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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 蓼喰う蟲 (Some Prefer Nettles)

Apart, of course, from 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters), this may be the Tanizaki novel with the best reputation, at least in English translation. Yet it is very different from 細雪 (The Makioka Sisters). It is much shorter and, as with some of his earlier books, is very much concerned with Western culture vs Japanese culture and the old vs the new. However, the main subject is the gradual failing of a marriage. Misako and Kaname have been married for some time. They have a teenage son, Hiroshi. They are well-off. Kaname has some sort of job but only goes to the office once or twice a week. They seem to lead an easy and lazy life, living in Osaka. They get on reasonably well. They share the same bedroom (with Hiroshi sleeping between them) but have not had sex for some time. He had nothing against his wife. They simply did not excite each other. Everything else – their tastes, their ways of thinking – matched perfectly. Gradually their lives are drifting apart.

Misako has a lover, Aso, whom Kaname has met and of whom he more or less approves. He is happy for her to have her lover and anticipates that he and Misako will divorce and that she will marry Aso and that all three will remain on good terms. He also has a lover, a Eurasian courtesan called Louise, whom he regularly visits and who is pestering him to set her up in a flat. Slowly, during the course of the book, it seems that the couple are drifting into divorce, though neither really seems to have thought through the implications and neither seems in any hurry to go through with the divorce. The only person really concerned is Hiroshi who suspects something is going in with his parents and is worried whom he might live with if they do divorce.

Apart from Aso, two other people are involved in the story. Early on in the novel, Misako’s father, unaware of what is happening with his daughter and son-in-law, invites the couple to see a traditional puppet show. The father lives with his mistress, O-Hisa. She is younger than Misako and Misako does not like her, though Kaname is quite attracted to her, given that she is a traditional Kyoto courtesan. Indeed, Kaname has certain standards regarding women and art. (One had to feel forced to one’s knees before it, or lifted by it to the skies. Kaname required this not only in works of art. A woman-worshipper, he looked for the same divine attributes in women, but he had never come upon what he was looking for either in art or women.) Misako and Kaname reluctantly agree to go to the show, though Misako makes it clear that she will leave early, as she is not interested in puppet shows and it is uncomfortable kneeling down, watching the show. However, at the show, while Misako shows her dislike both for the show and her father’s mistress, Kaname is fascinated by this piece of traditional Japanese culture. We later learn that the father, who lives in Kyoto, is very much involved in traditional Japanese culture – theatre, puppet theatre, music, clothes and so on. He will only eat Japanese food, not Western food, which he despises. He even prefers traditional Japanese toilets to Western ones. Kaname will later visit him on his own and will see another show, which he enjoys, and his fascination for his father-in-law’s way of life and, indeed, for his father-in-law’s mistress, increases.

The other key figure is Kaname’s cousin, Takanatsu, who lives in Shanghai but who regularly visits Japan and stays with Kaname and Misako. He has something of a cynical, world-weary view of life but, when Kaname tells him about what is going in between Misako and him, he expresses some concern. Will Aso look after Misako? What guarantees, if any, does she have for the future? (The answer is none.) He urges Kaname to take an interest but Kaname is far more interested in reading (or, rather, looking at the erotic drawings) in the 17 volume Burton Club edition of Burton’s translation of the Arabian Nights, which Takanatsu has brought for Kaname, obtained with great difficulty and at great expense from London. You are a strange one, says Takanatsu, it’s exactly because you leave problems like this unsettled that you haven’t been able to work yourself into a decision on the divorce itself.

The skill of Tanizaki is showing that this is a marriage which both want to leave, yet are reluctant to leave. Neither shows any great effort to leave but both have their reasons for leaving, which they make clear, even if, for Kaname, it is something as simple as wanting to be able to sleep on his own. As with other Japanese novels of the period, there is also the dream-like quality that pervades the novel, increased by the love of the father-in-law and, to a certain degree, Kaname himself, for the old Japanese traditions. A looking back at the past is not, of course, unique to Tanizaki or the Japanese novel but nevertheless is key to both, not least because the past is seen as the Japanese way, with the modern represented by Western culture and habits and is therefore more pronounced in its differences. Overall, this a wonderful short novel on the dissolution of a relationship, on the modern/West vs old-fashioned/Japanese dichotomy and a culture in full adaptation..

Publishing history

First published by Kaizōsha in 1929
First English translation by Knopf in 1955