A number of years ago I reviewed Nabokov’s Lolita and claimed it to be an overrated book. Not a bad book, but merely overrated. Comments were left calling me everything from a philistine to worse because how dare I disrespect Nabokov’s “genius”. Well, I still say Lolita is still an overrated book. Moreover, Tanizaki’s Naomi (1925) not only deals with similar themes as Lolita, but it is also a richer and more complex work. In fact, I am baffled that more Westerners are not familiar with it.
Many of the ideas within Modern Japanese literature involve the shift from the old traditions of the East, to the more Westernized cultural influence one finds in Japan today. Following the death of Emperor Meiji in 1912, the end of this period in Japanese history marked the beginning of these transitions, and writers like Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima and Jun’ichirō Tanizaki continued to express the struggles that accompany such transitions. Tanizaki is one of the most well-known writers addressing this shift from old to new, for in Naomi, we have not only an insular, unhealthy relationship between a young girl and an older man, (ala Lolita), but there is also an obsession for the shallow aspects of Western culture that both characters share.
Set in ‘20s Japan, just following the First World War, Joji is a 28-year-old bachelor who develops an infatuation with a 15-year-old waitress he meets in a café. Naomi is innocent and naïve, and possesses what Joji deems the ideal Eurasian features, as well as a physical similarity to the American silent film actress, Mary Pickford. Joji offers to educate her, in exchange for having her live with him. His intention is to shape Naomi into his fantasy and someday make her his wife, while also watching her grow into a woman. With no other opportunities presented to her, Naomi accepts his offer.
It’s not long after Naomi moves in that Joji begins to bathe her, as well as allowing her to ride on his back as though he is her play pony. Joji and Naomi play silly, childish games that are not only creepy, but also incredibly unhealthy by any cultural standard. For one thing, initially Naomi has no friends outside of the house, and she soon grows into a lazy, spoiled brat. Refusing to launder her clothes because she fears her fingers will “fatten”, she leaves soiled clothing around the house. She orders maids to wait on her, she purchases expensive kimonos and shoes well beyond their means. Slowly Joji begins to drain his savings just so he can support her lavish lifestyle, until there is nothing left.
Eventually, Joji comes to believe his future wife is not that smart. Continually messing up her English lessons, he is often left publicly embarrassed by her loudness and demands. As the narrative unfolds, we see that it is really Joji under Naomi’s command, not the other way around. Naomi is not without humor, for Tanizaki does not hesitate in poking fun of this Western obsession of youthful beauty and vanity. While Joji and Naomi are taking Western dance lessons, Joji gets pinned between two women and is forced to listen to their shallow banter:
“She talked about Madame Shlemskya again, then about dance, foreign languages, and music—Beethoven’s sonatas were such and such, the Third Symphony was whatever, this company’s records were better than that company’s. Utterly dejected, I couldn’t think of anything to say in reply, and so presently she directed her chatter toward the music teacher. I gathered that Mrs. Brown was taking piano lessons from Miss Sugizaki. Since I wasn’t capable of seizing the proper moment to excuse myself gracefully, I had to remain sandwiched in between these two garrulous ladies, lamenting my misfortune.”
This scene is not only hilarious, but it gives Joji a more relatable quality. Although he is driven by his shallow emotional longings and sexual weaknesses, one sort of feels sorry for him, especially following Naomi’s poor treatment of him and her infidelities. There’s a sense that Joji truly cares for Naomi, and wants to make her happy. In Lolita’s Humbert Humbert, by contrast, he’s not only an unlikable character, but also one not particularly relatable, unless one wants to admit to being an artsy wannabe with a fetish for young girls. Overall, Joji is not only more relatable for the average reader, but more real, because he’s not emitting pretentious airs and thus he exposes his vulnerabilities more willingly.
Naomi and Joji are both doomed, for by the end, neither one has grown up or changed. The only thing realized is Joji’s own contentment at being beneath Naomi’s manipulative control. Oddly, once Naomi is an adult she tells him: “Disgusting. You shouldn’t look at a lady’s body,” when she catches him looking at her figure. Tanizaki deliberately italicizes the word lady since their relationship only seems to work when she is playing the role of the child. Readers are given a sense that he is aware he is making the foolish choice of staying with her following her infidelities when he states: “For myself, it makes no difference what you think of me; I’m in love with Naomi.”
Naomi is often called Tanizaki’s “first important novel”, because not only is the psychology behind sexual obsession uncovered, but it also exposes the contradictions of the culture during that time. Even engaging in Western dance lessons was considered risqué, even though such activities indicated an elevated class level. So within the historical context, as well as the masochism of their relationship, the layering within this “first important novel” is rich and, I declare, it’s much better than Lolita.