A “Modern Girl”: Naomi by Junichirō Tanizaki

Untitled design(2)Junichirō Tanizaki’s Naomi was first published as a newspaper serial in 1924. Young, progressive readers loved the novel; however, censors and conservative readers were much less enthusiastic about the “obscene and risqué story,” and after 87 installments, the newspaper was forced to stop printing the story. (It was taken up 5 months later by a different publisher.) While there were a few scenes that made me slightly uncomfortable, today’s reader won’t find much obscene or risqué behavior here. It is much more telling that the original title of the book translates into A Fool’s Love. There is much foolishness here, but it is nevertheless a very engaging story.

Naomi is a girl with “a distinctly Western look.” She has a Western name and resembles the actress Mary Pickford. She works in a café, is quiet and docile, and enjoys going to the theatre. She is 15 years old when Jōji sees her for the first time.

Jōji, the narrator of the story, is a well-educated man in his late twenties. He comes from a wealthy family that lives in the country, but he wishes to break with tradition. He decides to take Naomi under his wing, educate her, and raise her according to his desires. He wants to mold her into the perfect “modern girl” of 1920s Japan, which can be loosely compared to the American flapper of the same time period.

It is obvious early on that this is a problematic setup, destined for friction. In the beginning, Jōji is dominating the relationship. He takes great pleasure in watching and grooming Naomi. He revels in her Westernization and fulfills her every wish. Eventually, he marries her. But very slowly, as his obsession with Naomi grows, the tables turn. As Naomi realizes her power over the opposite sex, she becomes a master manipulator. The book ends with her complete control over Jōji’s life.

“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.”

For the reader, it is easy to see what’s coming, especially since Naomi is not a likable character. But for Jōji, the “fool in love,” it takes time to realize that his idea of a Westernized, independent wife has had unintended consequences. The slow role reversal, told in a slightly sarcastic tone, is fascinating to read about.

Review at Dolce Bellezza.

Review at Consumed by Ink.

 

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16 comments

    • I was surprised by how much I enjoyed reading it. The glimpse at Japan after WWI was interesting, and the power struggle between the two people was quite something… even without the narrator who obviously can’t be objective.

  1. Your opening paragraph had so much information for me that was new; isn’t it interesting how what once was seen as risque is now completely acceptable?

    I’m also glad that you shared the original title “A Fool in Love”. That, perhaps, is a better title. Although, as Naomi pointed out in her post, one can feel a little bit sorry for Naomi in being treated as his plaything initially. However, my “pity” for her soon wore off at her manipulations.

    What a fascinating novel, and I’m so glad that you and Naomi of Consumed by Ink have read it with me. It’s much more fun to share a novel together, and my understanding of it is always enriched by other points of view. I have linked to your review on mine: thank you for reading with me!

    • I liked reading your and Naomi’s post as well. It’s always interesting to see what others focus on and how they read the book. I can’t say that I felt pity for Naomi, but I also didn’t feel too bad for Joji. While I didn’t like to see him suffer, he kind of got what he deserved for thinking he could simply mold another human being according to his ideal of a perfect woman.
      I really hope to read a little more for your Japanese Literature event; this book has re-awakened my interest.

  2. I think the best part of this book was learning a bit about 1920s Japan. I was surprised by how provocative the book was, even knowing what it was about beforehand.
    I’m so glad I read a long with you guys – I might never have read it, otherwise!

    • Call me naive, but it took me some time until I realized that “playing” implied a little more than simply playing, if you know what I mean. 🙂 While I liked the book on its own, I found it really interesting to read up on Japanese culture between WWI and the mid-1920s. I had no idea that there was a movement similar to the American flapper phenomenon.
      I really liked reading your review!

      • The book made me realize how little I know about the history and culture of Japan. If I read about Japan, it is usually in relation the the wars.

  3. Very interesting to read about the background and reaction to the publication of this novel. It does sound like a compelling story. I think I should try something by Tanizaki as there might well be parallels with Kawabata (one of my favourite Japanese writers).

    • This book is definitely worth reading. You get an idea of what life was like in 1920s Japan; I never knew about the “modern girl” phenomenon until I read the foreword. My edition was published by Tuttle and had an interesting introduction. Do you have a favorite book by Kawabata? I have a collection of Kawabata’s writing, but I have yet to read anything by him.

      • ‘Beauty and Sadness’ is probably my favourite – there’s a review at mine (which you may have seen), but it would make an intriguing comparison with Naomi. Snow Country is also well worth considering. Either of these two would be good intros to Kawabata’s work. 🙂

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