Some Prefer Nettles
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Some Prefer Nettles (蓼喰ふ蟲 Tade kū mushi?) is a 1929 novel by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki. It was first published in 1928–9 as a newspaper serial. The novel is often regarded as the most autobiographical of Tanizaki's works and one of his finest novels.
The Japanese title of the novel is literally water pepper–eating bugs, and is the first half of the Japanese saying tade kuu mushi mo sukizuki (蓼食う虫も好き好き?), or "Water pepper–eating bugs eat it willingly", equivalent to the English "Each to his own." The translation as Some Prefer Nettles was chosen by Edward Seidensticker; he considers it one of his most noted translations, and it has been included as a translation of the original saying in the authoritative Kenkyūsha's New Japanese-English Dictionary.
Kaname and Misako’s marriage is drifting towards a separation and divorce, and Misako has taken a lover, Aso, to Kaname's approval. Their young son, Hiroshi does not yet know anything about their plans. Both are procrastinating over this marital decision; Kaname realizes that he is fascinated by his father-in-law's bunraku theater and young mistress O-hisa. Misako's father is a traditionalist who attempts to keep the couple engaged in the arts of Japan, in order to purge the negative influence from the West.
The theme that structures the novel in its entirety is that of performance. As the book opens, Kaname gently pressures his wife, Misako, into meeting her father and his mistress at a bunraku performance. And the "old man" (he is fifty-six or fifty-seven) has a deep interest in many forms of traditional Japanese performance, from samisen and song to rustic puppets. But these are only the framing performances, as the life being led by Kaname and Misako is itself, as Tanizaki reminds us several times, a performance; even their son, Hiroshi, becomes a performer. The closing words of the novel (Tanizaki's endings are always stunning) transform a wooden doll into a woman.
In many ways, from local accent to clothing, the central characters assume roles they need and can hardly bear, making the story's structure a series of mirrors in which artifice and reality interweave.
East vs West
In reading Tade kuu mushi, a theme that becomes immediately apparent is the struggle between East and West. Although the terms themselves are artificial social constructions, the dissonance between the two is present throughout the entire novel, and indeed throughout this portion of Kaname’s life.
The beginning of the novel presents a Kaname whose aesthetic tastes lean more toward the so-called West. His romanticized version of it is manifested in the western wing of his house (in particular, the veranda under which he likes to sit), his fascination with American movie stars, and very potently in an English translation of the Arabian Nights that he is wont to skim through in order to find the more lewd passages for which it is famous.
After a visit to the bunraku theater with his father-in-law, wife, and his father-in-law’s mistress in Chapter Two, however, Kaname’s interest in traditional aesthetics is piqued, and he even becomes envious of the ‘Old Man’ and his lifestyle: at an old play, pipe in hand, sake and a young mistress at his behest. This is the beginning of Kaname’s divergent interest in the East, his preference for the past.
But there is no East, and there is no West — a concept that becomes more apparent as certain tokens or representations of each begin to arise. For example, the Old Man’s mistress, Ohisa, comes to represent the traditional East, always dressing in kimono, conforming her ministrations to the Old Man’s every whim—and her iconic Osaka black teeth. The idea that Ohisa represents the East is consummated in the closing lines of Chapter Ten: “Ohisa truly was a vision left behind from a feudal age” (TKM, 139). But in spite of such a strong affirmation of her ‘easternness,’ all throughout the novel we are given clues as to her ‘true’ nature that serve to contradict the mask she is wearing: how she is scolded for using a compact (Chapter Two), how she uses sunscreen in Awaji (Chapter Ten), and certainly how she complains about the stiff clothing that the Old Man insists she wear. So we are told she’s a vision of the past, then led to suspect that very concept. In reality: she is both. And neither. She is simply Ohisa.
The same goes for Louise, the prostitute in Chapter Thirteen, who is a dubious (at best) representation of the West. She pretends to be Turkish — and looks it, too. Were the white powder she practically bathes herself in removed, though, Louise would be revealed as Eurasian, half-Korean, half-Russian, as close to the East as Kaname himself, in spite of her directness and blatant sexual nature that together form the now gossamer connection between her and the West.
Kaname’s copy of Arabian Nights is a mix of these two contradictions, being an exotic collection technically written in the East, but translated into English, and thus made all the more exotic in Kaname’s eyes. His world is convoluted, to say the least.
Madonna vs Harlot
The second major theme that permeates the novel can be summed up as "Madonna vs Harlot" a theme for which Tanizaki is notorious, and which he addresses directly at several points in Tade kuu mushi.
In speaking with his cousin, Takanatsu, Kaname reveals that he’s only interested in two types of women: the motherly-type and the whore-type (bofugata and shoufugata, respectively). What he looks for in a woman oscillates between the two, and the fact that his wife is neither one nor the other, but a mix of both, is largely the impetus behind his waning, if not dead, interest in her. Kaname prefers extremes, which will become more and more apparent as the novel progresses.
There is some sort of reconciliation between these two extremes, however, and it is found in what is coined as the “Eternal Woman” (eien josei), a woman to be worshiped. Though it’s not expressed clearly who exactly this Eternal Woman is, nor what characterizes her, it is clear that she’s someone who would not only inspire, but command genuflection of the man who worships her.
To unravel what it means to be an Eternal Woman, however, it may help to look at Tanizaki’s use of dolls throughout Tade kuu mushi, for it is in looking at the doll Koharu — in the play Shinjuuten no amijima (The Love Suicides at Amijima) — that Kaname gets his first taste of her power.
While watching Shinjuuten no Amijima, Kaname takes particular notice of the character Koharu—the doll that becomes the very Form of what Kaname thinks women should be (later to be replaced by Ohisa). The conception of womanliness that Koharu inspires in Kaname is what lies at the heart of his Madonna-Harlot conflict, what makes him attracted both to an image of the Virgin Mary and to Hollywood movie stars: he isn’t interested in real women at all, but in idealized forms of them: women who can be appreciated from afar for what they represent, not for who they are. And dolls encapsulate this perfectly, being masterfully sculpted, subtle in their beauty, and silently manipulated by men.
Fantasy vs Reality
Kaname has an overly active fantasy life that he seemingly prefers to interact with more than he does reality. In that same manner, his interest in the West is rooted more in its fantastical (not necessarily accurate) elements; the same can be said for his interest in the traditional East.
An example of the former is evidenced in his preference for the Western concept of divorce, how everyone supposedly does it—to the extent that it’s almost a fad. He is also fascinated with the colorfulness of western sexuality and, in particular, the way in which American films continually find new and more poignant ways of exhibiting a woman’s beauty. Both divorce and sexuality are viewed differently in the ‘West’ than in the ‘East,’ but there are generalizations and exaggerations of both that render Kaname’s fixation with them more fantastical than real.
As for Kaname’s recognition of the wiles inherent in eastern tradition, the more shadowy locations in "Tade kuu mushi" seem to encourage his imagination and perpetuate a potentially false concept of the East. A perfect example of this is in Chapter Ten, wherein Kaname, walking alongside Ohisa with the Old Man toddling behind, is struck by the image of a dark old house. The passage that follows practically brims with enchanting musings as to what might actually be going on behind the house’s curtains, deep in the shadows beyond its latticework, a narrative technique that is largely unused up until this point in the novel—one that’s tapped only when the readers are finally given the opportunity to glance briefly into Kaname’s world of fantasy.
- Edward Seidensticker, Tokyo Central: A Memoir, p. 117
- Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. Tade kuu mushi (蓼喰う虫). Tokyo: Shinchō Bunko (新潮文庫), 2004.
- Seidensticker, Edward G., trans. Some Prefer Nettles. Tanizaki Jun’ichirō. New York: Vintage Books, 1995.
- Gessel, Van C. Three Modern Novelists: Sōseki, Tanizaki, Kawabata. New York: Kodansha International, 1993.
- Ito, Ken Kenneth. Visions of Desire: Tanizaki’s Fictional Worlds. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1991.
- Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature of the Modern Era. New York: Hold, Rinehart, and Winston, 1984.
- Pollack, David. Reading Against Culture: Ideology and Narrative in the Japanese Novel. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.