Friday, May 30, 2014

"In Praise of Shadows" by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

An essay on aesthetics by the Japanese novelist, this book explores architecture, jade, food, and even toilets, combining an acute sense of the use of space in buildings. The book also includes descriptions of laquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure.

I'm just starting to come to terms with my interest in Eastern culture, especially compared to the West. When I think about it, it's been a part of my life for a very long time: growing up, our closest family friends were Japanese, and we would often receive presents from Japan; fans, boxes, rice seasonings, paper.These objects had a certain air of mystery and ...."differentness" about them. The colors, the textures: I knew what the objects were, but at the same time they weren't quite the same as the ones I was used to. And with a brother eight years older, going through a socially tragic anime phase, I was exposed to Japanese media very early on as well. For a long time all I thought of it as was different, but in recent years I've started to dig deeper- what makes it different? What are the fundamentals of Eastern culture as opposed to those of Western that put them at odds? What are the contrasts in the philosophies, the storytelling? 

I think the answers can be found in media as basic as music videos and tv shows- if there are ideas at the core of a society, they'll manifest in whatever that society creates. So while visual kei band videos have made me question gender stereotypes, and animes have made me wonder about the roots of Eastern mythology as compared to Western, I've also started to branch into literature for answers to my questions. It was completely by coincidence that I found In Praise of Shadows just as my interest in these subjects was starting to blossom. I was organizing my bookshelves (they were just built and I was putting all my books on them) and I came to a bunch that were my brother's. They were mainly graphic novels from his college courses, so I assumed Tanizaki's book to be as well. But when I opened it up I didn't see pictures, so I read the back to find out what it was about. Turns out, an essay on Japanese aesthetic and sense of beauty and the effects of Westernization on the Japanese way of life. I almost cried. 

In Praise of Shadows is an essay in some regards: in others, the ramblings of a man disenchanted with the bright lights of the West. He begins by describing his struggles in building a traditional Japanese house for himself, trying to reconcile his desire for the traditional Japanese looks and fixtures with the necessities of the modern, westernized world. In a sense, trying to exclude Western presence from a house is trying to create an illusion; it will be there, but the struggle is in making it appear to not be. From this point he continues to talk about light through paper, toilets, jade, feminine beauty, the Noh theater, and other seemingly random aspects of Japanese culture. And for this reason many critics have said of the essay that it is disjointed, not structured well. But what Tanizaki wishes to do is to provide a range of examples of the way the modern world has changed aspects of the Japanese society, aspects that range from theatre to toilets, that even the most commonplace things are not as they once were. At the end of the book there is also a note about how Japanese writing style is much more train of consciousness, less structured and contrived than Western writing.

My interest in Westernization in the East is a bit masochistic, considering that whenever I think about it it makes me infinitely sad. I shared Tanizaki's lament while reading his book: Japan, untouched by the West, is a thing of the past. A nation must keep moving forward, must keep up with the rest of the world, and therefore must change. He concedes that the products of the West do make life easier, that at the end of the day living without the modern conveniences wouldn't necessarily be preferable. Yet he also argues that if Japan were left alone and given time, it would have created the same sort of modern inventions, yet tailored to the Eastern tastes, which I find to be a very interesting idea. It's not the innovation that's bad, it's that Japan has to adapt to the innovation of the West rather than their own. But this feeling of regret over the loss of culture is what intrigues me so much about Japan; I think that even today, the sadness Tanizaki speaks of is still very strongly felt, even as the bright lights of the Western world are celebrated. It is in the shadows that Japanese culture has grown and lives, and now all of those shadows are perishing in the illumination of the modern world.

This essay provided a good bit of insight into the feelings of nostalgia felt by so many Japanese people; I came away understanding so much more of the sentiments about Westernization felt in the East. But it really felt like a kick to the stomach when I looked the book up and realized it was written in the 1930s. Almost a century ago. I had been reading the whole book assuming it was written in the present, seeing as all of the author's comments are still entirely relevant. But almost a century ago. Think how much has changed since then, how further the country has become less of its past self. How sad Tanizaki would be if he were still alive today. 

The book is only forty pages, and if you're interested in Japanese culture it really explains so much, especially about the subtleties that wouldn't really come up otherwise. In his descriptions of Japanese aesthetics or customs, I thought of a lot of anime that I had seen and suddenly understood how it reflected what the author was talking about: the way light in rooms was depicted, the values that were subtly present. I would recommend it 110%- I feel that this text will become a touchstone for me in my future explorations on the subject.

5/5 stars- going on my favorites shelf.

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