“Once you start doubting, it’s hard to know what to believe”

Dear Tanizaki-san,

The plot of your novel Naomi (痴人の愛 Chijin no Ai, lit. A Fool’s Love, transl. Anthony H. Chambers) centers around a man’s destructive erotic obsession for a girl, during Japan’s roaring ’20s. The protagonist, Joji, is an electrical engineer in Tokyo, a well-educated 28-year-old man from a wealthy landlord family. He decides to break away from his traditional Japanese culture, and immerses himself in the Westernized culture embodied in a young girl named Naomi, who possess exotic “Eurasian” looks and a somewhat Western-sounding name. She looks like Mary Pickford, a famous actress of the silent film era, and acts just like a japanese ‘flapper’. Joji instantly falls for the fifteen-year-old Naomi when he sees her for the first time at the Café Diamond in Asakusa, Tokyo‘s amusement district. She comes from a poor family, and is then working as a café hostess. Not long after they met, Joji decides to take her under his wing to educate and forge her into a glamorous Western girl.

Tanizaki
Review

Set in Tokyo from the late 1910’s until the middle 1920’s, the story is narrated in the first person by Joji, who tells us the slowly evolvement of his obsession. He moves Naomi into his home, and pays for her English education and Music lessons. However, his plan to foster Western ideals (such as individualism and autonomy) in her backfires dramatically as she gets older. Joji begins the novel being the dominator. However, he is wrong to think he can model her after his wishes. As time progresses and his obsession takes hold, Naomi’s manipulation puts her in a position of power over him. Slowly but steadily, as she loses all inhibitions and becomes more and more sexually aggressive, Joji becomes increasingly ensnared in his relationship with Naomi, and begins to concede to everything she desires. The novel’s Japanese title, “Chijin no Ai,” (“A Fool’s Love”), is a good hint of the nature of the relationship between Jôji and Naomi: a Japanese amour fou.

The novel, written in 1924, can be read as a social satire on a Westernizing Japan. It explores the contradictions of the culture during the Taisho Era (1912-26), also known as Japan’s Jazz Age. The two main characters are very much a product of their times. Joji represents Japan’s obsession, at the time, with modernization. Both uneasy and excited, Joji lusts for what he can never be. On the other hand, Naomi’s lifestyle and character can be read as a depiction of Japan’s rush into modernism in the 20’s, and mirrors the drastic change in the woman’s role in society during the Taisho Era. She can also be read as a criticism on the Western values (or lack of): she is narcissistic, willful, loud, unfaithful, superficial, manipulative, predatory, bad mannered, and yet… also vital, strong, liberated, charming (albeit in a strange way). Naomi is the perfect anti-heroine.

Such as Japan’s fascination with the West, Naomi’s appeal to Joji is an uncomfortable attraction. The novel reflects the perspective of a man shifting between modern and traditional Japan, and the conflicts associated with this period. Such as Joji finds himself dragged further and further into Naomi, Japan found itself more and more dependent on the West. The relationship between Joji and Naomi mirrors the widespread perception that the traditions would eventually be completely engulfed by the West, if Japan – like Joji – placed itself in a somewhat subordinate role. Such as Japan is being seduced by the siren’s song of Western culture, Joji is trapped by his infatuation with Naomi. The character’s sexual obsession with the anti-heroine is a tale of deception – as are all the forms of cultural conquest.

Yours truly,

J.

Kobayakawa Kiyoshi
Kobayakawa Kiyoshi, “Rouge”, 1931

“For me Naomi was the same as a fruit that I’d cultivated myself. I’d labored hard and spared no pains to bring that piece of fruit to its present, magnificent ripeness, and it was only proper that I, the cultivator, should be the one to taste it.”

― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Naomi

“(…) but once you start doubting,it’s hard to know what to believe.”

― Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Naomi


About the book

  • Vintage, 2001, transl. Anthony H. Chambers, 237 p.
  • Original title: 痴人の愛 – Chijin no Ai, lit. A Fool’s Love
  • First published in 1924
  • Goodreads
  • My rating: 4,5 stars
  • The book was serialized in the Osaka Asahi newspaper, from March to June 1924; then censored and forbidden by the government in June 1924; and, finally, five months later, published and completed in the modern women‘s magazine Josei. Since 1947, publishers have compiled the chapters and published them as a book. Naomi has also been adapted into film several times. The most recent film adaptation was in 1993, by director Toshiki Sato.
  • Bellezza over at Dolce Bellezza hosted a Read-Along for this book in June. You can find her review here.

 

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9 Comments Add yours

  1. Bellezza says:

    Your review amazes me! It is so beautifully written, so articulate and full of information. Before I even began reading what you had written, I was taken with the picture you put at the top of your post. It seems to capture how I envision Naomi perfectly. But, you added so much of your own insight in such a clear and organized way, as well as helpful quotes from Tanizaki himself. They really added to my appreciation, and understanding, of the novel, as at first I wasn’t fully aware that he was talking about Western civilization as much as the relationship between the two. Just like in so much Japanese literature, the apparent simplicity is deceiving; the novel isn’t simple at all. I’m so glad you read with me, I’m off to add a link to my post and also to the review site in case you haven’t done so yet.

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    1. Juliana Brina says:

      Thank you so much, Bellezza! 🙂
      I agree with you: this apparent simplicity frequently puzzles me. I suppose that’s part of what draws me into Japanese fiction.
      Thank you once again for inviting me to the read-along. 🙂

      Like

  2. One of my favourite Japanese writers, I’ve often go on about this but if you haven’t try In praise of Shadows

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    1. Juliana Brina says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation, Gary! Tanizaki just won me over! 🙂

      Like

  3. tamara says:

    I agree with Bellezza – this post is gorgeous. I’m just begining to collect my readings for JLC9 – so thank you for this gorgeous post – I’m thinking I might start here.

    Like

    1. Juliana Brina says:

      Thank you very much, Tamara! 🙂

      Like

  4. What a wonderfully informative review! My knowledge on Japanese history is non-existent so this review was a helpful as I have a copy of Naomi gathering dust on my bookshelf. I am late to everything so I didn’t know there was a read-along. But hopefully I can read this before the end of the Japanese Challenge.

    The pictures are lovely too.

    Like

    1. Juliana Brina says:

      Thank you for commenting! I just find out your blog, and what a lovely discovery it was 🙂

      Like

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