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Customer Review

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.
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