"The Tattooer" (1910, 5 pages)
"The Bridge of Dreams" (1931, 25 pages)
"A Portrait of Shunkin (1959, 35 pages)
Sado-Masochism in the work of Junichiro Tanizaki
The three stories I will post on today are all reprinted in translations by Howard Hibbert in Seven Japanese Tales (1963). The stories were written between 1910 and 1959. Tanizaki had nothing to do with picking the stories for the collection.
All three of the stories I will post on today are about erotic obsession, acts that many would condemn as immoral, and focus as do a number of Tanizaki's works on the erotic enslavement of men by women (in one case he does in Qucksand treat a lesbian relationship in similar terms.) His descriptions of sado-masochistic relationships brings out the sheer power of eroticism in a truly artistic fashion. He is a master at describing the beauty of the faces, bodies and feet of women. The women in his stories are young by current standards. Some have been sold by their families to be used however wanted by their owners. The women have only one source of power. Marriages were mostly arranged so they often lacked any real passion or emotion. Their is a fascination with prostitutes and their sisters the Geishas throughout Japanese literature. There are deep issues here but I will move on to the stories.
All three of the stories I have read so far are very good, totally brilliant works, each powerful and disturbing. I will start with one of the most famous of all Japanese short stories, "The Tattooer".
"The Tattooer" (1910, five pages) is set around 1850. The central character is a very famous Tattoo artist. Tattoo artistry was highly valued. Men sought out courtesans and geishas with beautiful tattoos. Women of the pleasure quarters fell in love with men based on the beauty of their tattoos. The famous tattoo artist tries to inflict as much pain as he possibly can on the men that he tattoos. He loves it when a Samurai warrior breaks and sobs under the pain and clearly loves the pain he inflicts. To him a woman is a canvas. What loves most is inflicting pain on beautiful young (14 and up) women while he produces masterworks on them. He begins to tattoo a spider in a marvelous web on a woman of transcendent beauty. As he progresses he realizes he is in complete thrall to the woman. We know this is but an ephemeral relationship and we do not learn what happens next. This is a very powerful tale and I think those heavily into tattoos will find it of especial interest.
"The Bridge of Dreams" (1931, 25 pages) is a very daring story. It might be about incest or near incest between a man (who we first meet at age 8 or so and part company with in his mid-twenties) and his step-mother. I do not want to tell to much of the plot of this really brilliant shocking story other than to say those who have a fetish for drinking breast milk will be in love by the time this story is over. Flaubert and de Muappasant have nothing on Tanizaki!
"A Portrait of Shunkin" (1959, 35 pages-the most recent and longest story in the collection) is another story of erotic enslavement and sadism. It also introduced another common element in the Japanese novel, blindness. In this story we learn a lot about Japanese music.
In all of these stories there is a lot to be learned about Japanese culture. His short stories can be compared on equal terms to any others I have read. The sexual themes in the story are meant to make us uncomfortable and they do. Women are treated as objects to be bought and sold and valued for their feel and looks. People are fetish objects.
There are four more short stories in the collection and I hope to read them soon.