Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

10 September, 2009

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki was published as Chijin no Ai or A Fool’s Love in 1924 in serial form. Because of the content of the novel, it caused an uproar amongst its Japanese readers and Tanizaki was forced to give up publication. It was later taken up by another magazine and completed.

Reading the novel almost 85 years later, it is indeed shockingly modern. Of course it was a contemporary novel then so that the descriptions of everyday life are sweetly nostalgic now, taking you back to a Japan that was on the cusp of change and which no longer exists. But like today, the Japanese are alternately suspicious of and still in love with everything western. What is still surprising is the daring content of the novel. It is essentially a story of a man in his thirties who falls in love and grooms a young girl of fifteen to become a suitable wife. This in itself is not that shocking in the context of Japanese literature as there are many stories of this ilk, except for its treatment of sex. There is no explicit language or scenes, but the novel is about the sexual relationship between Jōji Kawai and Naomi. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it love. Or maybe it is, a complex, twisted kind of love.

Jōji is a successful company employee who sets up house with Naomi. He marries her and tries to educate her, transforming her from a hostess into a cultured, westernised young woman. Her family background is such that she would probably have ended up becoming a prostitute. Jōji is a respectable and practical man, putting aside money each month and living soberly. This changes with the arrival of Naomi. He whisks her away from her sad, pathetic life and sets her up in a modern artist’s studio in which they indulge in playing house. Jōji is not interested in having a traditional wife, and they spend their days playing, dancing and eating out. Naomi doesn’t cook or clean and spends her time shopping for clothes. Jōji is happy with this and is proud to show her off. As Naomi gets older she makes friends of her own. She doesn’t surround herself with girlfriends, but boys from the nearby university. Jōji slowly succumbs to jealousy as his tenuous hold on Naomi beomes strained. Naomi is someone with her own mind and knows what she wants, cleverly manipulating the men around her. Their relationship and life together slowly breaks down, and when they finally go away on holiday to a nearby town, the situation explodes when Jōji discovers Naomi’s betrayal.

I have to confess that I was actually impressed by the way Tanizaki ended his novel. It didn’t leave me happy, but it was realistic and I could imagine the ending scenes playing out in countless relationships all over the world and throughout time. I felt sorry for almost all the characters that populated Tanizaki’s novel. And even though this novel disturbed me, I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Tanizaki leaves you pondering about the nature of love. Not romantic love, but love that grasps you and won’t let you go, no matter how much hurt and betrayal it leaves in its wake. People are essentially selfish, and you make choices according to your needs, regardless of whether it is good for you or not. Ultimately, Jōji and Naomi deserve each other.

The copy I read and which belongs to my sister is the one on the left, but I couldn’t resist posting all three images because they encapsulate the essence of Naomi so beautifully.

Naomi is not a long novel, but the themes Tanizaki touches upon are profound. Overall, I thought this novel was magnificent, even though you cannot fall in love with any of the characters. It is deceptively simple, and the writing/translation subtly draws you in. There’s not a lot of plot twists, but Jōji and Naomi are vibrant characters and you won’t forget them easily. You cannot but applaud Naomi for her resilience, her joie de vivre and her survival instincts.

I, for one, am eager to read more of Tanizaki’s novels. The next one on my TBR list is The Makioka Sisters, Tanizaki’s most famous novel.

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12 Responses to “Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    Fascinating!!! I loved these lines, and will pick it up for them alone: “Tanizaki leaves you pondering about the nature of love. Not romantic love, but love that grasps you and won’t let you go, no matter how much hurt and betrayal it leaves in its wake. People are essentially selfish, and you make choices according to your needs, regardless of whether it is good for you or not.” This is a great review, that leaves us wanting to read the book. I’ve seen it on a great many lists, but I never knew why until now.

    • chasingbawa Says:

      Thank you Bellezza! You comments are always so thoughtful and inspires me to write more reviews! Naomi is a really great read, complicated, but definitely worth it.

  2. Mel U Says:

    Thank you so much for bring this novel to our attention-I will for sure read it one day-I was wondering if there are any good still in print Japanese novels that show the Japanese homefront experience in WWII-?

    • chasingbawa Says:

      Hi Mel, I haven’t really read much Japanese fiction set during WWII except for David Peace’s Tokyo Year Zero and Kazuo Ishiguro’s Artist of the Floating World but here’s a great link with some interesting recommendations. Check it out. And I’ll keep looking too.

  3. Mel U Says:

    Thanks chasingbawa for this linked-I saved it and will research all books you mentioned-I am also looking for well researched historical novels by Japanese authors,
    science fiction works, and examples of what is called
    “Chic Lit”-I am a member of the Japanese Literature group on Goodreads.com-

    • chasingbawa Says:

      Sorry, I interupted myself when replying below! The most famous Japanese historical novel in translation is probably Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. Regarding chick-lit, Amy Yamada, Mariko Hayashi and Kaori Ekuni are really popular. A lot of their stories are turned into J-dorama.

  4. Tony Says:

    Tanizaki is definitely an author I’d like to get into (time permitting…).

  5. mee Says:

    I’ve been wanting to read this novel forever. I read The Key by Tanizaki the last time and was impressed. Naomi should be my next Tanizaki’s to read!

  6. madeleine Says:

    Hi, I absolutely love your blog and choice of books and you like Paris my birth place 😀

    I am adding you to my blog roll

    have a very nice week-end and thank-you for visiting my blog

  7. chasingbawa Says:

    Thanks for your comments guys!

    Mel U: That’s an interesting reading group. If you like historical, the most famous Japanese

    Tony: It’s definitely worth it! I took a long time to start reading Tanizaki too.

    Mee: I haven’t read The Key yet, but have heard it is one of Tanizaki’s most controversial novels.

    Madeleine: Paris, what can I say? My whole family is in love with the place!

  8. Michelle Says:

    After In Praise of Shadows, I’ve always had the thought at the back of my head to read more of Tanizaki’s work, but somehow, I’ve managed to do exactly the opposite! Now with my eyes trained on Murakami, I had actually thought that I would leave Tanizaki till later. But your review is forcing me to think twice.

    It’s a great review, it feels like there’s so much you want to say about it, and yet there is only so much one can say about it. Already you make the book sound interesting, but at the same time I get the feeling from your writing that there’s more to the book than what you’ve described.

    Looks like it would be worth my while to hunt it down.

  9. Mel U Says:

    I am currently reading Tanizaki’s The Secret History of Lord Musaki-1935-my reaction also was to be shocked how modern it seems-it seems more contemporary than most American and English works of the that period-


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