PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.
Books

Junichiro Tanizaki's 'Naomi' Than Vladimir Nabokov's 'Lolita'

“Japanese Girl” (partial) by Mariska found on RedBubble.com

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.


Naomi

Publisher: Vintage
Author: Junichiro Tanizaki
Price: $14.95
Format: Paperback
Length: 256 pages
ISBN-10: 0375724745
Publication Date: 2001-04
Amazon

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.

8

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Music

Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.

Music

Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.

Music

Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.

Music

Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.

Music

Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.

Film

The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.

Music

British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.

Film

Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.

Music

​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.

Music

The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.

Music

Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.

Television

How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.

Music

Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.

Music

CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.

Music

Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.

Music

While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.