Americans Are Cray-Cray: The Destruction of Tradition in Tanizaki’s "Naomi"
There's a parasite on my neck! Oh, wait. It's the West
Merry Christmas Season, bloggers and internet creepers. I’d like you to meet an esteemed colleague of mine: Junichiro Tanizaki, a Japanese author who is not half as annoying as the one I covered a couple weeks ago (yes, I’m talking to you, sheep man). Yet don’t let his lovely prose and sympathetic characters fool you. Junichiro likes to swathe acidic cultural digs within rosy language, sensual imagery, and amusing scenarios; this triad of literary treats can be distracting. Readers almost forget that upon closer analysis, the fellow seems to have a rather large chip on his shoulder when it comes to the West and its influence on Japanese society. Writing back in the 20’s, when the West and Japan were somewhat tentatively interacting, Tanizaki wrote in order to address the consequences that he seemed to think would result if Japan became too interested in a foreign culture.
Joji's mistake: His ego
Naomi—the representation of the West’s worst characteristics—is the embodiment of hedonism, glamour, and power. As the novel progresses, she transforms into a terrifying, almost spiritual force, emitting an aura of dark sensuality that, in a parasitical manner, absorbs the willpower and dignity of those who surround her. Joji’s character represents the breakdown of traditional Japan; he becomes so enamored of the power that Naomi radiates that he self-destructs and allows her to absorb his individual identity. Through this perverse and lustful relationship, Tanizaki condemns an unhealthy interest in the unknown and illustrates the consequences of cultural obsession.
From the very beginning Naomi is established as a somewhat misplaced figure; she strikes Joji as “a quiet, gloomy child” (4) who “tended to hide in a corner as she did her work silently and nervously” (5). Although the first impression that readers receive of Naomi is, quite frankly, unremarkable—her face is described as being “pale and dull as a thick pane of colorless, transparent glass” (4)—both her name and overall appearance have a certain Western quality that initially pricks Joji’s curiosity: “The name excited my curiosity. A splendid name, I thought; written in Roman letters, it could be a Western name…In fact, Naomi resembled the motion-picture actress Mary Pickford: there was definitely something Western about her appearance” (4). He becomes intrigued by the idea of doing something culturally “different” and decides to take Naomi into his home to educate her: “Moreover, to make friends with a young girl and observe her development, day by day while we lived a cheerful, playful life in our own house—that, it seemed to me, would have a special appeal, quite different from that of setting up a proper household” (7). Furthermore, Joji appears to be under the impression that once he takes Naomi under his wing, he will be able to shape her character as he pleases: “ ‘I’ll take full responsibility and bring you up as a splendid young woman’ ” (13). This naïve attitude exemplifies the sort of dangerous curiosity that, at least according to Tanizaki, will inevitably destroy the fabric of Japanese society. Gripped with a feverish desire to obtain the glittering, utopian lifestyle that he believes the West embodies, Joji is too shortsighted to consider the possibility that the very element he thinks he can control could actually end up controlling him.
From Jewel to Mammal: An Evolutionary Regression!
As their courtship progresses and Joji’s feelings for Naomi take on a more romantic aspect, the way in which she is described alters as well. She ceases to be “dull” (4) and sickly and instead becomes “my treasure” (35). Although Joji’s diction is saturated with the typical and (to the impartial observer) nauseatingly sentimental musings of a lover who perceives nothing but beauty in the beloved, it does not appear to be particularly alarming—that is, on the surface. The first example of this budding obsession is when Joji tells Naomi that “ ‘I don’t just love you, I worship you. You’re my treasure. You’re a diamond that I found and polished’ ” (35-36). By comparing Naomi to this particular gem, the author gradually begins to place her in a somewhat exotic light. There are additional moments throughout the novel when she is referenced to different jewels; Joji describes her eyes as “peeking out like pearls from a shell ” (77). He even compares her tears to liquefied crystal: “Before I could wipe her eyes, they filled once again with tears. What clear, liquid eyes they were! I wished for some way to crystallize those beautiful teardrops and keep them forever” (78). These descriptions are among the first to portray Naomi in an unearthly light, and they lay the foundation for the future descriptions that paint her as a terrifying, powerful embodiment of Westernization.
It seems that in a relatively short amount of time, Naomi’s character assumes a wilder aura. Tanizaki sprinkles sinister insinuations throughout the story that predict this dark transformation even in the earlier stages of their courtship. For example, when Joji is admiring Naomi in one of her many extravagant outfits, he suddenly realizes that “when she put it on with her hair rolled up under a sports cap, she was as sensuous as a cat” (39). This feline comparison, though essentially soft and provoking, is one of the first indications readers receive of Naomi’s inner primal nature. When the painfully awkward scene of the social dance occurs and Naomi is surrounded by more sophisticated individuals, she appears positively animalistic: “Her speech, supercilious and lacking in feminine gentleness, was often vulgar. In short, she was a wild animal” (92). Later in the evening Joji dances with a classy Western woman and states that “having been trampled so long by that unruly colt Naomi, this was a height of feminine refinement that I’d never before imagined” (100, emphasis added). He also describes the frightening power of Naomi’s eyes in such a way that she comes across as almost predatory: “If there’s such a thing as animal electricity, Naomi’s eyes had it in abundance. It seemed beyond belief that they were a woman’s eyes” (47). Her animalistic characteristics become such a definitive element of their relationship that Joji’s character gradually assumes the role of the hunted victim: “…her breasts, arms, and calves were exposed here and there by gaps in her careless gown…this was one of the poses that Naomi always struck to seduce me. When confronted with it, I turned into baited prey” (109).
It is almost impossible to describe the gorgeous and sensual prose that explodes across the pages in the latter of the novel as Naomi morphs from wild colt to a dark divinity. Perhaps the indescribable beauty of Tanizaki’s diction is precisely the point; it places the readers on the same awestruck level as Joji. Any resemblance of humanity that Naomi may have possessed up to this point is stripped away. Joji compares her to a fox demon (120) and admits that she is the most alluring to him when she appears the most inhuman: “Naomi looked like evil incarnate as she stood there…Why hadn’t I fallen to my knees when I was struck by her beauty in the midst of our quarrel, when my heart cried out ‘How beautiful!’ ” (170, 173) Joji’s notion of “evil” seems to be synonymous with beauty: “It occurs to me that, even to this day, I’ve never seen her face so voluptuous as it was then. It was evil incarnate, without any question, and at the same time it was all the beauty of her body and spirit elevated to its highest level” (173). The feelings that Naomi’s beauty invokes within him is so inexpressible that Joji can only ask “to what could I compare this feeling, so that my readers will understand?” (210) It is almost as if he is attempting to describe a beatific vision, and human language cannot, of course, adequately express such supernatural wonders .The raw power and sensuality that Naomi emits is like “a strong wine. I knew it’d be bad for me to drink too much, but I was shown the brimming, richly fragrant cups every day and I couldn’t help myself” (172-173). Her supernatural aura entwines itself around him so strongly that he becomes hopelessly entangled; this entrapment not only decays his individuality, but turns his original—and relatively innocent—interest in Naomi into an obsession that feeds like a leech on his emotional and psychological stability.
Peeling Back the Onion's Layers
Though Naomi is deceptively comedic on the surface, the author slowly and painfully peels back the layers of the book to expose the dark and disturbing implications throughout. In essence, Tanizaki’s argument is relatively simple: once the West is stripped of its alluring exterior, it reveals itself to be little more than a destructive weapon that will obliterate the dignity and traditionalism that lies at the very heart of Japanese culture.
At the end of the novel Joji states that “it seems that once a person has a terrifying experience, the experience becomes an obsession that never goes away” (236). This “terrifying experience”(236) no doubt refers to Westernization; the relationship between Naomi and Joji is the tool Tanizaki employs in order to suggest what will happen if Japan allows itself to be enticed by the glamorous façade of the West. Dependency on a foreign culture can only rob a society of its cultural identity and render its individual members incapable of independent thought and willpower.