ELLA KELLEHER WRITES – Through a vulnerable child’s eyes, parents represent stability, protection, and even eternity. What happens when eternity grows small and seemingly insignificant? Adolescents, ostensibly indestructible and infinitely hot-headed, get their first taste of personal freedom and start to detach from their nurturers. As one generation grows stronger and the other dims, a tragic shift in balance occurs, and the young must be warned that they are “not the ‘master of all creation!'”
Originally published in Japanese during his literary reign (1910-1965), legendary writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki wrote three famous short stories that are finally accessible to an English-speaking audience in this new compilation, Longing and Other Stories (2022). All three tales tackle the central theme of a son disconnecting from his mother. Tanizaki wrote during a time of great confusion in Japanese history. The Meiji era (1868-1912) was a period of rapid modernization in the island nation. Traditional Edo-period customs clashed heavily with a westernized new wave of fashion, culture, and thought. With the influx of western individualism in a largely Confucius society, the tides of familial control became wildly imbalanced. In this new era, the young thought mainly of themselves and their futures, discarding the demands of their parent’s generation.
A master of his craft, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki is considered one of Japan’s most significant literary titans. Known for his darker tone and shocking depictions of sexuality and obsession, Tanizaki reaches deeply into the trenches of the human subconscious. He strips society bare and reveals what many are too afraid to recognize. Tanizaki’s work pulsates with raw, tangible emotion that speaks to the reality of an often scarily fast-paced and changing environment. Such brilliant storytelling would not have been possible without this book’s marvelous translators, Anthony H. Chambers and Paul McCarthy.
The first story, “Longing” (1918), is a fantastical and dream-like auto-biographical meditation on what it’s like to deeply long for an absent mother figure. Tanizaki transforms into his little boy self and searches for his mother, whom he finds clad in geisha attire, singing a repetitious lullaby from his youth. His need for his mother is tainted by his adult mind’s sexual deviancy. He imagines her soft skin, the red paint of her lips, and her intense beauty that invokes sorrow. The tragic message is clear: what was once an innocent child can exist no longer, his mother is dead, and there is no bringing her back. Through this grim realization, Tanizaki uncovers a nostalgia for a less-complicated world.
“Sorrows of a Heretic” (1916) follows Shōzaburō, a student at Tokyo Imperial University – a renowned Japanese institution known for producing graduates who contributed to the construction of an industrialized Japan. Shōzaburō cares little for filial duty and fraternal love, opting instead for a rebellious attitude. Allying himself with Western poetry and philosophy, he drinks beer, eats beef, and does poorly in school. In short: he is every old-fashioned parent’s worst nightmare. He is a heretic, and his unorthodox ways are a product of his fluctuating environment. Shōzaburō is a debased version of Tanizaki himself and is a literary manifestation of the author’s own guilt over his treatment of his family and the mishandling of his youth. The story reads almost like a warning to its reader as if Tanizaki himself is saying, “don’t do what I did, don’t take your folks for granted.”
The final short story, “The Story of an Unhappy Mother” (1912), paints an image of a self-pitying mother who once led her small family unit comprised of herself and her two sons but now is overshadowed by her eldest son’s wife. During a freak boating accident, the eldest son makes a fatal mistake. With both his mother and wife cast overboard in the torrid waters, he can only reach out for one set of arms. He chooses his bride over his own mother and must face the horrific consequences of this choice. In Confucian and Buddhist moral teachings, duty is first to one’s parents. The eldest son’s choice may seem permissible under harsh circumstances to a westerner’s eyes. However, in the mother’s eyes, she was his second choice, a fleeting thought, a burden. Can we blame her for her resentful emotional reaction? What happens afterward is nothing short of heartrending.
Tanizaki’s luminous and lucid prose forces the reader into an existential dilemma faced by the author and his characters, one of children torn between the old world and the new. As societies around the globe continue to rapidly modernize, young people today are fraught with a similar crisis. How much of the past should we carry into the future? Do we follow the path paved by our parents or build an entirely new one? Tanizaki’s philosophy is one of balance. His writing asserts that no peace exists in extremes. Implicit, though central to his message, is that the young should not forget their predecessors while forging a better tomorrow. A residual idea haunts these three enigmatic stories: western individuality and eastern collectivism, it seems, can and should coexist.
LMU English major graduate Ella Kelleher is the book review editor-in-chief and a contributing staff writer for Asia Media International. She majored in English with a concentration in multi-ethnic literature.