Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki

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Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi is about obsession. Joji, a mediocre businessman, lets his obsession of the mysterious girl Naomi overtake him. Yet, while the novel is full of sensual obsession, it is ultimately about obsession with Western culture, for Naomi is a Western-looking girl that personifies an idealization of the west.

Whenever I recalled that Naomi was written in the 1920s, I was again taken aback. It felt so modern. Kawabata’s 1950s novel of the old capital of Kyoto (read last month), on the other hand, seemed steeped in tradition. Seeing the two novels in context to each other clarifies the clash between the Western traditions and the Japanese traditions, and I can now better understand Kawabata’s novel. Kyoto truly was the old capital, for Tokyo, where Naomi takes place, was much more Western even 40 years earlier.

I began Naomi knowing very little, so I hesitate to write very much about it. I knew that it revolved around a man who was obsessed with a mysterious Western-looking woman.  Although Naomi is definitely Japanese, her features seem “Eurasian” and so she stands out in a crowd. If I tell you further any of the details as to why this woman is engaging, it may somewhat spoil the effect of the novel. Suffice it to say, the mysteries that Tanizaki leaves unsaid for much of the novel left me wondering and interested. It was very well done.

In some respects, since Joji begins his obsession with Naomi when she was just 15, I wondered if this novel was similar to Nabakov’s Lolita (note to self: must read that some day). I felt uncomfortable throughout the novel. Joji’s obsession seemed to become progressively stranger as it progressed, and I became more and more convinced that Joji was insane. But while Tanizaki wrote sensually, it never was sexually uncomfortable to read (as I mentioned last week, I don’t normally appreciate sex scenes in my fiction). After all, this was published serially in the 1920s: things are suggested by not written out. It was, in that sense a tame book.

But beyond that, the question seems to me to be whether the obsession is on Naomi-the-woman or Naomi-the-representation-of-Westernization. I suspect Tanizaki is also capturing his society’s own obsession with the West. Seeing the novel in that light gives it a greater relevancy, and it makes me sad for the abandonment of the Japanese traditions.

Naomi dealt with an uncomfortable subject and had frustrating characters (I seriously wanted to hit Joji over the head a few times), so it was not a favorite read. Yet, I am very glad I read it. I learned something about the Japanese culture conflict with Westernization in the pre-World War II days.  It was a quick and engaging read, and although I was reading late into the night, I seriously could not put it down because I wanted to see how it resolved. Frustrating as it was to read (like watching a train-wreck), it is a novel I won’t easily forget. It is one that anyone interested in Japanese literature or culture should experience.

Do “train-wreck” novels keep you engaged or turned off? What “train-wreck” novels have you liked?

Reviewed on April 8, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • This sounds really fascinating (and I too want to read Lolita at some point!). I really liked the way you discussed the way the narrator’s relationship with Naomi reflected a larger relationship between Japan and the West – what a cool way of exploring those issues!

    As for train wreck novels in general, for me it depends on the nature of the train wreck. I don’t mind if I can tell a novel is going to end in an unhappy/unsettling fashion, but I don’t like it when characters are aware of their flaws but then don’t do anything to attempt to counteract them. So many times I wonder why characters don’t go and get therapy or something! 😉
    .-= Steph´s last post on blog ..“The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov =-.

    • Steph, I suspected the ending of this one but even though it was a train-wreck from my perspective, the narrator seemed perfectly satisfied. (Hence the fact that I decided he was insane!!) I do think there is a larger issue in this. Tanizaki did a great job of tying it all together, disturbing as it was.

  • I read this back when I started blogging, and I remember being disturbed by the subject matter but impressed by the writing. Like Lolita!

    I enjoy a lot of classic authors, like Wharton or James, who tend to be mean to their characters. So in that sense, I don’t mind trainwreck novels! I’m not as much a fan of the modern ones, though.
    .-= Eva´s last post on blog ..The Brothers Karamazov: Part One =-.

    • Eva, apparently, The Makioka Sisters by Tanizaki is “Austenesque” according to Tanabata. I’m hoping it is since that’s my next JLit read, I think! Just saying, since I know you love Austen and were impressed with Tanizaki’s writing!

  • The thing that struck me about the Tanizaki essay I read recently is how amazingly well-crafted it was, and it sounds like Naomi shared that quality. Which redoubles my desire to pick up some of his fiction, and soon!

    Re: train wreck books, I sometimes dislike them if I feel like the train wreck was overly engineered or “pre-ordained” by the author – some Wharton strikes me this way. If the train wreck is the main interest the book has to offer, it’s usually not enough for me. But a well-crafted novel can hold my interest regardless of its subject matter, and it sounds like Naomi is one. Thanks for the review. 🙂
    .-= Emily´s last post on blog ..Essay Mondays: Cioran =-.

    • Emily, it’s very well-crafted!

      I don’t know if the train wreck was too engineered — I mean, we knew it was coming, but oh my Tanizaki kept me wondering about Joji. I hoped.

    • Jenny, as I said to Steph above, despite the fact that it was a train-wreck from my perspective, the main narrator was very happy in the end. Still, this might drive you crazy. It did me, and I still couldn’t stop reading!

  • I have read nearly all of Tanizaki’s novels-each one is different from the others-Naomi is one of the more disturbing ones-you are right it is hard to believe it was written in the 1920s-very good review and you might consider his “Quicksand”

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