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September 4, 2014

"The Bridge of Dreams" (Yume no Ukihashi, 1959) by Tanizaki Junichiro (Book review)

Tanizaki Junichiro wrote several top class novellas, such as The Reed-cutter (Ashikari), Arrowroot (Yoshino-kuzu) and A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho), but my favorite is The Bridge of Dreams, although also for an extra-literary reason: it is set in Shimogamo, a beautiful area in Kyoto where I lived in the 1980s. Tanizaki himself had lived next to the Shimogamo Shrine from 1949 to 1956 - his residence was called Sekisontei and he used this as the basis for the house and garden in The Bridge of Dreams. In this story, published in 1959, two of Tanizaki's major obsessions are perfectly united: the search for a lost traditional Japan and the search for a lost mother, who combines the maternal with the seductive.

This is also what the title points at: the "(Floating) Bridge of Dreams" is the name of the final chapter of the Genji Monogatari, and here meant as a reference to the whole novel, which starts with the affair the protagonist has with his stepmother Fujitsubo. And the title is of course also a metaphor for the dreamlike quality of life and of the world of love.

[Bridge in the Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto]

The story is set in the womb-like enclosed environment of a traditional house and garden where three people live: a father, his wife Chinu and their young son Tadasu (named after the forest of the Shimogamo Shrine). It is an isolated but perfect world, the ideal retreat, full of literary and historical allusions, on which the story is wholly focused - daily activities that fall outside this estate are usually not mentioned. The garden stands deep in a grove and is far removed from the dusty world. You reach it, of course, by crossing a narrow stone bridge.

Here Tadasu lives in the warmth and security of his mother's embrace, a dim, white world:
"The mingled scents of her hair and milk hovered there in her bosom, around my face. As dark as it was, I could still dimly see her white breasts. She would sing while I drifted off into a peaceful sleep, still clutching her breasts and running my tongue around her nipples. Gradually I would slip into the world of dreams."
By the way, the most conspicuous image of the pond garden is the water mortar, a bamboo tube that fills with water from a small stream where the father (and after growing up also Tadasu) used to cool his beer. When the pipe is full, it tips of its own weight and hits a flat stone with a characteristic clacking sound. Empty, it sways up again and the process repeats itself. Such devices were originally employed by farmers to scare away wild boars, but from the 17th century they were as ornaments incorporated in gardens, like the famous Shisendo garden in Kyoto - an enclosed hermit garden with which Tadasu's estate has many elements in common. When Tadasu went to sleep, the distant, rhythmic clack of this water mortar would mingle with the voice of his mother singing a lullaby and would penetrate his dreams. It became therefore strongly associated with memories of his mother.

But humans are mortal and when Tadasu is only five years old, his mother dies. After a while, his father remarries and now something strange happens: he has his new wife impersonate the deceased one. She has to take the same name, Chinu, wear the same type of clothes and allow Tadasu to sleep with her in the same way he did with his own mother. She also plays the koto and practices calligraphy, like Tadasu's first mother. And so the idyllic life in the enclosed paradise garden continues even after the intrusion of death, the stepmother conflated with the real mother... When he nurses on his stepmother's breast, Tadasu again hears the clack of the water mortar - everything is again the way it used to be...

What happens further is not so clear, for Tadasu is an unreliable narrator - what he tells is true, but he doesn't tell everything. Time passes and when he is eighteen years old and at high school, Tadasu learns that his stepmother is pregnant. A boy, Takeshi, is born, but the baby is soon sent away by his father to be brought up by farmers. A weird scene happens in the seclusion of a small tea house in the garden, where the stepmother has Takeshi suck the milk from her breasts, heavy so soon after giving birth. As a grown-up man, he is allowed to enter the milky white world of childhood again, now mixed with a decidedly erotic element...

Later that year, Tadasu's father - who had been ill since more than a year before - dies and asks Tadasu to take good care of his (step-) mother. In other words, Tadasu is asked to take over the role of the father. By now, Tadasu has learnt his stepmother's real name, and also that she was a geisha before she married his father. In order to keep up appearances (there is after all an outside world) Tadasu marries the daughter of their gardener, Sawako - but it is clear he is more interested in his stepmother.

A few years pass. Then the stepmother dies - she had a weak heart and was frightened by a centipede, while undergoing massage by Sawako. Tadasu now separates from Sawako and seeks out his half-brother, Takeshi, whom he decides to bring up himself. But he has to sell the large estate and instead moves to a smaller house near Honenin temple - not accidentally a place just as secluded as the first one.

The ambiguous story leaves us with several questions - the reader has to act as detective:
  • Was the death of Tadasu's stepmother homicide? Did Sawako kill her out of jealousy - Sawako who after all was a disparate element in the household, and who was treated very coldly by Tadasu? Was that the reason Tadasu decided on a separation?
  • Whose child was Takeshi? Was he really Tadasu's half-brother, or was he his son? There are some hints that Tadasu's custom of cuddling up to his stepmother and suckling her breasts when he was a young boy, continued also when he grew up and then developed into outright lovemaking... On top of that, the father was already ill when the child was conceived. In addition, this would explain not only why the baby was sent away but also why Tadasu later decided to bring the boy into his house and take care of his upbringing.
  • And, finally, the most radical interpretation: was it perhaps Tadasu himself who killed his stepmother rather than Sawako (the killing was of course in either case indirect, by dropping a centipede on her to frighten her)? There are indeed some hints that Tadasu was getting tired of her as she was getting plump and therefore was losing the image of his original mother... (while in Takeshi, Tadasu found the face of his mother again). Another fact supporting this interpretation, is that the negotiations for the separation from Sawako took two years and also that Tadasu had to sell his estate - in other words, he probably had to pay a large amount of money to Sawako and her family to buy their silence about the real events.
But the story does not give us any clear clue to the right interpretation, and in that vagueness lies its beauty. Life is a dream and dreams can be wild and convoluted, shimmering like a chimera...

P.S. Perhaps we can also see the secluded estate as a symbol for a traditional Japan that had been lost in the 20th century, a loss finalized by postwar Americanization.
The Bridge of Dreams has been translated by Howard Hibbett in the collection Seven Japanese Tales (together with six other works by Tanizaki, including "A Portrait of Shunkin"), published in various editions by both Tuttle and Vintage. The novella is discussed in The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction by Anthony Hood Chambers (Harvard University Press, 1994). The interpretations mentioned above are based on Chambers.