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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 鍵 (The Key)

This is probably Tanizaki’s most controversial novel, as it consists entirely of diary entries of a husband and wife who are playing an erotic game. The key players are the unnamed husband (his wife simply refers to him as my husband), his wife, Ikuko, their adult daughter, Toshiko, and their (male) friend Kimura. Kimura is someone they have considered as a possible husband for Toshiko but he seems to be more attracted to Ikuko. The story starts when the husband tells us that he has been writing a diary and that he has hidden it and kept the key to the drawer hidden but wonders whether Ikuko has ever found the key and looked at his diary. Indeed, he rather hope that she has. At about this time Ikuko decides to start writing a diary. She is well aware that her husband is writing one and she also knows that he keeps it locked away. She had, indeed, found the key but did not look at his diary.

The couple do seem to still love one another but the husband, while still physically attracted to his wife, feels that his performance has not been up to par of late. She, while still loving him, is not particularly attracted to him and complains that he does not satisfy her sexually. She admits that this might be partially her fault, as she is very conventional in her sexual activities and is not interested in anything slightly different, which her husband yearns for. (I’ve begun to think our marriage was a dreadful mistake. There must have been a better partner for me, and for him too; we simply can’t agree in our sexual tastes. and I violently dislike my husband, and just as violently love him. No matter how much he disgusts me I shall never give myself to another man.) Her husband wears glasses and, while she can more or less tolerate him when he is wearing his glasses, she finds him repulsive when he takes them off, when they go to bed so, as a result, she only wants sex in the dark.

Kimura seems to come round frequently and it is reasonably clear that Toshiko is not interested in him. When he suggest they go to the cinema, Toshiko asks her mother to accompany them, which she invariably does. However, it is becoming increasingly apparent to the husband that Kimura is attracted to Ikuko. Gradually, there seems to be some flirtation between Kimura and Ikuko and instead of being jealous this seems to turn the husband on and make their sex life more passionate. They have started drinking, particularly when Kimura is there, and one night Ikuko gets very drunk and almost passes out. She leaves the two men and the husband later finds her, unconscious, in the bath. He gets her out and, with the help of Kimura, gets her to bed. She sleeps a long time. The husband takes advantage of this to undress and examine her naked body, something he had not been able to do before. She, we later learn from her diary entry, imagines that she is having sex with Kimura. Indeed, in future, their love life is more passionate, as she imagines that it is Kimura rather than her husband who she is having sex with.

Meanwhile, Toshiko decides to move out. Her mother suspect that she thinks that her father is taking advantage, sexually, of her mother, though, obviously, she is not aware of the full story. Kimura now offers the couple a Polaroid camera, something quite rare in Japan at that time. It is not clear to them why he is doing so but the husband takes advantage of it to take naked pictures of his wife while she is asleep. However, he does not like the Polaroid so soon reverts to a conventional camera and asks Kimura to develop the pictures. These photos he sticks into his diary, a diary which Ikuko accidentally catches a glimpse of. Meanwhile, the husband starts having health problems.

Though we might well guess what all this will lead to, Tanizaki has one or two surprises, not least of which is the role of Toshiko. This novel is a decidedly erotic novel and one which deals in more detail than some of his other novels with the issue of sexuality in old age, May-December relationships and adultery. It is a very clever novel and one which is both titillating while at the same time providing Tanizaki’s normally astute psychological insight into male-female relationships. It remains one of Tanizaki’s most important and interesting works.

Publishing history

First published by Chuō Kōronsha in 1956
First English translation by Secker & Warburg in 1960