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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 白昼鬼語 (Devils in Daylight)

This early tale by Tanizaki is a fairly short story, in which we can see Edgar Allen Poe’s influence, Tanizaki using the cryptogram of the Poe tale The Gold Bug. Our hero – Takasashi (clearly based on Tanizaki himself) – is a writer. He is interrupted by phone one day, after having worked overnight on a commissioned novel for a magazine, by his friend Sonomura. Sonomura is single, rich and apparently unbalanced. He informs Takasashi that he has certain knowledge that a murder is to take place at a specific time and place and wants Takasashi to accompany him so that the pair can witness (but not intervene in) the murder. Takasashi is naturally reluctant, not least because he has yet to finish his novel and he is very tired. However, he reluctantly agrees to join Sonomura that afternoon if he finishes his novel. He does, of course, finish the novel and hurries over to Sonomura’s house.

Sonomura tells him that he had been at the cinema the previous evening and had sat behind three people. On the left was a woman and next to her two men. The man furthest away from the woman reaches out his arm and touches the woman’s arm behind the back of the man in the middle who is unaware of what is going on. He soon becomes aware that the man is tracing out simple katakana with his fingers to convey a message to the woman. He is suspicious that they seem to be plotting a murder, perhaps of the man in the middle. The woman then hands a piece of paper to the man and he disappears to the bathroom presumably to read it. On his return he screws it up and drops it. It lands at Sonomura’s feet. The man and woman then urge the other man to leave, saying the film is boring. Sonomura picks up the paper and sees it has a set of numbers and symbols on it, like the code used in The Gold Bug.

Sonomura not only breaks the code, even though the message is in English but works out its fairly abstruse meaning, namely that a murder is to take place at a specific time and place. The time is at 1.30 a.m. the next morning in a house with a fishscale mark on it. They head out to where Sonomura thinks this house might be but fail to find the fishscale mark and Takasashi eagerly returns to bed. He is woken in the early hours of the following morning by Sonomura. He now claims he had made an error and knows where they should have gone. Takasashi is naturally reluctant to go out at that late hour but again agrees. This time they have more luck and not only do they find the house with the fishscale mark but can find a place to spy on the room where there seem to be people.

Takasashi’s view is limited. He is peering through a knothole and there seems to be something partially obscuring his view. He soon realises that it is a woman, whose back he is seeing. Eventually she moves somewhat and he gradually realises that, facing her, is a young man with a crew cut and with a camera on a tripod. Also in the room is a metal, Western-style bathtub. Finally, he sees that the woman seems to be holding something on her lap. That something looks remarkably like a corpse. Clearly this couple is up to no good.

When our heroes finally get out, Sonomura is in ecstasy. He has seen the woman and already fallen in love with her. Clearly she is a very attractive woman. The two, in fact, argue, as to whether she is a geisha. Sonomura is determined to meet her, though Takasashi warns him to be careful, saying that the pair could be very dangerous. Takasashi is even more concerned when he finds, Eiko, the woman in the room, in Sonomura’s house a few days later. He later sees Sonomura with Eiko and the man with the crew cut and then finds the man with the crew cut at Sonomura’s house.

This is a fairly short story but Tanizaki tells it well. We can see some of the themes that we will find in his later novels, such as the femme fatale, love of the cinema and his alter ego as narrator and character in the book. Above all, this story is about the obsession of one man, Sonomura, with the femme fatale. Not only is he sexually attracted to her because she is very good-looking (which, apparently, she is) but his sexual attraction is enhanced because she clearly is a dangerous woman playing a dangerous game. Indeed, as a single man with no heirs, he is quite happy to risk his life for the thrill. Inevitably, there is a twist to the story but Tanizaki keeps us guessing to the end.

Publishing history

First published by Shimbun in 1918
First English translation by the New Directions in 2017
Translated by J. Keith Vincent