Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and “Oriental” Aesthetics

picture: Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and “Oriental” Aesthetics
14 December 2006


It can be hard to read pitches for new media without envisioning the soft glow of reading lamps quietly being put out. As new media outshine the old with effects-driven storytelling and non-linear narrative, writing itself is imagined, if at all, to be left in the dust, or fit only as source materials scavenged for adaptation. A 2004 Japanese bestseller (in two volumes!) was even titled with the question, "Who killed the book?"

Some writers, though, have chosen to participate and even revel in the new forms of expression opened up by new media, and see writing and film as forms with mutually borrow-able expressive repertoires. One of these notables was Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965), the writer known today primarily for his polished modernist fiction. Tanizaki had an extraordinarily broad repertoire of topics and styles. These range from Naomi (Chijin no Ai, 1924-5), the decadent chronicle of a man smitten with a sadistic vixen modeled on Mary Pickford, to the fakelore of Arrowroot (Yoshino Kuzu, 1932) a tale about a man who searches for the sentimental roots of his family story, and ends up excavating an alternate and treasonous version of imperial history.  But despite Tanizaki's foregrounding of cinema and, especially, starlets in his works, it is only recently that attention has turned to his works stylized around mass culture - or in other words, as Tom LaMarre writes, "the relation between Japanese modernity and what might be thought of as the new media of his day."

Chief among these "new media" of the 1920s and 1930s was cinema. Tanizaki declared in his 1930 essay "Thoughts about film" (Eiga e no Kanso) that he has long since stopped caring about cinema. LaMarre's Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and "Oriental" Aesthetics shows how despite this farewell claim, Tanizaki's interest in "the cinematic" was too integral to his fiction-writing to leave behind. The 2005 collection of translations and introductions to Tanizaki's cinematic writings aims to show how Tanizaki's writing worked in two primary ways: how his essays place mass culture in dialogue with modernism, and how techniques of cinematic writing enabled Tanizaki to see Japan as made of superimposed identities - modern, colonial and East Asian, or "oriental" (toyo), at the same time.

Shadows on the Screen gathers writings and photos from the popular worlds of women's magazines and film journals to greatly expand our access to Tanizaki's considerable amount of non-novelistic writing and writing about film in mass venues. Essays include topics such as the power of Chinese characters to shine a "jewel"-like complexity of dimensions onto prose fiction; the "sublime" apparition of women's faces in close-ups; relative beauties and aesthetic qualities of women's faces, East and West; musings on less naturalistic acting styles that Tanizaki might have employed to make The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari more truly horrifying; and the dolorous effects of humidity on desire (dampening). Shadows on the Screen shows how Tanizaki's interest in cinema is remarkably consistent from his first attention to cinema in "scripts for screen use" (102) in the late 'teens through the 1930s.

The collection features translations followed by commentaries that place Tanizaki in the contexts of the pure film movement, broader film discourse, and theoretical issues, primarily how Tanizaki's experiments in form reveal his interest in ways of writing history. By alternating between translation and contextualization, Shadows on the Screen provides just that - an alternate history to the "great change" scheme of literary history through which Tanizaki-ology in English tends to understand Tanizaki. In this interpretation, Tanizaki abandons his initial flirtation with decadent and perverse digressions into mass culture after the 1923 Tokyo earthquake, upgrades to writing straight-ahead novels, and sequesters himself in Kansai to devote himself to increasingly rarified Japanese styles and themes. This interpretation is supported because until now, the only example of Tanizaki's essayistic writing translated into English has been the 1931 essay In Praise of Shadows. Seen in the context of cinematic writing, the luminous darkness of Japanese architecture and aesthetics that is the subject of this essay seems less like throwback to tradition, and more like an attempt to make opacity an autonomous writing substance, and Japan an autonomous substance of modernity.

Shadows on the Screen traces a history of the "cinematic" by gathering examples of the heightened experiences Tanizaki sought when he found films more real than reality, and magnetized his stories and plays around images of mermaids, "Chinese" kanji characters, and close-up faces. But here we are already taking "cinema" to mean something beyond "going to the movies," which is of course Tanizaki's point. Tanizaki's contemporaries Yasunari Kawabata (The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, 1929) and Riichi Yokomitsu (Shanghai, 1928-31) also experimented with cinema's building blocks - especially through deploying montage and mobile camera techniques in prose narratives. By means of their experiments in making prose sentences work like shots to create effects and sensations, these writers too knew that the "cinematic" is quite distinct from cinema itself.

And to be sure, there is much hands-on cinema in Tanizaki. Two of Tanizaki's works of fiction were explicitly centered on cinema, A Lump of Flesh (1923) and Naomi (1924-5). His prose versions of photoplays in 1917 were "film stories" (103) that aimed to both summarize and evoke a film-viewing experience. He was hired by the Taikatsu studios from 1920 until the studio went broke two years later, where he worked with Thomas/ Kisaburo Kurihara on four productions, following Kurihara's sojourn in the Hollywood studio system. Two of the Kurihara collaborations, The Night of the Doll Festival (Hina Matsuri no Yoru, 1921) and The Lust of the White Snake (Jasei no In, 1921), are included in the collection. White Snake, the longest piece in the collection, is especially notable because it represents the pure film movement's first attempt to expand from action comedies and art films and dramatize classical literature. White Snake is based on a tale from Akinari Ueda's 1776 collection Ugetsu Monogatari. Set in the Heian period, and later filmed by Kenji Mizoguchi, it tells the story of a man who falls in love with a beautiful aristocrat who is later revealed to be a shape-shifting snake. In these plays and essays, LaMarre shows Tanizaki experimenting with ways to convey characters experiencing multiple senses of time, such as dissolves, superimpositions, and double exposures. The key feature of this nature of experience is that it is multiple, and like new media, rather than negating old experiences, new experiences overlap. As LaMarre writes, "in keeping with Tanizaki's interests, this book is more about the cinematic (an experience of cinema, a structuring of sensory experience) than about cinema (as an object of knowledge)" (8).

The alternate history that LaMarre proposes derives from his reading of Tanizaki's particular focus on the filmic image and its ability to be multiple. In Tanizaki's writing, images are closely tied to the psychoanalytic fetish. In turn, as fetishes are embraced by characters, and by Tanizaki himself as a spectator-writer, methods of history writing that defy simple historicist order are enabled. The key image that brings together Tanizaki's far-flung elements of the "cinematic," from fetish to history, is his tendency to displace all anxieties about crises of modernity onto the figure of the new woman as fetish. The new woman is a kind of pivot that allows different narratives and tensions to be played through at the same time, even in contradiction-"Orient and Occident, beast and human, passive and active, non-white and white, and object and subject" (135), and frequently evoking both colonial and non-colonial sites. Was the preoccupation with the temporarily stabilized image of the new woman unique to Tanizaki alone? No, many other films of the late silent era also dwelt lovingly on body parts and exalted in fetishism. Louise Brooks' riot-grrl vamp, the Miss Europe character she plays in the 1930 film Prix de Beauté, for instance, opens on a shot of young Lucienne's legs, as she changes into a swimsuit at the beginning of a day at the beach. Prix de Beauté, a film about how typists type, how beauty contestants strut, how to change clothes in a Model-T Ford, and how the hatches of a first-class train compartment open up, dwells more on the geek-like fascination of "how does it work, this strange instrument known as a leg?" And Kenji Mizoguchi famously lingered on the close-up. But his super-impositions tended to emphasize how translating into a visual cognate of the actress' consciousness should guide us in reading the face itself: "what is she thinking about, what is bothering her?" He thus emphasizes the subjectivity of the female character as a way to express her experience of interior life.

While perfectly adequate as examples of fetishism, neither of these examples of blazoned female parts resembles Tanizaki's doubling of the face. He seems to consistently use fetish-images to represent the experience of the beholder within the diegetic world of the film. His beholders respond to the dense threat or the sublime bedazzlement of the image fatale with a kind of awe approaching either fear or idolatry. When he is overwhelmed, the encounter with the cinematic image can send him reeling. While the actual characters may end up in fates more proper to tragedy, the effect on history is that it both responds to the new, but maintains a relation to the old. For Tanizaki, the new woman is particularly susceptible to being fetishized because she moves between multiple worlds (places, markets, orders of reality). Both "immobile and full of potential," the fetish is the formal and psychic structure that allows many sorts of narratives to stabilize, but never to stop, a quality which allows the sometimes tiresome tic of fetishism to be read as formally akin to kinds of history writing, and thus interesting beyond its own obsessions.

Why does Tanizaki need to rewrite history, or histories? Apart from a continuity with Tanizaki's stories that excavate secrets in domestic Japanese pasts, LaMarre reminds us that "one of the concerns of the Pure Film movement was to correct or counter the Western images of the Orient that culminated in such films as Griffith's Broken Blossoms, Tanizaki does so with a vengeance" (104). Griffith's film had starred an American actor, Richard Barthelmess. He played a Chinese Buddhist man who rescues a vulnerable Lillian Gish from her brutish boxer father. Seen in terms of the fusion Orientalism through which yellow-peril America imagined "Asian" masculinity, he reins in his passion, protects her, kills her father, and then neatly commits hara-kiri. Another book could be written about close-ups of othered male faces in US cinema, such as this one; and to be honest, I think fuller treatment is needed to unpack the layers between the sentimental Orientalism of Griffith in post-Versailles America, and the desires felt by writers and actors to respond within Japanese cinema then situated between discourses and continents in the post-Versailles "Orient." But insofar as Tanizaki is responding to the new expressive possibilities suggested by the tools of cinema, he creates an image fatale who becomes a staple of his writing of all kinds. The combination of fetish and history ushers the way into the second of Tanizaki's obsessions, how to superimpose the modern new woman onto the imperial and colonial cast of relations with China and the South Seas colonies by regularly associating them as the primary locations of crime, pornography and other licenses of excess.

Shadows on the Screen is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read. It suggests how we might make some connections between media based on orders of experience, rather than industry histories, and how conventions of film studies might be linked to both earlier and later generations of new media. A result of examining Tanizaki's work is the delicious irony that the quintessence of the pure film movement should find itself translated into such a very impure literary form. Perhaps an apt form for our own uncertain and heady era of visual forms, allied to cinema yet offering their own intimations of impurity.

(Thanks to Mimi Long and Chika Kinoshita)


Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and "Oriental" Aesthetics

picture: DVD cover of 'Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and 'Oriental' Aesthetics'

Paperback. Center for Japanese Studies / The University of Michigan

Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and "Oriental" Aesthetics

picture: DVD cover of 'Shadows on the Screen: Tanizaki Junichiro and 'Oriental' Aesthetics'

Hardcover. Center for Japanese Studies / The University of Michigan