“In Black and White” by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō Tanizaki Jun'ichirō

Jun’ichirō Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese author and a finalist for the 1964 Nobel Prize for Literature. A prestigious award, the Tanizaki Prize, was established to honor his contributions to Japanese literature. Many of his works have been adapted for film. So, it came as a surprise that one of his novels discovered in a collection of his works had never been translated.

In Black and White, A Novel, Jun'ichirō Tanizaki, Phyllis I Lyons (trans) (Columbia University Press, January 2018)
In Black and White, A Novel,
Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Phyllis I Lyons (trans) (Columbia University Press, January 2018)

This recently translated novel, In Black and White, encapsulates some of Tanizaki’s main themes including sexual obsession and Japan’s journey toward modern westernization. Tanizaki was also an experimental writer, and this novel is in part metafiction. The story is about a successful yet self-destructive novelist named Mizuno struggling to make a deadline, while worrying about accidently using the actual name of a friend as a character in a recently published book. The character, Cojima, is murdered in the book and Mizuno becomes paranoid that art may imitate life. Mizuno also ponders his use of real people in his stories, wondering what that means for his own psychological being.


The protagonist of the story was, like Mizuno himself, a literary man. … He loved no human but himself. He saw everything as random and accidental. This was the fundamental view of human life that permeated his works, but before long he felt his artistic genius begin to weaken, and eventually he got to the point where he had to try acting out his aesthetic position in real life.


Under pressure from his publisher to submit his next manuscript, Mizuno is also running out of money, as he spends much of it drinking in Ginza taverns and visiting brothels. One night out on the town, he is seated across from a woman who is with two men. She is sophisticated, talking about her time in Germany, sprinkling her conversation with words in German. The woman catches the eye of Mizuno and later feels her shoe touching his leg. Not sure if the flirting was intentional, he doesn’t act on it before she leaves with the men. Chastising himself for his inaction, he follows them to the restaurant he had heard them mention. He imagines an encounter with her:


You’d follow the woman to the second floor, and there would be a secret bedroom. Your body would sink into the overstuffed easy chair; there would be the chaise lounge, the double bed, the lace curtains, the mantel over the fireplace … Gradually as drunkenness whirled around him, Mizuno wildly imagined this dreamlike scene, as if he had become the hero of a dirty French novel.


He does catch up with the woman, whom he nicknames Fräulein. When he proposes they enjoy each other’s company, she lets him know she will need to be paid. They spend this first evening negotiating a fee, which is more than he has. She insists on the price and also has strict rules on when they meet. Now obsessed with her, he agrees.

Coming up with the money, however, is a problem. He eventually reaches an agreement with his editor at the publisher The People to produce a number of pages for an advance on his publishing fee. Using the money to pay for his encounters with the woman, he finds the money well spent. But now that he wants to continue meeting her, he needs more money.


Their next meeting was the coming Tuesday, but if he didn’t have even train fare to get to Yokohama, it just wasn’t going to happen. So he had no choice but to write some more manuscript pages. But he wondered if there wasn’t some way to compromise with The People without losing face.


And then, his fears come true when his friend, Cojima, is murdered just as in his novel. Believing he will be a suspect, Mizuno seeks to assure his alibi—he was with the Fräulein the night the man was killed. But finding her becomes a problem. He doesn’t know exactly where she lives, and he has no other way of contacting her. The police do close in on him, as well as his publisher and editor. His life spirals down.


But as he looked at the showy death notice lying here right before his eyes, there was no way he could prevent the hidden fears he had pushed down beneath his consciousness from gradually creeping stealthily upward to the surface of his heart.


Will he escape from his nightmare? It’s well worth reading In Black and White to find out. If you haven’t read Tanizaki, this novel is an excellent introduction.

Todd Shimoda is the author of Why Ghosts Appear, Subduction, Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware', The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.