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In Praise of Shadows (1933)

by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,407369,377 (4)41
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.… (more)
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English (29)  Spanish (4)  French (2)  Dutch (1)  All languages (36)
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
This book was originally published in 1933, first translated to English in 1977. It's widely considered to be a nifty monograph on Japanese aesthetics and contains paragraphs that at first may seem bizarre and navel-gazing, like this one, on the toilet:

Every time I am shown to an old, dimly lit, and, I would add, impeccably clean toilet in a Nara or Kyoto temple, I am impressed with the singular virtues of Japanese architecture. The parlor may have its charms, but the Japanese toilet is truly a place of spiritual repose. It always stands apart from the main building, at the end of a corridor, in a grove fragrant with leaves and moss. No words can describe that sensation as one sits in the dim light, basking in the faint glow reflected from the shoji, lost in meditation or gazing out at the garden. The novelist Natsume Sôseki counted his morning trips to the toilet a great pleasure, “a physiological delight” he called it. And surely there could be no better place to savor this pleasure than a Japanese toilet where, surrounded by tranquil walls and finely grained wood, one looks out upon blue skies and green leaves.

Still, the short monograph pulls you in, letting you get into the contents and kind of made me think of stuff at home in an existentialistic way. Further on the toilet:

As I have said there are certain prerequisites: a degree of dimness, absolute cleanliness, and quiet so complete one can hear the hum of a mosquito. I love to listen from such a toilet to the sound of softly falling rain, especially if it is a toilet of the Kantô region, with its long, narrow windows at floor level; there one can listen with such a sense of intimacy to the raindrops falling from the leaves and the trees, seeping into the earth as they wash over the base of a stone lantern and freshen the moss about the stepping stones. And the toilet is the perfect place to listen to the chirping of insects or the song of the birds, to view the moon, or to enjoy any of those poignant moments that mark the change of the seasons. Here, I suspect, is where haiku poets over the ages have come by a great many of their ideas. Indeed one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature. Compared to Westerners, who regard the toilet as utterly unclean and avoid even the mention of it in polite conversation, we are far more sensible and certainly in better taste. The Japanese toilet is, I must admit, a bit inconvenient to get to in the middle of the night, set apart from the main building as it is; and in winter there is always a danger that one might catch cold. But as the poet Saitô Ryoku has said, “elegance is frigid.” Better that the place be as chilly as the out-of-doors; the steamy heat of a Western-style toilet in a hotel is the most unpleasant.

The author questions the basic ideas of what "we" dislike:

One reason we hate to go to the dentist is the scream of his drill; but the excessive glitter of glass and metal is equally intimidating.

The praises of materialistic things are quite interesting:

Darkness is an indispensable element of the beauty of lacquerware. [...] I know few greater pleasures than holding a lacquer soup bowl in my hands, feeling upon my palms the weight of the liquid and its mild warmth. The sensation is something like that of holding a plump newborn baby. [...] It has been said of Japanese food that it is a cuisine to be looked at rather than eaten. I would go further and say that it is to be meditated upon, a kind of silent music evoked by the combination of lacquerware and the light of a candle flickering in the dark.

Also, on the older trend of blackening teeth:

One thinks of the practice of blackening the teeth. Might it not have been an attempt to push everything except the face into the dark?

However, the "we" and "they" devolves into sheer nationalism and racism at times:

Yamamoto Sanehiko, president of the Kaizô publishing house, told me of something that happened when he escorted Dr. Einstein on a trip to Kyoto. As the train neared Ishiyama, Einstein looked out the window and remarked, “Now that is terribly wasteful.” When asked what he meant, Einstein pointed to an electric lamp burning in broad daylight. “Einstein is a Jew, and so he is probably very careful about such things”—this was Yamamoto’s interpretation. But the truth of the matter is that Japan wastes more electric light than any Western country except America.

That's just sad. Even though Junʼichirō Tanizaki quotes another person above, it's not good, rational or anything other than demagogy. Furthermore:

The Japanese quite aside, I cannot believe that Westerners, however much they may prefer light, can be other than appalled at the heat, and I have no doubt they would see immediately the improvement in turning down the lights.

All in all, it's like reading a well-written monograph with bits of "Mein Kampf" in it, which ultimately brings this down. The fact that it's written in 1933 does not excuse anything. ( )
  pivic | Mar 21, 2020 |
Read it, was ambivalent (I mean, that skin colour analysis was weird), but then visited a bunch of Japanese temples / shrines / castles / countrysides, and couldn't stop noting the harmony between architecture and light/shadow. A good mental exercise in how much culture and technology influence each other and what we are potentially missing out on. ( )
  kitzyl | Dec 11, 2019 |
Fascinating little read that celebrates all things subtle, yin, understated and dark. A book of its time and culture in places, yet manages to capture something we have lost among all the bright, garish screens and colours that make up the modern world. ( )
  6loss | Nov 7, 2019 |
Tanizaki's 'essay' (which I would argue is more an opinion piece than an essay) has some beautiful meditative points, though it just didnt quite reach the depths I was expecting. I hold Japanese culture close to my heart, so I was expecting to feel a little more connected to In Praise of Shadows.

I quite enjoyed his descriptions of such topics as: simplistic, authentic Japanese food, outdoor, mediative toilets, dim, candlelit dining and shadows as an important aspect of beauty. Though I did get a little bored of his 'everything new should be replaced with the old' repetitions, and the analysis of women's appearance, skin tone and objectification.

I was tossing and turning between 2 and 3 stars, but as it was written so long ago, by a man who was in his later years and lived a completely different life to me, I gave him a little more credit. ( )
  polyreaderamy | Jun 11, 2018 |
A warm and intimate flow of thought through a delicate web of language, remarkable for its elegance even in translation, reaching the modern Western reader from a time and place that is seemingly as near as it is lost, a profound act of magic.

And though the nationalistic spirit is lost on me, and there is more grumbling in the end than one would be willing to grant to an author who never loses an opportunity to apologize for this same sentiment, the glimpses into his mind and the scenes one is made privy to exceed any expectation, and what the translator calls an essay, allowing for its incoherence in comparison to the occidental essay, swift and arrow-like in its movement, is as coherent as I can chew.

I had thought to add that it is probably the only work you'll ever find that contains a comparison between female buttocks and a water closet, but relinquished the thought because the twain are not as distant as one might imagine; but that's not why they are compared.

I had also planned to mention how much light the text sheds on the traditional Japanese set of mind, but that is most definitely against the grain. ( )
  alik-fuchs | Apr 27, 2018 |
Showing 1-5 of 29 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Jun'ichirō Tanizakiprimary authorall editionscalculated
Harper, Thomas J.Afterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Harper, Thomas J.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Moore, Charles WillardForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Nolla, AlbertTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Seidensticker, Edward G.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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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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