Naomi by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
”It is often said that ‘women deceive men.’ But from my experience, I’d say that it doesn’t start with the woman deceiving the man. Rather, the man, without any prompting, rejoices in being deceived; when he falls in love with a woman, everything she says, whether true or not, sounds adorable to our ears…. I know what you are up to, but I’ll let you tempt me.”
Jōji is a salaryman. He grew up on a wealthy farm in the country and has no desire to return. He enjoys the benefits of living in a city. He is obsessed with breaking from tradition and adopting Western ways. He is twenty-eight when he first sees the beautiful fifteen year old siren working as a café hostess. Naomi is docile and meek and a plan begins to formulate in Jōji’s mind.
He will sculpt her into what he desires.
He visits her family and is shocked by how easily they agree to allow him to take her into his home.
Naomi reminds him of the silent screen actress Mary Pickford. Her skin is pale, much lighter than most Japanese girls. He encourages her to fix her hair like the actress. He buys her western clothes and begins to train her to be the perfect “modern” girl.
Mary Pickford is the prototype for Naomi.
So in the beginning he has complete control. There are certainly Pygmalion elements to Jōji’s obsession with this sculpted creature. He is a man of honor even though the circumstances do warrant a raised eyebrow. He does not debauch her. He bathes her. He enjoys watching the burgeoning woman emerge from the slender reed he first brought home.
”For me Naomi was the same as a fruit that I’d cultivated myself. I’d labored hard and spared no pains to bring that piece of fruit to its present, magnificent ripeness, and it was only proper that I, the cultivator, should be the one to taste it. “
Jōji’s desire grows as he continues to deny himself the pleasures her body has been so carefully designed to administer to him. There is a shift in power that begins very subtly, but then becomes a full revolution. Naomi is embracing her modernization and has discovered that men find her desirable.
Naomi embracing her modernization in the 1967 movie adaptation called The Love of an Idiot
”The precious, sacred ground of her skin had been imprinted forever with the muddy tracks of two thieves.”
The Shimizu white peach has been bruised.
His investment has been stolen mere moments before he intended to finally enjoy the “fruits” of his labor. He has been deceived. He has all the normal reactions to finding this out. ”I realized that a woman’s face grows more beautiful the more it incurs a man’s hatred.” He hates her. He despises her. He misses her. He loves her.
”Night is usually associated with darkness; but to me, night always brought thoughts of the whiteness of Naomi’s skin. Unlike the bright shadowless whiteness of noon, it was a whiteness wrapped in tatters, amid soiled, unsightly, dusty quilts; and that drew me to it all the more.”
The complexity of desire.
It is impossible to have control as long as a coveted passion exists. Does Jōji adapt or does he snap like a dry bamboo twig? It is fascinating watching this shifting of power and what he is willing to do, what he is willing to put up with just to stay in Naomi’s presence. The doll slave becomes the master.
Junichiro Tanizaki spurred the Westernization of Japan.
The novel is set in 1924, but the book was published in 1947 right in the midst of a radical shift in Japanese culture from the traditions that had governed their behavior for centuries to a more westernized version. Junichiro Tanizaki’s book had an enormous impact on Japanese women who were just beginning to reject the traditional housewife role and embrace the Western idea of female freedom. The absurd aspects of the Japanese male tendency to dream of being seduced by a siren is examined with a certain level of sympathy. There are several abnormal situations in the book, but what I have come to know, with knowing more people, that what may seem abnormal actually exists in very normal circumstances. People define relationships very differently. The expanded status aspect of a Facebook account shows the complexity of defining our connections with people.
Is there a moral to this story?
”If you think that my account is foolish, please go ahead and laugh. If you think that there’s a moral in it, then, please let it serve as a lesson. For myself, it makes no difference what you think of me; I’m in love with Naomi.”
Ultimately, wouldn’t we all be happier if we didn’t let people outside of a relationship dictate our own feelings for the person who, for better or worse, is the person we love? This is a Japanese spin on a Nabokovian theme (though published before Lolita) of the love and desire of forbidden fruit and the potential for that love to prove toxic. What will you do to be with the one you love?
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