Book Review: Some Prefer Nettles by Tanizaki Jun’ichirô

Every worm to his taste,
Some prefer nettles. – A Japanese saying.

Jun‘ichirô Tanizaki, the master of modern Japanese fiction, has published his Some Prefer Nettles in 1928/29. He is famous for writing about relationships of love and obsession often struggling with Japanese tradition and modernity influenced by the West.

It could be a couple living through their midlife crisis, but Kaname and Misako know it is a basic discomfort, that has been existing from the very beginning of their marriage. And now, some ten years later Misako is having a love affair with Aso, with the consent of her husband Kaname. This situation has been going for a while. Both think of divorce, but somehow are not able to make the final step. They still live together, although both are quite unhappy, but find any reason worthwhile to stay in their marriage.

In the opening of the story Tanizaki tells about the monotony, dullness, impatience with each other, their routine and automatic gestures. The reader gets to know the perspective of Kaname. His thoughts about divorce and consequences. The marriage of Kaname and Misako and the before standing divorce is seen as inevitable, but Kaname is passively waiting and does nothing to enforce it, nor does he make any decision.

Kaname is thinking about his wife and himself as not being wife and husband anymore, because there is no attraction. And therefore not being man and woman to each other is the reason for their underlying conflict.

He wishes harmony on every level. Both do not want to live together anymore, but no one wants to take the responsibility of their own live.

The story takes a turn as the couple visits a puppet theatre play (Bunraku) together with Misako’s father and his younger wife O-hisa, who is more like a servant to him.

Watching his father in law, who lives so comfortable in his eyes, Kaname is falling in love with the old traditions. He fantasizes about having a woman like O-hisa. From now on Kaname is spending more time with his father in law and his young wife and they decided to go on a trip to Awaji, the isle of Bunraku origin. Kaname is turning far away from Misako by losing himself in Bunraku and an affair with an European call girl.

The reader gets to know much about Bunraku and about traditional Japanese male and female behavior, rich Japanese delicious food and every day live. Tanizaki reflects thereby about Japanese tradition and modern Western thoughts. It seems as the story is a parable of knowing the necessity of change, yet going backwards to find the future, which is impossible and therefore being in a situation of constant psychic trouble –  but there will be an end to the story through no fault of Kaname‘s own.

The story is sublime. As ever Tanizaki is a great story-teller, his insights to the human mind is marvellous. A real Japanese classic.

Tanizaki Jun’ichirô: Some Prefer Nettles. 谷崎 潤一郎, 蓼喰う虫 (Tade kuu mushi), 1928/29.

Here are some interesting links about Bunraku:

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