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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 黒白 (In Black and White)

This work by Tanizaki is little known even in Japan. It was first serialised in a Japanese newspaper and then never published as a separate work (though longer than some of his other works which were published separately). It was subsequently only published in his collected works, first issued in 1957. It has never been published before in English or, as far as I can see, in another language, except French, also this year (2018). Japanese scholars have also more or less neglected it.

Our hero is Mr Mizuno. Mizuno is divorced and lives on his own in a boarding house. He seems to enjoy being divorced, spending his time and money, when not working, drinking, eating and visiting the local brothels. He works as a crime writer, writing stories for a newspaper. Though he seems to have had some success – he is well-reviewed by the critics and, though he has no close friends, he does move in literary circles – he is always broke. Indeed, he owes a considerable amount of money to People, the newspaper he primarily works for, as well as to pretty well all of the local brothels.

At the start of the novel, he has just finished writing a new story for People. It is quite a clever story and is meant to show the perfect murder. Basically, the murderer kills a man he barely knows. Mizuno tends to base the murderer on himself. Like Mizuno, the murderer is a literary man. The victim – Codama – is based on a man Mizuno knows, a man called Cojima, who works for a magazine. The protagonist has only met Codama a few times at the magazine and occasionally bumped into him in the street as is the case with Mizuno and Cojima.

Why has Mizuno modelled his victim on Cojima? His answer is simply that Cojima seemed like the sort of man to get murdered. As for the protagonist’s motive, there wasn’t one or, rather, it was simply evil for evil’s sake. With no obvious motive and scant connection to the victim, the protagonist felt sure he would get away with it.

Mizuno has now submitted his manuscript to the newspaper when he suddenly remembers a possible mistake. Did he call Codama Cojima by mistake, at least in part of the story? He starts fretting about this, because, if Cojima really is murdered, not only will Cojima be readily identified in the story but so will he, as the murderer is very much like him. He phones the newspaper and asks them to correct the name it but it is too late.

He is now so worried that someone will murder Cojima and he will be accused that he decides to make sure he has an alibi. He pretends to the maid in the boarding house that he has gonorrhoea(!) which means frequent visits to the toilet and others in the boarding house will see him going. However, the newspaper appears, getting poor reviews, and no-one seems to notice his mistake, which turns out he only made three times. He discusses it with the editor, who also had not noticed it.

He now starts working on another story, a follow-up about a man who writes the first story and then discovers that there really is a man who resembles Codama, who is then killed. The police investigate and, under pressure, he confesses.

However, gradually, nothing seems to happen. He bumps into Cojima who mentions nothing and is clearly very much alive. More importantly, he meets a German woman, who is clearly a prostitute and this distracts him. Indeed, she agrees to meet him twice a week – for a fee, of course. He struggles to raise the money but does. She meets him at the station with a hired car and takes him to a house, in an area of Yokohama he does not know and, as it is dark, he does not know where he has been. Nor is he sure of her name.

This mise en abyme technique, the story within the story, is very cleverly done by Tanizaki. Mizuno gets himself very worked up about the possibility of Cojima being murdered and he being blamed for the murder, as he had prefigured it in his story. You would have thought that the chance of Cojima being murdered – and murdered by an unknown assailant – were very slim. However, this is a novel; moreover we are told Cojima has long walk home in the dark, so Mizuno works himself up into a state about the possibility.

Mizuno is not a very loveable character. It seems it was he who left his wife and he has no regrets about it. He spends much of his time and money at brothels. He eats and drinks a lot. He seems to have few scruples and few morals and is concerned only with his own immediate gratification. He is prepared to cheat and lie and does both on more than one occasion in this book. In short, he is a not atypical Tanizaki hero. The eroticism Mizuno seeks is also a typical Tanizaki trait.

As always, Tanizaki tells his tale well, both the clever plot and the way Mizuno is easily distracted both from his concern about being blamed for Cojima’s hypothetical murder and from his writing chores which, after all, pays his bills (though, in his case, not all of them).

There are three other major characters, none of whom we can feel a great deal of sympathy for. Cojima seems a weak man, as is Nakazawa, Mizuno’s editor. The mysterious Shadow Man, who probably only exists in Mizuno’s imagination, and is the murderer, we cannot really judge, not least because he stays in the shadows. The only character who seems to know what she is doing and where she is going is the very devious Fräulein Hindenburg (which is almost certainly not her real name), the German prostitute. In other words, there is no character in this book we might wish to identify with and it is maybe because of this that the book was never published separately in Japanese and never appeared in translation till ninety yeas after its first publication.

Publishing history

First published by in 1928 by the Asahi Shimbun newspapers; never published as a separate volume but only in his collected works in 1957
First English translation by the Columbia University Press in 2018
Translated by Phyllis I Lyons