Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

In the morning of August 6th 1945 the American B-29 aeroplane Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Reports always speak of the blinding light and fireball that formed with a surface temperature hotter than the sun. Estimates suggest that the Little Boy atomic bomb killed 80,000 people in a single day and another 140,000 of radiation poisoning and burns by the end of the year.

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows was published in 1933, an essay length reflection on a Japanese architecture and sensibility destroyed by modern (Western) illumination. Though published 12 years before the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Tanizaki’s polemic is haunted with a prefiguring of the mass destruction that was to come.

As in most recent Western-style buildings, the ceilings are so low that one feels as if balls of fire were blazing directly above one’s head. ‘Hot’ is no word for the effect, and the closer to the ceiling the worse it is – your head and neck and spine feel as if they were being roasted.

No clairvoyance was involved in Tanizaki’s elegy. It is a privileged viewpoint. His essay is more ironic in tone, a baggy, rambling piece of writing that ranges from architecture to hygiene to jade to women to heating levels. And I use those terms as a reader that loves to read discursive, seemingly unstructured essays.

Tanizaki writes, ‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty’. To read his essay is to recall a lost world, liminal spaces no longer permitted in a time of of what Pascal Quignard refers to as ‘dazzling, puritanical, imperialist, American neon light.”

Quignard draws a central part of The Roving Shadows from Tanizaki’s essay, about which he writes: ‘I think these pages are among the finest ever written in any of the various societies that have arisen over time …’

16 thoughts on “Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows

  1. I have seen this book surface a lot in (virtual) conversation lately. The fact that it is an essay warrants some attention from my perspective. I am quite fond of Japanese film and art but literary fiction, in so far as I have tried to read it, tends to leave me very cold. Or worse. I was attempting to read a novel recently and ended up discussing my agony and frustrations with my son, a long time Japanophile with a significant self-taught knowledge of Japanese. He suggested that translation is probably a key factor as there are so many nuances to the way the language is written (and understood within a social structure) that may not always translate or be captured in translation. I’m not certain if it me or not, but it surprises me that I have had so much difficulty.

        • Yes. I binge read Mishima many years ago, one of my completist urges. Forbidden Colours and The Temple of the Golden Pavillon both linger as singular works.

          Apart from Tanizaki’s fiction, the other Japanese writer I’ll dip into this year is Kenzaburō Ōe: http://www.orbooks.com/foxrock/seventeen-and-j-by-kenzaburo-oe/

          I used to read Haruki Murakami but his work has lost its appeal. We’ve just outgrown each other I think.

          I will confess to being a huge enthusiast for Japan and its culture. I visit every couple of years and hope to be back in Kyota/Osaka in December. My daughter is learning the language.

          • I went through a serious Murakami phase myself but I also outgrew him (or he failed to grow, when I read Can Xue’s The Last Lover I couldn’t help but think that he could have become more daring rather than less so and produced dream-like work on that scale). My interest in Japan has largely been secondary to my son’s long standing affection (he wants me to read Dazai at the moment). And of course there are Kurosawa’s films.

            Oddly it is Ōe that threw me, his latest novel. Others seem to like it but I thought it was tedious and self indulgent. At 150 pages it might have been okay but it was well over 400. The book you linked sounds promising though.

  2. This book was recommended to me some time ago when I reviewed some of Yasunari Kawabata’s fiction, but I had forgotten about it until your review appeared in my reader. Thank you for the writing about this one – I’ll be putting it back on my list as a result.

  3. Having read Tanizaki’s signature novels–Some Prefer Nettles & The Makioka Sister–I think this essay would be a logical choice for me to reacquaint with him. If only to better understand the philosophy behind his novels. I see him as a bridge between the outwardly calm and collected tradition of Sōseki/Ōgai Mori and the interior apocalyptic ravings of Akutagawa/Ōe/Mishima/Murakami (Ryū).

  4. I wrote a review of this at mine back in 2011 (https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/in-praise-of-shadows-by-junichiro-tanizaki/). I had previously read (and been impressed by) his Diary of a Mad Old Man. This is superbly written as I recall, if at times slightly dodgily argued. His thoughts on the interplay of aesthetics, design and modernisation are fascinating.

    In mine I compared it to Regis Debray’s Venices, both discuss the idea of stasis as a form of cultural death; one doesn’t after all preserve the living. It’s a marvellous book, I’m glad you found it so interesting.

    • It made me think a lot about very practical stuff at the same time as admiring the writing and the loose-tight structure. I remember your review from the time.

  5. Thanks to adding a new perspective on this remarkable essay I read years ago. I am quite interested in Japanese literature and culture, particularly the films of Ozu and Kurosawa.

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