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October 16, 2014

"A Portrait of Shunkin" by Tanizaki Junichiro (1933)

A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkinsho) is the most celebrated novella by Japan's greatest 20th century author, Tanizaki Junichiro, and like The Bridge of Dreams it is a story of an ideal world that is artificially (even monstrously) kept intact. The story is set in Doshomachi, the pharmaceutical district of Osaka (see my post about this area) and tells about Shunkin, the daughter of a pharmaceutical dealer and her servant / pupil Sasuke. Despite its dramatic character, the story is told in a classical, distanced manner, and is written in an almost hypnotically beautiful prose style (with very little punctuation as in classical Japanese). By the way, this use of a classical style was not a "return to traditional Japan" by Tanizaki, as is often asserted, but rather a Modernistic stylistic device used to give an impression of authenticity to the story.

[Tanizaki in 1913]

The tale is told by an unnamed antiquarian (living around the time the story was written, so the early 1930s) who has obtained a copy of a biography of Shunkin who lived in the late Edo to early Meiji periods (her life is given as from 1829 to 1886). This biography, which is rather a hagiography so that the narrator also warns against trusting it too much, is the main source of the story; the narrator either retells it (adding his own thoughts) or quotes it directly ("sho" in the Japanese title Shunkinsho is not a portrait, but a commentary on a text, and that is exactly what the narrator provides); to this he appends the personal remembrances of an old servant of Shunkin and Sasuke, obtained via an interview, as well as a brief account of a visit to their graves, sitting next to each other in a temple in Osaka. Shunkin's grave is larger, as Sasuke even after he became a great master on the shamisen himself, always treated her as his teacher. All these narratives are in a different register: the biography is in the classical style used in the 19th century, the servant speaks in Osaka dialect, etc., - subtleties which are difficult to bring out in translation.

Besides using different registers, Tanizaki also uses the in Japan all-important titles deftly: Sasuke does not allow his own pupils to call him "Master" (oshisosan) because that is his designation for Shunkin; the narrator, however, refers to him as "Kengyo," the most exalted, official title for a shamisen master and one that Shunkin never attained.

Sasuke, who was four years older than Shunkin, became her special servant when she was eight (just after she had become blind due to an infection) and he was twelve. Musicians were often blind people in traditional Japan, and as Shunkin was already interested in music, she now became a dedicated player of the koto and the shamisen. It was Sasuke's task to take the blind girl everyday to her music lessons.

Sasuke is very devoted to the meek and gentle-looking Shunkin and also develops an interest in music. He practices the shamisen secretly at night, sitting in a cupboard, and when that is discovered and he proves to have talent, it is decided that Shunkin will become his official teacher. Shunkin is a very strict and even cruel teacher for Sasuke, but he is totally devoted to her, even masochistically, in both his subservient roles. He follows her like a shadow and even ministers to her in the toilet ("she never has to wash her hands afterward"), something glossed over in the prudish English translation. When, after finishing her own studies, she sets up shop as an independent teacher, Sasuke accompanies her and starts living with her. That their relation secretly must encompass something more, becomes clear when the unmarried Shunkin has a baby, although both refuse to confess who is the father (the baby is immediately sent away for adoption).

Shunkin is nor only very beautiful, she also has a vivid character, and therefore she is a popular guest at social gatherings. But then - in the year she is 36 and Sasuke 40 - a terrible accident happens: at night, someone - probably a thief who panicked, or a pupil with a grudge - throws scalding hot water in her face which as a result is disfigured by scars. Sasuke says he can't endure looking at her destroyed countenance and therefore blinds himself by pricking with a needle through the pupils of both his eyes. Now he shares the same world as his beloved Shunkin. He remains her dedicated servant and even continues calling himself her pupil, although he has by now become a master on the shamisen in his own right. The apogee of sadomasochistic devotion!

Osaka, Doshomachi
[Detail of a monument in the grounds of the Sukunahikona Shrine
in Osaka's Doshomachi district, dedicated to Shunkinsho.
It shows the beginning of Tanizaki's manuscript.]

That is the story, as a casual reader will pick it up. But there are always many false bottoms in Tanizaki's literature, especially here. In the first place we have to note that the story has several layers of unreliability:

- As the narrator, a sort of local historian, notes, the Life of Mozuya Shunkin, the biography which is his main source for the story he tells us, is rather unreliable. It displays strong hagiographic tendencies, and on top of that the person who is praised most is not Shunkin, but rather Sasuke who is always presented as an example of the highest and most self-sacrificing devotion (note that Sasuke was the one who had The Life compiled). In other words, it is more "A Portrait of Sasuke" than of Shunkin...
- But also the narrator is not objective, and he, too, is on the side of Sasuke - note that after Shunkin's death, Sasuke became a much more famous musician than Shunkin had ever been, and the narrator may have been influenced by Sasuke's greater renown,
- The only other source is a maid who served Shunkin and Sasuke later in life - obviously, this maid was not present during the crucial events that took place earlier in the lives of the two artists.

Faced with so many uncertainties, we should ask ourselves if everything we read is true:

- Was Sasuke really unselfishly devoted to Shunkin?
- Was Shunkin really exceptionally cruel to Sasuke (note that teacher-pupil relations in the arts and crafts in traditional Japan - and even occasionally today - contain a certain amount of, if not outright cruelty, at least harshness)?
- Remember that when Sasuke became Shunkin's servant, he was twelve and she eight; although girls are earlier ripe than boys, with such an early age difference, initially Sasuke most have been more dominant.
- Considering their formal relation, how could Sasuke be the father of Shunkin's child, if he was not in a controlling position (he is the only one who can be considered, as Shunkin led a secluded life and had no other, private contacts)?
- Who threw the hot water in Shunkin's face? The story about a thief or pupil with a grudge looks very weak, intruders usually don't have the leisure to boil a kettle of water...

Here follows the most probably explanation, based on The Secret Window, Ideal Worlds in Tanizaki's Fiction (Harvard, 1994) by Anthony Hood Chambers:

Sasuke must have been the one who dominated Shunkin, instead of being controlled himself by a cruel and sadistic mistress. Outwardly, he played the servant and pupil who was masochistically dedicated to his mistress, but behind the scenes he, the older one, pulled the strings. When we follow these lines, Sasuke becomes rather repugnant, for wasn't Shunkin in that case little more than his sexual playmate whom he had completely in his power? More monstrous is that Sasuke himself may have been the one who threw the scalding hot water in Shunkin's face, to destroy her beauty out of jealousy, because he didn't want to share her with others at parties and gatherings, where she was admired for her beauty and where he was pestered and lost control over her. Destroying her beauty meant that she could not go out anymore and he would again have her completely in his power. By blinding himself and so for outsiders (and Shunkin) playing the perfectly devoted servant - and perhaps also on an unconscious level doing penance for his crime -, he finalized and stabilized his control over her. However warped it was, Sasuke had created a sort of private "ideal world."

The meaning we thus discover in the story is the opposite of what it seemed at first sight. As Anthony Hood Chambers puts it in The Secret Window: "Sasuke has molded a woman to dominate his fantasy life as his "ideal woman," and when he has maneuvered her right to where he wants her, he throws himself at her feet. When she has outlived her usefulness, he creates an idealized mental image to replace her." Instead of a masochistic slave, controlled by Shunkin, Sasuke was himself the sadistic keeper and even gaoler of Shunkin.

One passage of the story indeed gives a strong hint of Shunkin as Sasuke's prisoner. Shunkin liked to keep birds, nightingales and larks, and these captivated song birds are indeed an apt symbol for her own position as a musician who was the prisoner of Sasuke. Once, when one of her larks flew up to the clouds and didn't return, she seemed to follow his flight into the free azure longingly with her blind eyes...