In Black and White

In Black and White is a novel by Junichiro Tanizaki which, according to translator Phyllis Lyons, has not only been neglected by Western academics but also by those in Japan having never been published independently but only as part of Junichiro’s collected works. Written in 1928, around the same time as Quicksand and Some Prefer Nettles, it was originally published in serial form in a literary magazine, the type of magazine its protagonist, Mizuno, writes for. Junichiro uses his own experience as a writer to create a character who can be read as a representation of the author in a novel where the plot revolves around the dangers of drawing characters from life – and so we have a fictional story tethered to reality by the fact its central character writes a fictional story tethered to reality by his use of an acquaintance as a character.

This is what is worrying Mizuno as the novel opens: has he accidentally used the acquaintance’s real name?

“He’d done this before: once, he’d used his first girlfriend as the model for a character in a story and he’d written her real name by mistake. Luckily that time he’d noticed while it was still in draft and managed to take care of it before it was printed.”

Rather than Codama, had he used his actual name Cojima towards the end of the story? A story in which, to make matters worse, Codama / Cojima is murdered. Mizuno is not so much concerned about hurting Cojima’s feelings, as the possibility that something similar might happen in real life:

“What if – what if – Cojima were to be killed in a fashion identical to the murder of Codama in the story. Wouldn’t he – Mizuno – be suspected?”

He accepts this is unlikely – unless, of course, someone (whom he calls the Shadow Man) has been waiting to kill Cojima and takes this opportunity to do so while casting suspicion on Mizuno.

Mizuno tries in various ways to prevent this – first by (unsuccessfully) attempting to have his error corrected before the story is printed. Then he decides to pre-empt reality with a sequel to the story, making it a story within a story:

“That is, the larger plot should be that on the basis of a story dealing with a murder, an actual murder takes place. Then the author of the story is suspected and executed.”

Of course, this second part cannot be published for some weeks and so Mizuno decides, in the meantime, it is important that he always has an alibi: “he should arrange to avoid being by himself as much as possible for the next ten days.” He decides to pretend he has gonorrhoea so that his numerous trips to the bathroom are noticed in the boarding-house where he stays.

This comedic alibi is typical of Minuza’s slightly ridiculous character. While Junichiro’s plot is clever and skilfully executed, it is Minuza’s weak character which stands out as his greatest creation in the novel. Unlike Junichiro, who was working on three novels during this year, Minuza is a rather lazy writer, always in need of money, and quite prepared to dupe the magazine he writes for to obtain it, telling them he has twenty pages completed when there are only ten. He then immediately goes out to enjoy the money he as ‘earned’:

“…did the money just buy him pleasure? No, it swept away the shadow of the fear that had been menacing him like a bad dream these past several months.”

It is while he is in a bar that he encounters a beautiful woman in western clothes:

“That such a classy woman would indicate an interest in man like me, who would other wise never get a second glance for her – this just has to be fate.”

He pursues her and they arrange to begin a relationship (for a fee), yet he has only a vague idea of where she lives (rather than take a taxi she phones for a car to take them there), does not know her real name, and has no way of contacting her. Infatuated as he is, this does not seem important – until, of course, he needs to use her as an alibi.

In Black and White is an entertaining story which deserves to be better known. The use of meta-fiction is both skilful and subtle and Minuza’s flawed character is amusing if not always sympathetic. The novel also gives us an insight into the working life of a writer in Japan at the time it was written, and, as Lyons points out in an afterward, reflects on a real-life dispute between Junichiro and Ryunosuke Akutagawa over the ‘I-novel’. It may not be Junichiro’s greatest work, but it would also be wrong to dismiss it as ‘minor’, and we should be pleased that it is finally available in English.

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11 Responses to “In Black and White”

  1. Tony Says:

    Not his best, but enjoyable enough. Finally worked out that the reason for all these ‘new’ works is that Tanizaki is out of copyright, so everything is fair game…

  2. MarinaSofia Says:

    We are having a Tanizaki spree, aren’t we? This sounds like fun – which hasn’t always been a word I associated with Tanizaki in the past. But I am somewhat perturbed by the names Kojima and Kodama being written with a C – there’s nothing wrong with it in pronunciation, but it’s certainly not the standard practice.

    • 1streading Says:

      The use of C is part of the story – the fact it’s not the common spelling is what makes Mizuno fear the actual person will recognise his name. The translator has obviously used the C/K interchange to represent something in the Japanese. It is an entertaining story though.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    Oh, I like the sound of this – the meta aspect is very appealing. I’ve been enjoying Mishima for this month’s challenge, but I may have to explore Tanizaki more!!

  4. Julé Cunningham Says:

    Ah, now this sounds really intriguing with those interesting relationships between character and author going on.

  5. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s interesting how we often think of meta-fiction as relatively recent, postmodern development, whereas Japanese authors such as Tanizaki and Akutagawa were exploring these techniques at a much earlier time! Funnily enough, I’d been thinking about trying a Tanizaki this year – maybe not this one, as it might not be the best one to start with, but I’ll keep it in mind for later in my journey.

    • 1streading Says:

      He’s well worth reading, though I’m not sure where the best place to start is. He’s one of those writers where his most famous work is also his longest!

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