In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker and Thomas J. Harper

34473This is an enchanting essay on aesthetics by one of the greatest Japanese novelists. Tanizaki’s eye ranges over architecture, jade, food, toilets, and combines an acute sense of the use of space in buildings, as well as perfect descriptions of lacquerware under candlelight and women in the darkness of the house of pleasure. The result is a classic description of the collision between the shadows of traditional Japanese interiors and the dazzling light of the modern age.

Review:

In Praise of Shadows was recommended to me as a grumpy old man talking about Japanese aesthetics, and it’s exactly that in a wonderful way.

The book was first published in 1933 and Tanizaki is fondly looking back at the 1880s or 90s – a time before electricity, when Japanese harnessed darkness and shadow as an aesthetic element. He laments that people no longer know what it’s like to sit in a room lit by candles, with darkness existing all around the edges. How that candlelight made the soup in a dark lacquer bowl a mystery, no visual clues as to its taste.

With lacquerware there is a beauty in that moment between removing removing the lid and lifting the bowl to the mouth when one gazes at the still, silent liquid in the dark depths of the bowl, its color hardly differing from that of the bowl itself. What lies within the darkness one cannot distinguish, but the palm sense the gentle movements of the liquid, vapor rises from within forming droplets on the rim, and the fragrance carried upon the vapor brings a delicate anticipation.

As you can tell the writing and translation are beautiful. I highlighted passages not only for the insights but for how elegantly they’re expressed.

In addition to the text there’s supporting text that does just what you want. The forward whets the appetite without giving anything away, and the afterward, written by Harper, places the book in the context of Tanizaki’s life and Japanese literature and illuminates themes I missed the first time around.

If you’re interested in Japanese thought and aesthetics In Praise of Shadows is made for you. Even if you’re not, the beautiful writing will still carry you away. I plan to revisit it many times, making it a five star read.

One thought on “In Praise of Shadows by Jun’ichiro Tanizaki

  1. What an interesting book! I rarely read anything this old and if I do, it’s almost always a classic by an American or British author. I also think it’s really funny that every new technology has people regretting the changes it brings, even electric lights 🙂

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