this novel so enjoyable.

Publishing history

First published by Sōgensha in 1936
First English translation by Kodansha International in 1990
Translated by Paul McCarthy