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the Complete Review
the complete review - aesthetics

In Praise of Shadows

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō

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To purchase In Praise of Shadows

Title: In Praise of Shadows
Author: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 1933 (Eng. 1954/1977)
Length: 49 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: In Praise of Shadows - US
In Praise of Shadows - UK
In Praise of Shadows - Canada
Éloge de l'ombre - France
Lob des Schattens - Deutschland
Libro d'ombra - Italia
Elogio de las sombras - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Japanese title: 陰翳礼讃
  • Edward G. Seidensticker published a translation of excerpts in 1954, and Thomas J. Harper combined those with his own translations of the remainder of the essay for this volume, originally published in 1977
  • With a Foreword Charles Moore
  • With an Afterword by Thomas J. Harper

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Our Assessment:

B+ : often lovely essay on aesthetics (with a few terrible missteps)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Guardian . 5/10/2002 AC Grayling
Monumenta Nipponica . (33:4) Winter/1978 Paul McCarthy
The Times . 11/8/2001 .

  From the Reviews:
  • "(D)elightful (.....) Tanizaki's relish in the world and its ordinary pleasures offers a sharp contrast to the functional, plastic, disposable aesthetic of modern western life. Although his aesthetic is associated with a cultural perspective markedly different from western varieties, there is nevertheless something essentially familiar about it." - AC Grayling, The Guardian

  • "The book reads as an integral translation, then, without awkward jumps or lapses. (...) If there are elements in the essay that startle and offend the reader, they should not be those relating to either toilets or pederasty. The author's discussion of complexion and race, with its assumption that whiteness is of supreme value, with darker shades representing descending levels on an aesthetic scale, makes painful reading. (...) . His concerns are broadly aesthetic, not social, political, or even strongly ethical. He evokes the vanishing (now largely vanished) beauties of the past with regret and the vulgarities of contemporary Japan with distaste; but through it all, his dominant tone is elegiac, not polemical" - Paul McCarthy, Monumenta Nipponica

  • "(T)his is no dry study. (...) Tanizaki follows the stream of his consciousness, drifting off on tangents or bouncing playfully between the profound and the flippant in a graceful rumination." - The Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In In Praise of Shadows Tanizaki Jun'ichirō rambles engagingly on on aesthetics, contrasting the traditional Japanese with the Western influences that had already surged into so many spheres at the time. Tanizaki writes in 1933, before the mass-destruction that occurred in the Second World War, which led to even greater and faster adoption of many things 'Western', but even here already he can complain about: "the vogue for neon signs" of the times .....
       A significant issue for him is all this that is new, and the speed with which it is spreading; he admits to wondering whether he is not "grumbling in my dotage", as old folks are often wont to do about any kind of change -- but then he can't help but find that: "of this I am convinced, that the conveniences of modern culture cater exclusively to youth, and that the times grow increasingly inconsiderate of old people"
       He notes that in the 'West' they had time to adjust:

The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years. The missteps and inconveniences this has caused have, I think, been many.
       He suggests that if an isolated Japan had been allowed to continue at its own pace:
We would have gone ahead very slowly, and yet it is not impossible that we would one day have discovered our own substitute for the trolley, the radio, the airplane of today. They would have been no borrowed gadgets, they would have been the tools of our own culture, suited to us.
       As the title suggests, shadows -- and light -- figure particularly prominently. He finds much Japanese beauty, from its architecture to what is shown on theater-stages, can be found in the shadows, as it were -- not least because:
The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty's ends.
       (Oddly, he does not note or make much of the fact that historically for a long time many 'Western' houses were also very poorly illuminated, with small windows, and that many lived in dark rooms.)
       Tanizaki even goes so far as to claim: "Our cooking depends upon shadows and is inseparable from darkness".
       Meanwhile, electrical lighting is now everywhere and so:
     So benumbed are we nowadays by electric lights that we have become utterly insensitive to the evils of excessive illumination.
       (Again: this was 1933, and one wonders what he'd make of the contemporary world ....)
       Tanizaki's examples, especially the personal ones, are the most appealing part of the essay, as when he describes his own house-building experiences, and explains his thinking regarding the shoji he installed:
for aesthetic reasons I did not want to use glass, and yet paper alone would have posed problems of illumination and security. Much against my will, I decided to cover the inside with paper and the outside with glass. This required a double frame, thus raising the cost. Yet having gone to all this trouble, the effect was fair from pleasing. The outside remained no more than a glass door; while within, the mellow softness of the paper was destroyed by the glass that lay behind it.
       There's a charm to his repeated acknowledgements that for all the beauty of the old, there are reasons even the Japanese have moved on, and that some of the pleasing aspects of the old have more prosaic underpinnings -- as, for example: "of course this 'sheen of antiquity' of which we hear is in fact the glow of grime".
       Parts of his appreciation of light, shadow, and color do then veer into the decidedly uncomfortable when he begins to discuss skin and its appearance: that the Nō actor reveals his true beauty by not covering it with any make-up (as opposed to Kabuki, where the: "colors under the glare of the Western floodlamps verge on a vulgarity of which one quickly tires") is reasonable enough, but his talk of: "how profound is the relationship between shadows and the yellow races" and the like is difficult to stomach. So also, there's the cringeworthy anecdote about the excessive use of electricity:
Yamamoto Sanehiko, president of the Kaizō publishing house, told me of something that happened when he escorted Dr. Einstein on a trip to Kyoto. As the train neared Ishiyama, Einstein looked out the window and remarked, "Now that is terribly wasteful." When asked what he meant, Einstein pointed to an electric lamp burning in broad daylight. "Einstein is a Jew, and so he is probably very careful about such things" -- this was Yamamoto's interpretation.
       A few such missteps do mar the work, which otherwise often has a great deal of charm, not least in Tanizaki recognizing that: "I know that I am only grumbling to myself and demanding the impossible", understanding that things have changed and some will never be the same again. Yet not all that he describes is lost, and much is still hidden -- or even clearly visible -- in the shadows, and his descriptions of this shadowy beauty are often lovely.
       Much here is very appealing, as Tanizaki makes a good case for seeing differently, and he contrasts things 'Western' and traditional-Japanese revealingly well. There's a nice personal touch and tone to it all as well, and while there's also, unfortunately, no getting around some parts that are beyond the pale, there's more than enough here to make this an essay still well worth reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2023

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In Praise of Shadows: Reviews: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō: Other books by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) lived 1886 to 1965.

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© 2023 the complete review

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