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Jun’ichiro Tanizaki: お艶殺し (A Spring-Time Case)

Though not the first of Tanizaki’s works – the first was a play published in 1909 – this is the earliest of his works translated into English, though it is very difficult to find in English, as it was published by the Japan Times in 1927 and has not been republished. It is relatively short and relatively violent. Shinsuke is an apprentice with a pawnbroker. He is an only child. He is in love with the only child of the pawnbroker, O-Tsuya, and she is in love with him. However, her parents clearly would not accept a marriage between the two. One day, the parents happen to be away for the night and, while he is locking up, Shinsuke hears O-Tsuya calling him. She has apparently already suggested to him that they elope but he is reluctant to do so, not least because he would lose his position and lose whatever social standing he has. However, O-Tsuya is adamant and, as he is so much in love with her, he reluctantly agrees. They discuss it with Seiji, owner of a pleasure boat whom they both know, as he is passing. He makes a suggestion – that they should come with him and stay at his house and he will negotiate with her parents, who will be sure to come round to their point of view. They gratefully accept and go off to Seiji’s house where they will have to stay in seclusion.

And they wait and wait. Days pass and Seiji tells them that he is in negotiation but it is difficult. He urges them to be patient. But nothing seems to happen. Days give way to months and, eventually, it is a year since they left. They are suspicious but Seiji reassures them, saying it is a delicate matter. Meanwhile, the couple are enjoying themselves and O-Tsuya tries to mimic the geishas she sees from the window. However, eventually, Santa, one of Seiji’s assistants, comes to tell them that, even as they are speaking, Seiji is talking to Shinsuke’s father and the matter is about to be resolved. He urges Shinsuke to come with him. O-Tsuya wants to accompany them but Santa insists that she must stay. After a lot of discussion, she reluctantly agrees and Shinsuke and Santa set off. When they arrive, they learn that Shinsuke’s father has just left, as they had taken such a long time. Shinsuke has a drink with Seiji and Santa but Seiji has to leave early and leaves Shinsuke and Santa together. However, as they leave, Santa attacks him with a sword. There is a fierce struggle and, while Shinsuke is badly hurt, he manages to kill Santa. He disposes of the body and hurries to Seiji’s house. When he gets there, there is only Seiji’s wife (his second, a former courtesan) and no sign of O-Tsuya. He threatens the wife but she refuses to divulge any information, so he kills her and disposes of the body. He then rushes to a relative, a former gambler, who agrees to help him, provided, once O-Tsuya is found, he gives himself up.

The relative, Kenzo, eventually tracks O-Tsuya down. She seems to be working as a courtesan and he advises Shinsuke to go to the place, confirm that it is her and then give himself up. Shinsuke agrees. He meets O-Tsuya and she seems very glad to see him, even though she is beholden to Tokubei, who has bought her from Seiji. The couple are reunited and spend a couple of days together, though disagree on what should happen next. Shinsuke is determined to give himself up to the police, while he wants O-Tsuya to return to her parents. She is having none of it and wants to continue as a geisha, a lifestyle she seems to enjoy, but keep Shinsuke as her lover. Eventually Tokubei turns up. He seems happy for her to be with Shinsuke but wants her to work and instructs her to come with him that evening to an important client, a warrior. Shinsuke makes arrangements with O-Tsuya to come and pick her her up at midnight, pretending he is a servant. Of course, things start to get worse from there.

Tanizakis tale is along the lines of the stories he will tell later. We have an attractive woman who seems relatively innocent but who turns out to be a schemer and who entraps the man in her life, leading him to a dissolute life. His passion gets the better of him. Even as he kills, he realises that what he is doing is wrong and wants to give himself up to the police but his passion for O-Tsuya guides his every move till, at last, he has gone too far. It is quite a gruesome tale, certainly more so than his later novels, but an interesting introduction to Tanizaki.

Publishing history

First published by Senshokan in 1915
First English translation by the Japan Times Press in 1927