on January 9, 2014
I feel like one of the original translators trying to describe "In Praise of Shadows." Junichiro Tanizaki wrote this paean for a fading way of life in 1933, and it was later translated to English in 1977 - quite well I must say. I can't imagine it was easy though, because the Western and Eastern cultures are so different. This book sensitized me to how our different cultures use light and the role shadows play in the beauty of architecture and everyday objects.
Although it has been eighty years since this essay was first written, the words of this "ecological prophet" are still insightful and relevant to today's issues of modernity and culture. Japan is now one of the most modern countries in the world, particularly of the Far East, and they still have not abandoned its heritage. In fact, there is a fantastic book called Sacred Calligraphy of the East, that I just finished which presents the history and contemporary synthesis of this honored tradition.
I would highly recommend In Praise of Shadows for the person who is nostalgic and traditional. Today when technology advances put smartphones out of style in mere months, many of my friends are dreaming of the days of typewriters. I think they would find this book fascinating because it recalls the beauty of simpler times without being a jeremiad.
on April 4, 2005
The Japanese have an aesthetic concept called "Wabi Sabi." This term consists of two words. "Wabi" literally means "poverty," but in the aesthetic context it stands for simplicity; "Sabi" is literally "solitude, loneliness," and for aesthetic purposes it means something like natural impermanence. Wabi Sabi encourages, as one observer put it, a profound feeling of inner melancholy, and an appreciation of quietly clear and calm, well-seasoned and refined simplicity.
Andrew Juniper's "Wabi Sabi: The Japanese Art of Impermanence" summarizes the concept by saying that "the term wabi-sabi suggests such qualities as impermanence, humility, asymmetry, and imperfection. These underlying principles are diametrically opposed to those of their Western counterparts, whose values are rooted in the Hellenic worldview that values permanence, grandeur, symmetry, and perfection. ... Wabi-sabi is an intuitive appreciation of a transient beauty in the physical world that reflects the irreversible flow of life in the spiritual world. It is an understated beauty that exists in the modest, rustic, imperfect, or even decayed, an aesthetic sensibility that finds a melancholic beauty in the impermanence of all things." (pages 2 and 51)
In order to appreciate Junichiro Tanizaki's 50-page pamphlet "In Praise of Shadows" it helps to keep the concept of Wabi Sabi in mind. While many people would object to Tanizaki's anti-modernist view of art (and call it "reactionary" or "nationalist"), it is in fact a contemporary take on an ancient aesthetic concept that favors obliqueness (shadows) over brightness, weathered naturalness over functional novelty, the crude over the polished, and - ultimately - irrationality over rationality.
Tanizaki's essay contains good examples of Wabi Sabi, and a few peculiarly funny ones that reek of Zen humor: "one could with some justice claim that of all the elements of Japanese architecture, the toilet is the most aesthetic. Our forebears, making poetry of everything in their lives, transformed what by rights should be the most unsanitary room in the house into a place of unsurpassed elegance, replete with fond associations with the beauties of nature." (page 4) To a Western reader this sounds like unmitigated satire. But it is not. Tanizaki is serious about this stuff.
In sum, I find "In Praise of Shadows" a very entertaining illustration of an important Japanese aesthetic concept, written by one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. I bought the Leete's Island Books edition of the text, which I review here. Later I found that exactly the same translation is contained in Phillip Lopate's collection "The Art of the Personal Essay." It may be better value for money.
Of course, aesthetics are always a matter of taste. Speaking of which, "wasabi" - if you recall the title of this review - is Japanese horseradish.
The ideas in Tanizaki's essay on the Japanese appreciation for shadows and nature-based arts and architecture should come as little surprise for those familiar with the Japanese culture and tradition. Tanizaki's suggestion that these inclinations came from practical origins made sense (a lot better than the still-common theory that the Japanese idea of aesthetics is a result of different, Japanese genes). It also seemed to me that the Japanese were more inclined to resign themselves to fate and find beauty in what was at hand (like the shadows) than to fight nature and create light at the expense of beauty.
What interested me most was the fact that Tanizaki has a "us versus them" mentality, not so much that Japan or the West is better than the other, just different. However, it seems that if a young Japanese person were to read this essay today, it would seem just as "foreign" as it does to an American.
Nevertheless, it was interesting to read Tanizaki's essay, which discusses everything from the theatre to the bathroom, gold and lacquer, women and race. One cannot help but read Tanizaki's essay without feeling his loss at the erosion of traditional society and the innate beauty within it. At the same time, it makes you look around and notice the lack of beauty in our everyday lives (in terms of art and architecture). America, too, was once a land of shadows and a people who we probably able to appreciate their beauty. Tanizaki probably never considered the fact that his culture and ours are really not so fundamentally different.
If you read this essay, don't get caught up in Tanizaki's occasional bad-mouthing of Western culture (remember that he probably would have never dreamed that this short essay would be translated and read in the West!) Instead, treat this as a rare look into a common Japanese mindset and an opportunity to see for yourself whether Tanizaki's praise of shadows is a worthy one or not.
on March 18, 2006
In this classic 1933 essay, novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki explores the idea of shadows as a key note of Japanese aesthetics. Shadows are a natural function of traditional Japanese architecture - large rooms with broad eaves to keep rain and snow away from paper walls naturally create richly dark and quiet interiors, where shadows seem to have a presence all of their own. Tanizaki extends this idea, following the shadows from temple toilets to the darkness of lacquered tableware, into the folds of women's traditional clothing, and onto the Japanese stage. Some of his notions are purely fanciful - that gold was only valued by the ancients for the way it reflected candlelight; that the Japanese have an implicit distaste for their own skin given the way the light reveals its imperfect whiteness - while he is spot-on when it comes to articulating the beauty of No actors, and the way candlelight changes the quality of a restaurant meal. The essay's meandering structure might surprise those more accustomed to a rigorous argument, but as Thomas J. Harper notes in his insightful afterword, it invokes the Japanese artistic tradition of following the line wherever it leads. Along the way, Tanizaki makes a none too subtle critique of Western incursion into Japanese life. He mourns the displacement of candlelight by neon, the patina of a well-used bowl being reinterpreted as 'filth', and the white faces of Kabuki made monstrous by American spotlights. Tanizaki's essential contribution with this enduring piece is to remind us of something which, in the West, is so often forgotten: the quality of the materials and light from which a space is constructed - for light really is a tangible architectural element - will dictate on the subtle level the quality of human experience possible in that space. Modern life is too brilliantly lit, which might be why it so often lacks reverence and solemnity.
on October 8, 2000
"And I realized then that only in dim half-light is the true beauty of Japanese lacquerware revealed....But in the the still dimmer light of the candlestand, as I gazed at the trays and bowls standing in the shadows cast by that flickering point of flame, I discovered in the gloss of this lacquerware a depth and richness like that of a still, dark pond, a beauty that I had not before seen. It had not been mere chance, I realized, that our ancestors, having discovered lacquer, had conceived such a fondness for objects finished in it."
In 1993, Japanese novelist Jun'ichiro Tanizaki laid out his views on the Japanese aesthetic sense, in a short essay entitled "In Praise of Shadows". Though by no means an encompassing exploration of the subject, and at times decidedly idiosyncratic, Tanizaki's views shed a new light - if I may use that ironic metaphor - on the art and in particular the architecture of Japan, by revealing the way in which the concept of beauty evolved in concert with the darkness or semi-darkness in which life was lived. In this respect, the essay is brilliant, and capable of radically changing one's perspective on light and shadow, form and color.
Yet certain ideas of Tanizaki's can be disturbing. For example, on race and the paleness of skin, he writes "Thus it is that when one of us goes among a group of Westerners it is like a grimy stain on a sheet of white paper. The sight offends even our own eyes and leaves none to pleasent a feeling. We can appreciate, then, the psychology that in the past caused the white races to reject the colored races. A sensitive white person could not but be upset by the shadow that even one or two colored persons cast over a social gathering." Is this view the perverse opinion of one man, or the pervasive thought of a generation? I don't know the answer. Perhaps it is best to simply let time obscure these malformed passages into the shadows of his text, and to let the deeper insights - on art, food, and architecture - catch the eye and hold the attention.
The essence of Tanizaki's perspective is perhaps best captured in discussion of lacquerware; his words on this subject form the heart of his essay:
"Sometimes a superb piece of black lacquerware, decorated perhaps with flects of silver and gold - a box or a desk or a set of shelves - will seem to me unsettlingly garish and altogether vulgar. But render pitch black the void in which they stand, and light them not with the rays of the sun or electricity but rather a single lantern or candle: suddenly those garish objects turn somber, refined, dignified. Artisans of old, when they finished their works in lacuqer and decorated them in sparkling patterns, must surely have had in mind dark rooms and sought to turn to good effect what feeble light there was. Their extravagent use of gold too, I should imagine, came of undertanding how it gleams forth from out of the darkness and reflects the lamplight.
"Lacquerware decorated in gold is not something to be seen in brillaint light, to be taken in at a single glance; it should be left in the dark, a part here and a part there picked up by a faint light. Its florid patterns recede into the darkness, conjuring in their stead an inexpressible aura of depth and mystery, of overtones but partly suggested. The sheen of the lacquer, set out in the night, reflects the wavering candlelight, announcing the drafts that find their way from time to time into the quiet room, luring one into a state of reverie. If the lacquer is taken away, much of the spell disappears from the dream world built by that strange light of candle and lamp, that wavering light beating the pulse of the night. Indeed, the thin, impalpable, faltering light, picked up as thought little rivers were running through the room, collecting little pools here and there, lacquers a pattern on the surface of the night itself."
on April 26, 2002
Tanizaki's 1933 essay is an excellent introduction to the Japanese aesthetic. True, it IS the personal reflection on one man who, were he anyone else, would probably be dismissed as a curmudgeonly crackpot. However, 'western bashing' is not the issue here -- a point that he makes repeatedly is that had Japan remained closed to the influences and technology of the west, those things that have developed in Japan (and, arguably, later developed Japan) would have had a very different complexion. Although he does not speak for all Japanese, the points he makes -- tastes in architecture, decoration, etc -- appear over and over in ordinary Japanese people's homes and lives, even today, 70 years later. (I recommend this book to anyone going to visit Japan -- it gives most Westerners an entirely new perspective on how to view Japanese art.)
on November 22, 2003
A real treat to read the work of a great literary mind on a non-literary subject, namely, the aesthetic of traditional Japan culture. I really enjoyed this part-essay, part-rumination on a nostalgic Japan-past that was falling out of favor at the time Tanizaki wrote this. Through his panegyrics, his probing examination of the "natural" beauty to be found in unglamourized, un-Westernized, and un-madeover No plays, women, and lacquerware, he weaves a rather eloquent essay in defense of it.
As it stands, In Praise of Shadows is a somewhat moribund piece on the falling away of the subtlety, the grace, and the pure aesthetic he has grown to love. Such an approach is empathizable, and ultimately rewards the reader with an appreciation for the aesthetic, as it once was in Japan, and has since been historically reverred for. But, in the end, as Harper duly notes, that is all that it is--history, like a mural hanging on a wall in a museum. It is nice to admire and esteem for its cultural value, but anywhere outside of that "musuem," it is antiquated relic-ry of the past. Tanizaki's words are not a reactionary call for reversion, for a Return to classical treatments of the world, but, with resigned traditionalist sentiments, a mournful eulogy of it.
on July 22, 2004
The book is at once a praising of traditional Japanese beauty, and a mourning of the gradual disappearance of it (Tanizaki was 47 years old when its content was first published in 1933). But in my opinion it is foremost a contemplation on the "best way" to appreciate Japanese art (emphasis mine). The way he repeatedly speaks of in the text is "in shadows," where [Japanese] objects are free from the trivialization direct light subjugates them to, where objects reveal their natural gradation. Whether the object be a painting in a temple, lacquerware utensils in a restaurant, plated gold on walls, or even miso soup in a bowl, it is in shadows where Tanizaki finds those objects most beautiful.
Why the difference in taste between Westerners and Orientals (the translation makes use of the word Orientals over Asians)? Tanizaki attributes it to different characteristics, and ultimately to skin color:
"In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gas light, gas light to electric light -- his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow...
"And so we see how profound is the relationship between shadows and the yellow races. Because no one likes to show himself to bad advantage, it is natural that we should have chosen cloudy colors for our food and clothing and houses, and sunk ourselves back into the shadows. I am not saying that our ancestors were conscious of the cloudiness in their skin. They cannot have known that a whiter race existed. But one must conclude that something in their sense of color led them naturally to this preference."
The book proceeds with anecdotes and observations. I found Tanizaki's exposition quiet (though others may disagree on this point -- I did not read much into the nationalistic sentiments others find so prevalent in this book), interesting, and congenial. My only regret in the book was with its size (it is merely over 50 pages). It would have been great if the text appeared instead as a chapter in a collection of essays by Tanizaki.
on September 14, 2009
A cri-de-coeur against the mindless adoption of modern things. I'm sure Tanizaki would be the first one to admit the useful benefits of many modern inventions--he essentially says as much in this book itself--but that does not mean that we have to accept every modern thing without question. When you go to a lake in a valley for the purpose of moon viewing, having floods of spotlights on the lake does not enhance the experience; neither does having pop music blaring from speakers. Japanese laquerware was made for the effect it hase by candlelight--the flecks of gold glow out from amid the black laquer in an ethereal way. (The same, by the way, is true of church icons, and the stupidity of churches that use floods of electric lights is beyond expression.)
A major problem in the discussion of modern Asian cultures is the way in which two distinct things--the conflict between modernity and tradition, and that between native culture and the West--are often treated as if they were the same thing. Since the West was largely the vehicle by which modernity was introduced to Japan and the rest of Asia, that is perhaps unavoidable. To have developed modernity on your own, as the west did, is quite different from having it thrust upon you from outside. Tanizaki generally does the same thing, but at least he is aware of the difference. His discussion of what modern inventions might have been like had Asians invented them--would the fountain pen perhaps have had a brush for a tip?--is interesting, if somewhat unconvincing. Surely, if a "fountain-pen-brush" had been useful or feasible, someone would have invented one by now!
All in all, though, this book is by no means exclusively for people interested in Japan, although nobody interested in Japanese architecture or art should deny himself the pleasure of reading it. As an account of how the intrustion of modern stuff, with its glaring lights, loud music, and second-rate stuff feels to a man of sensibility, it is beyond compare.
Yes, Tanazaki is a little outrageous sometimes and sometimes a little bizarre. You simply cannot say something original and meaningful if you do not allow yourself to express your thoughts and feelings freely without worrying about what others might think. That is the real evil of political correctness--under the mask of being a sort of sweet-hearted rejection of prejudice is is really the imposition of such shackles on the imagination and on free expression as can only impoverish art and thought. I am afraid that a Westerner of today cannot speak as freely of his own and of other cultures as Tanizaki did of his, and that if one did he wouldn't get published. Alas, we are the poorer for it.
on June 27, 2016
I got this books for a college class and found myself learning a lot more than I had expected. In this book you examine why, in Japan, things look the way they do and are built in the ways they are. You really delve into the cultural significance as well as the spiritual, What you take away from this book is an understanding of the why the materials that were used in feudal buildings were and are still used today. Not a boring book at all. It does get dark sometimes while reading, no pun intended, but nothing too drastic. The read was smooth and I retained a lot of what I read. This book is a classic, and gives you a great perspective into Japanese aesthetics as a historical driving force in Japan. It also allows for you to make your own conclusions on if aesthetics are still present in Japan to this day and if its existence is still relevant to Japanese culture. It is not a very long book at all and you can knock it out in a very short while. Though it is short, you will have a better understanding of Japanese sociology as well as the reasons why Japan has formed the way it has. Overall, I felt this book offered a lot. This book has been around for a while, and I am glad that I got around to reading it. If you are interested in Japan at all, please take a look at this book and get a feel for the country, more than just the superficial and stereotypical "sushi" and "manga" perspectives. You'll take away a lot more than anyone else who just looks at current Japan ever will. Light, easy read with very insightful explanations of Japanese sociological workings and their reasons for existing. Recommend.