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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 瘋癲老人日記 (Diary of a Mad Old Man)

I am not sure if this book is rightly called Diary of a Mad Old Man. Though he does seem to have mental issues, it should, rather, be called Diary of a Dirty Old Man. The narrator/diary-writer is seventy-seven, in poor health and impotent. Despite that, he is still sexually interested in women (As long as I live I cannot help feeling attracted to the opposite sex…I’m almost completely impotent. Even so, I can enjoy sexual stimulation in all kind of distorted, indirect ways). Indeed, at the start of the book, he tells us that he is more attracted to handsome young men in feminine attire than pretty girls in trousers and he certainly attends the theatre frequently to see such men. Our hero is married but he and his wife now sleep apart (with one minor exception), not least because he prefers Western-style toilets and she prefers Japanese-style ones. He normally shares his room with his nurse, though, on her occasional day off, his wife sleeps in the same room (but not the same bed). He has a son, Jokichi, and a daughter, Kugako, who live in Tokyo (where he lives) and a daughter, Itsuko, who lives in Kyoto. All three are married. Jokichi is married to Satsuko, the focus of this novel.

Though suffering from ill health, he does not fear death. This gives him a certain amount of detachment. He feels that Jokichi and Satsuko are not in love the way they used to be. Jokichi travels a lot for business and, even when he is at home, he is out a lot without Satsuko. Moreover, since the birth of Keisuke, six years ago, there have been no further children. However, the narrator has started to feel attraction for Satsuko, something which she does not discourage. He knows there is a certain dangerous fascination involved. Indeed, he likens her to the very beautiful but dangerous Takahashi Oden, a famous female Japanese murderer. Initially, his lust is from afar. However, one night, when the nurse has her night off, his wife is too ill to look after him, so Satsuko does. In his view, she seems to be washing him too vigorously. Then she goes off to have a shower in his shower-room and reappears in a dressing gown. He watches her lustfully as she sits in a chair. The next day, she has another shower and makes a point of telling him that she never locks the door. He does not react but, the next time it happens, he does go in. He can see her behind the shower curtain and she lets him dry her back. However, when he kisses her back, she slaps him and sends him away. She continues to tease him in this way, while he gets excited and his blood pressure rises dangerously.

However, there is a quid pro quo. His nephew, Haruhisa, works nearby and, on his behalf, Satsuko asks if he can use the shower during the day, as it is too difficult at his place of work. He agrees but it soon becomes clear that his motives are not just cleanliness, as he hears Satsuko and Haruhisa giggling together and he seems to be spending a lot of time showering. When she asks for a very expensive (three million yen) cats-eye ring in return for some mild touching, he reluctantly agrees. The money had been set aside for developing his late parents’ house but his wife had been opposed to it as it would destroy the character of the traditional house. When Kugako had asked for some money to assist with their growing family, he had declined even though he had already, by then, bought Satsuko a car. Naturally, this results in considerable bad feeling. However, now he is spending much more on Satsuko, though he naturally does not tell his wife. However, Satsuko is seen wearing the ring, when at a boxing match with a man who is not her husband. Things get more intense when the narrator, Satsuko and his nurse visit Itsuko in Kyoto.

This book has naturally been compared to Lolita, though the similarities are somewhat superficial, namely an older man lusting after a younger woman. Satsuko is not under age but she is his daughter-in-law. Moreover, her husband, his son, seems remarkably indifferent to what his wife does, whether it is with his father or with Haruhisa. That she deliberately seduces him for financial gain is clear. That he is willing to pay the price to get some mild titillation in his declining years, despite the obvious negative effect on his health (raised blood pressure), is also clear. He knows that he has not long to go so he is determined to enjoy it while he can. Tanizaki cleverly shows the gradual seduction but he is more interested in how the narrator the reacts and how his sexual urges remain very much alive, despite his age and health. He is also interested in the reaction of others. He is, towards the end, called insane but whether straightforward, albeit slightly perverted sexual desire can be called insane, is open to debate. The theme of erotic relationships and their ultimate failure is not new to Tanizaki but this novel takes it a little bit further and, just as many readers have found Lolita both titillating and a worthwhile work of literature, so is this novel.

Publishing history

First published by Chuō Kōronsha in 1961
First English translation by Knopf in 1965
Translated by Howard Hibbett