Devils in Daylight by Junichiro Tanizaki

Great writers have a way of locating their works in the central stream of literature, all the way to the breakers of the story ocean. That’s how Tanizaki’s short novella earns its right to your attention. Lodged in your memory, it will remain there, revolving out its implications like a Calder mobile.

That starts with the “title”, as J. Keith Vincent, the translator, explains in a brilliant postscript. It’s only an approximation of the original impossible title. The Japanese title, in four Chinese characters, has an aura of a venerable Chinese classic, since many of those works have four-character titles. But the title is a tease, a jumble of intriguing fragments including something like “daydream” and “devils talking”. Chinese characters, as Ezra Pound had pointed out maybe about the time that Devils in Daylight was written, have a unique conceptual basis, being both symbols of a script and also a kind of picture impressed on the mind.

Devils was written in 1918. At that time, Tanizaki was involved in Japan’s incipient film industry. Knowing that helps reassure me in the feeling that the writer is anticipating the Hitchcock of Vertigo and Rear Window. It’s as if Hitchcock had been reading Tanizaki, an unlikely scenario. Tanizaki’s plot is reader’s caviar in the way it gets you, along with its hapless narrator, to accept the most bizarre twists as plausible.

Takahashi is the narrator, a conventional guy and family man. His friend is Sonomura, a rich, eccentric recluse. Takahashi feels responsible for him. He’s Sonomura’s only friend. That’s used as a premise for why Takahashi allows Sonomura to take him on a wild, urban nightmare quest through the neighborhoods of early 20th century Tokyo in an adventure worthy of Sherlock Homes. Sonomura even calls Takahashi his “Watson”.

This short work is a sonata of classic literary noir, with haunted, nocturnal city streets and a fatal “dark lady”. Sonomura, near hysterics, insanity is said to “run in his family”, had gone to the movies. He ended up not paying attention to the film when he realized that of the three people sitting in front of him, two of them, a young man and a woman, were plotting to murder the older man sitting between them. They were passing secret notes written in code behind his back. Since Sonomura was sitting right behind them, he saw the notes. Later the young man discards a note behind his seat and Sonomura picks it up.

Sonomura recognizes the code in the note as coming from Edgar Allan Poe’s tale, The Gold Bug. Poe was very popular in Japan at the time due to the advocacy and translations of Lafcadio Hearn. In Poe’s story, a note written in a complex code, when deciphered, leads to Captain Kidd’s pirate treasure. It’s said that Poe’s short story may be the most popular ever written.

Decoding the secret message, Sonomura comes up with a series a disjointed phrases. That, and picking up clues from his keen, not to say, manic, observation of the three strangers at the movies, lead him to the conclusion that late in the evening in an obscure Tokyo neighborhood, there is going to be a murder. He persuades his skeptical friend Takahashi to come with him to “observe” the murder. He doesn’t want to stop the crime; he wants to watch.

Takahashi is sucked ever deeper into a plot that involves a pathological crime boss, a beautiful woman whose perverted sexual desires compel her to kill the men she seduces. Sex in Tanizaki can be kinky in a signature style Japanese way, and was probably pretty intense for 1918 readers. “…frightening things are always beautiful…demons are as beautiful as the gods….”

One of the new words I learned reading this book was “kaimami” which means “peeking through blinds”. It’s a reference to Murasaki’s The Tale of Genji, one of my favorite novels and the world’s oldest. I read the Arthur Waley translation, still the best. In that medieval world, unmarried and non-family men and women could only speak to each other through an intervening screen. Genji would peek and sometimes more than peek. Shades of Rear Window indeed. Sonamura and his friend peek through a screen in a trash strewn alley to witness the murder.

In the Japanese middle ages, Murasaki was condemned to hell by devout Buddhists “for the sin of writing fiction”. They called fiction kigo, or idle talk. The irony is that Genji, written by a woman and ostensibly just a woman’s romance novel, resides today at the apex of the Japanese classical canon. The term kigo is implied in Tanazaki’s arcane original title for Devils in Daylight.

Also Vincent tells us that in Tanizaki’s day, critics were dismissive of “fiction” and expected fine literature to assume a serious and lofty bearing. Again the irony on the police of literature is that it is Tanizaki, along with Murasaki, who are considered great Japanese writers. In art, it’s often the case that the outsiders win. Perhaps it’s their critics that are guilty of kigo, or idle talk.

That’s a lot of value for a book that totals 95 pages, including the postscript by the outstanding translator. I can’t paraphrase the lunatic “detecting” of Sonamura, both convincing and outlandish, that leads the amateur detective and his stalwart Watson to a particular trash-filled alley in the dark of night to peek through a blind. I’m grateful to New Directions, as I am so very often, for publishing this book.