Naomi was first published as a serial in a Japanese newspaper starting in 1924. (I do not think there is any newspaper editor in The USA or Europe that could have published this work at that time without risking arrest.) It is set in Japan in the early 1920s in Tokyo. It is narrated by a male engineer named Joji. At the start of the work he is 27. It details his obsession with Naomi, who is 15 when he first meets her. (It appears the age difference and the age of Naomi was not contrary to statute and custom in Japan at the time.) Joji meets her where she works as a waitress in a coffee house. He is mesmerized by her beauty. Her family is quite poor and has a less than stellar reputation. Joji offers to take her off her parents hands and raise her and they readily agree to relieve themselves of a burden. Joji is very devoid of experience of romantic encounters of any kind but deeply desires Naomi. He is a very decent man and he knows it is best that they live together as friends only, sort off, to start. He sends her to school, buys her nice clothes and hires an English tutor for her. He also loves giving Naomi her bath. Naomi begins to realize the power she can obtain over Joji. The bathing ritual goes on for a long time. There is no sex at this point between Naomi and Joji but the bathing ritual is clearly very erotic for both of them. We can feel the power of Naomi growing. Joji begins to develop a fetish like obsession with Naomi's skin. He begins to keep a log of the development of her body as she matures into a woman. Naomi who was once an undemanding young woman begins to demand more material goods from Joji. Joji begins their relationship worshiping her for her purity, as he perceives it. As the narrative proceeds it is clear he is an unreliable narrator. (I like to think that maybe Ford Madox Ford might have published Naomi in The English Review). Naomi decides she wants to have lessons in Western style dancing. Now the real trouble begins. The lessons are given by a White Russian woman who may have been a countess in the old days. (I notice in novels of the 1920s former Russian noblewomen often play the parts of the bringers of trouble.) Naomi is about 19 now and she and Joji are married. Naomi begins to occasionally mock Joji as an old man out touch with the then westernizing Japan. He begins to compare her to Mary Pickford, something she finds very flattering. There are young men her age in the dance class and to Joji's great surprise somehow Naomi seems to already know them. When he asks her how she knows them, she tells him oh I just met them around. There is also a Western man in the class. Joji sees him as sinister figure of some sort in Japan as part of criminal enterprise. Soon some really bad things happen. I do not want to tell anymore of the plot action as the plot is so much fun and suspenseful as well. We were really made to care about Joji even if our 21th century sensibilities are offended by his joy in bathing the 15 year old Naomi which becomes full scale erotic enslavement. (I admit as his enslavement to Naomi progresses I wanted to tell him go down to the pleasure quarters and get her out of your system before it is too late.). The work is acutely perceptive in his portrayal of the characters. We see slowly the dynamics of power change. Joji thinks he loves Naomi but he actually has altered her into a fetish object. Naomi is drawn to western culture and completely repelled by her own cultural roots. In one purely masterful scene Naomi comes to visit Joji dressed in purely western clothes with matching make up and hair. The revulsion felt by Joji nearly made my skin crawl.
Naomi has numerous thematic mines one could work. It is a tale of the corruption of a culture by an outside force. It is a story of the balance of power between a man and a woman. It is a classic tale of misperception. In Naomi we have a woman degraded by what she and others think exalts her. It is also a story of what may be described without being judgmental as a sexual perversion by which I mean turning in this case a woman, Naomi, from a person to a fetish object. There are also lots of acute observations along the way. It is a good look at Japan in the 1920s and the influence of western culture, mainly movies. (For a time Tanizaki was a screen writer.) I cannot judge if the translation is good or not but the prose is very well done and there are none of the "howlers" there are in some translated work. It is a tragedy and a comedy of manners. Most of all it is a lot of fun to read.
This is the sixth work of Junichiro Tanizaki that I have reviewed for the Japanese Literaure 3 Challenge. I have him on my "Read all they have written list-or in this case all that has been translated list." I think he has four other novels translated into English that I have not yet read along with a collection of short stories and a work of artistic theory.
This will be my last review for the Japanese Literature 3 Challenge. I give my sincerest gratitude to Dolce Bellezza for hosting it. As The Japanese Challenge 4 begins I plan to do a post called "The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in the Japanese Novel" where I will give my ideas on the best 3, 6, 9 or 12 Japanese novels to start with and why one should read Japanese novels. There are still, of course, huge holes in my reading. One obvious one is that I have read none of the major works of Murakami. I hope to read his major works in the next few months. I also have two novels by Kenzaburo Oe waiting to be read soon and he has a brand new one coming out in March!-