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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: 春琴抄 (The Story of Shunkin; later: A Portrait of Shunkin)

I actually own both translations of this work but this review is of the later one, published in English in Seven Japanese Tales. It is, like other Tanizaki works reviewed, a novella and, also like other Tanizaki works, it involves dipping into the past, and sex, though the sex is not as pronounced as in some of his other works. The narrator happened to be passing the temple where Shunkin (Mozuya Koto is her real name but her professional name was Shunkin) is buried. Initially, he is unable to find her grave but, eventually, the caretaker is able to lead him to it, where we learn that she died in the nineteenth year of Meiji (1886, by my calculations), aged fifty-seven. Nearby, is the grave of Nukui Sasuke, indicated on the headstone as Shunkin’s pupil but, as we will learn, also her servant and her lover. The narrator tells their story from a rare book he finds about her life.

Shunkin was born into a prosperous family, with their money made from selling pharmaceutical products. As a child she was both very beautiful and very intelligent. She was so graceful that she took up dancing, aged three, and looked as though she would become a successful dancer. Indeed, as someone commented, had she not been born into a prosperous family, she would have had a good career as a geisha. However, when she was eight, tragedy struck and she went blind. The narrator is not sure what caused her to go blind, though he has one or two theories. Suffice it to say that this ended her dancing career. However, as other blind people had done before, she took up music, playing the koto and samisen She had a well-known and strict teacher and gradually mastered the two instruments. Her teacher considered her his best pupil. The Mozuya family had in its pharmacy, as an apprentice, a young man called Sasuke. Initially a maidservant would take Shunkin to her music lessons but, one day, she asked that Sasuke take her because he’s so well-behaved, and doesn’t keep chattering. After that Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, always took her. Gradually, he became her servant, helping her in everything, even washing her hands for her after she had been to the toilet. He adored her and whatever she wanted, Sasuke did.

Sasuke, of course, waited for Shunkin at her lessons and thus listened to her playing. He gradually got to know the tunes and wanted to learn the samisen himself. He saved up and bought a cheap one and smuggled it into his room. He practiced it at night, with only his fellow apprentices knowing and they were able to sleep through it. One day, when going to the toilet at night, Shunkin’s mother heard the music. She did not bother about it but heard on other occasions. Initially, he had played while hiding in a cupboard but, as it was stuffy, he went out onto the roof. That was when it was heard. Eventually, Mrs. Mozuya raised it with the head clerk and Sasuke was discovered. He was strictly forbidden from practising again. However, Shunkin heard about this and she and her sisters and mother were curious, so Susuke was asked to perform for them. They were all impressed and it was agreed that he could continue playing and that Shunkin would give him lessons.

Shunkin was a hard teacher, abusing him and shouting at him, sometimes driving him to tears, but he did make progress. Shunkin had a very bad reputation in the house for her moods and tempers and, indeed, the servants seemed glad that Sasuke was occupying some of her time, so that he would take the brunt. This continued for some time, with Sasuke even getting lessons from Shunkin’s teacher. Eventually, it was suggested that they get married, as a blind girl would not be able to find a suitable husband. Shunkin flatly refused, saying that she had no intention of getting married and, even if she did, it would not be to a man like Sasuke. However, when her mother noticed that Shunkin was putting on weight, she realised that she was pregnant. Who was the father? Shunkin refused to name him but insisted that it was not Sasuke. He initially confirmed this but, when pressured, said that he was the father. However, when this was put to Shunkin, she denied it and he again denied it. The child was born and put out to adoption.

The couple remained together but, on the face of it, it seemed more like a mistress-servant relationship than a love affair, not least because she always treated Sasuke with some disdain. Shunkin had three more children, one dying in childbirth, the other two being put out for adoption. Sasuke continued doing everything for Shunkin, even bathing her. Shunkin became an accomplished teacher herself, though she was very hard on her pupils. She upset one rich young man. One night she was attacked in the house, possibly by this young man, though the narrator offers alternative theories, and left with a scar, albeit a small one. Soon after, Sasuke goes blind. Again we are offered various theories, though the narrator has his preferred one.

This is another excellent tale from Tanizaki but, unlike in some of his other stories, the sex is decidedly low key. Indeed, the two main participants persist in denying it happened at all, despite the fact that we know Shunkin became pregnant four times. We are given no reason for why it happened. Shunkin is adamant that she does not want to marry Sasuke and, indeed, treats him as a servant all their life together. Did she give him sex as a reward for his devotion or was she a passionate woman, who wanted sex, and used Sasuke as she used him for everything else, as a source for sex? Tanizaki is silent on the matter. Nonetheless, this odd relationship – teacher/pupil, mistress/servant and lovers – makes for a fine story.

Publishing history

First published by Sōgensha in 1933
First English translation by Greenwood Press in 1970