Tanizaki (1886-1965), one of the most famous of all Japanese novelists, is probably best known for his big novel The Makioka Sisters (1943-48). Another of his classics is Tade kuu mushi or Some Prefer Nettles, published in 1928, in which he takes on a subject that became somewhat of an obsession for him – the conflict between tradition and modernization in Japan.
As Edward Seidensticker, the translator of this volume and one of the deans of English translation from the Japanese, points out in his Introduction, Tanizaki’s dark, sometimes erotically-charged early works, much influenced by Poe, were labeled “demoniac” in Japan. The Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 was apparently a turning point for Tanizaki and his career. That famous quake, which killed over 100,000 and devastated Tokyo, Yokohama, and nearby regions, also destroyed numerous old buildings and neighborhoods, provoking Tanizaki to a kind of nostalgia for Japan’s fragile, quickly disappearing past. Places like Osaka and Kyoto, where the traditional arts continued to flourish, became opposed in Tanizaki’s art – in Some Prefer Nettles and a number of other novels – to cities like Tokyo that were more forward-looking.
The book’s title comes from Japanese proverb: “Every worm to his taste; some prefer to eat nettles.” Kaname (seen by Seidensticker as something of a surrogate for Tanizaki) and Misako are married but no longer sleep together, and Misako is having an affair. Their son Hiroshi is aware of the tension between them, but doesn’t know all the details. Misako is unabashedly attracted to the new and foreign. Kaname, whose tastes had been Western in orientation, finds his attention turning to the bunraku puppet theater, a tradition still alive in Osaka. The opposing poles are clear: old and new, Osaka and Tokyo, Japanese and foreign. And the merchant class and intelligentsia: Kaname grew up in a merchant area in Tokyo, and the way of life, songs, and theater that attract him in Osaka are also memories from his Tokyo childhood.
Tanizaki’s description of the Misako-Kaname relationship: “It was as if they held a basin of water balanced between them and waited to see in which direction it would spill.” Misako’s interest is entirely in her lover Aso in Kobe, with whom she has been involved for two years and whom she visits as often as possible with Kaname’s knowledge and, on some level, approval.
Kaname and Misako attend a puppet theater performance with Misako’s father, known simply as “the old man,” and his much younger lover O-hisa. Kaname admires the art of one of the puppeteers and finds himself, much to his surprise, very much enjoying the play. O-hisa, who is dressed in kimono and whose knowledge of the traditional arts the old man is cultivating, is seen by Kaname as representative of some eternal notion of womanhood in Japanese history, “a shade left behind by another age.” As Kaname’s interest in the puppet theater increases, so does his attraction to O-hisa. As Tanizaki pointedly says, “For Kaname a woman had to be either a goddess or a plaything. Possibly the real reason for his failure with Misako was that she could be neither. Had she not been his wife he might have been able to look on her as a plaything, and the fact that she was his wife made it impossible for him to find her interesting.”
Kaname’s view of the puppet theater seems to reflect Tanizaki’s own fascination with Japan’s past: “The lacquered threshold on the stage, the shop curtain covering part of a tapering doorway, the low, latticed partition in the foreground, all gave him a depressing sense of the moldy darkness in which the Osaka townsman lived. And yet there was in it something too of the quiet, mysterious gloom of a temple, something of the dark radiance that a Buddha’s halo sends out from the depth of its niche. It was far from the brightness of a Hollywood movie. Rather it was a low, burnished radiance, easy to miss, pulsing out from beneath the overlays of the centuries.”
An uncle, Takanatsu, wants to act as an intermediary in Kaname’s and Misako’s marriage, encouraging them towards a proper separation or divorce, and to greater honesty with their son. His presence temporarily relieves the tension between the married couple, showing “unexpectedly how much there still was about them of the husband and wife when for the moment they were free not to play at being husband and wife.”
In the midst of all this human misery, Tanizaki’s descriptions are often lovely and lyrical – “For all the darkness inside, there seemed still to be a soft evening light in the garden, and the maple leaves through the high latticed window glowed a clearer, fresher green, like a silken fabric, than they had in the full daylight.”
Tensions come to a head when Misako writes the old man about the situation, and the uncle Takanatsu takes it upon himself to intervene. A trip to the old man’s home by Kaname and Misako, and a late-night visit by O-hisa to Kaname’s room that is the final scene of the novel, end totally ambiguously and unresolved. Regarded as one of Tanizaki’s finest works, Some Prefer Nettles explores a number of his favorite themes, on levels from the socio-cultural to the intimate and human, in language both precise and evocative.