In Praise of Shadows

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Vintage Books, 2001 - Aesthetics - 73 pages
2 Reviews
This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki's eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.

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In 2006, when I accompanied Amb. Nirupama Rao to Pingyao, an ancient Chinese city preserved as such (a sort of living museum), she mentioned and praised this book. I started looking for it. [Living in China and Fiji has its own limitations about ordering books online for delivery - it is another story] In May 2009, when I came to know that my Japanese diplomat friend Sasaki is going to Tokyo, I shamelessly bugged and asked him to get me a copy. He did, and refused to take money for it. He wrote "to my friend" in calligraphy style and presented it to me.
Obviously, I was impressed with the depth of thoughts in the book. Some major themes: "It was not that I objected to the conveniences of modern civilization, whether electric lights or heating or toilets, but I did wonder at the time why they could not be designed with a bit more consideration for our own habits and tastes." He talks of electric fan, ugly stoves and says "it is on occasions like this that I always think how different everything would be if we in the Orient had developed our own science." "Had we devised independently at least the more practical sorts of inventions, this could not but have had profound influence upon the conduct of our every lives, and even upon government, religion, art and business." Then he compares writing brush with the fountain pen and says "if the device had been invented by the ancient Chinese or Japanese, it would surely have had a tufted end".
He clarifies his understanding that 'we cannot turn back'. But this books leads you to appreciate how one can see and experience things differently without being led by modern devices. Being a novelist, his writing style is also excellent. When talking of lamps, he says, "Indeed the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as though little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself."
A good read.

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About the author (2001)

Junichiro Tanizaki was born in 1886 in Tokyo, where his family owned printing establishment. He studied Japanese literature at Tokyo Imperial University, and his first published work, a one-act play, appeared in 1910 in a literary magazine he helped to found. Tanizaki lived in the cosmopolitan Tokyo area until the earthquake of 1923, when he moved to the gentler and more cultivated Kyoto-Osaka region, the scene of The Makioka Sisters. There he became absorbed in the Japanese past and all his most important works were written from this point, among them Some Prefer Nettles (1929), Arrowroot (1931), The Secret History of the Lord Musashi (1935), several modern versions of The Tale of Genji (1941, 1954 and 1965), The Makioka Sisters (1943-48), Captain Shigemoto's Mother (1949), The Key (1956) and Diary of a Mad Old Man (1961). By 1930 he had gained such renown that an edition of his complete works was published and he was awarded an Imperial Award for Cultural Merit in 1949. In 1964 he was elected an honorary Member of the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, the first Japanese citizen ever to recieve this honour. Tanizaki died in 1965.

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