“Naomi, Naomi — I don’t know how many times the name was repeated between us. It was the appetizer that accompanied our sake. We relished its smooth sound, licked it with our saliva, and raised it to our lips, as though it were a delicacy even tastier than beef.”
It is almost impossible in modern times to talk about Junichiro Tanizaki’s Naomi without mentioning Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita; even if Naomi was written half a century before Lolita. The above quote could easily be a passage in Nabokov’s masterpiece, with the names transposed and bourbon or gin taking the place of sake. The novels both center around an older man’s obsession with a young girl. Each novel somehow manages to create complex, sympathetic narrators that we pity, loathe, and perhaps, ultimately, understand. When I read Lolita, some ten years ago, I assumed that I would never again see its equal, both in terms of quality and content. How many novels can we accept about pseudo-pedophiles in our literary canon, after all? I guess for me the answer is at least two. Naomi rises to the level of Lolita in every conceivable way. Or perhaps its more accurate to say that Lolita rises to the level of its predecessor.
Naomi’s central character is a man named Joji Kawai. As with so many Japanese novels written by men, Naomi’s protagonist is nondescript and outwardly boring. He exists within Japanese society as a pre-cursor to the now-common salary-man, and he does so without attracting any attention or distinguishing himself in any way. The only thing that makes Joji unique among his peers is his distaste for traditional marriage. In 1920s Japan, arranged marriages were common, and the ceremony was more of a rite of passage or an expected tradition than it was an expression of love between two people. Joji refuses the norm, which sets the stage for the entire novel’s nontraditional viewpoints because much like Joji, Japan at this time was going through a heavy transitional period influenced largely by the intrusion of Western culture.
Joji finds Naomi working in a teahouse as a hostess – a hostess in this case being a lower class version of a geisha. Naomi is an unusual Japanese woman in that she has Western features – larger eyes and a lighter skin tone than most. Though she is only 15 when he meets her, Joji is almost immediately smitten with Naomi and devises a plan to raise her as his own child with the hopes of one day making her his wife.
This is the point in the story, within the first few pages, where many readers will stop, look around, and wonder what they hell it is they are reading. This is disgusting behavior in almost any society, and we are left feeling soiled by even reading it. Tanizaki does not shy away from revulsion and takes us on a journey through Naomi’s upbringing and into her adulthood in a violent progression of dramatic scenes and storm-like outbursts. As a reader, I was at various times repelled by Joji, felt a deep sorrow for him, was ashamed at his behavior, and ultimately astonished at the outcome of his relationship with this child-turned-woman. I can not remember feeling so many conflicting emotions within the pages of one novel, except perhaps when I read, you guessed it, Lolita.
It would be easy to see Naomi as an allegory for Japan’s transition into a more Westernized culture. There are numerous parallels, and Naomi’s obvious Western appearance is as blunt a metaphor as you’re likely to find. But to me, this novel is more about obsession and empowerment than it is about Japan’s desertion of its own culture. Maybe Tanizaki began with the intent of creating a microcosm of Japan’s macrocosm, but what he ended up with was an alarming look into human psychology. And it is that peek into the warped human mind that makes Naomi so incredibly good.
It would also be simple to view Naomi as a misogynistic tale about a pervert and his trophy wife, but that would be too shallow of an interpretation. Naomi, as a child, begins this story with very little power. She is a slave, essentially, and though the life Joji shows her is one far above what she knows – she grows up in a brothel – her choices are extremely limited and in order to gain the things she wants in the world, she is forced to do and act as Joji wants. Over the course of 200 pages, Tanazaki completely flips this power structure. Naomi takes over the role of villain, seizes every shred of power from every other character in the novel, and becomes the focus of every scene. Her ability to take what she wants from the world borders on sociopathic, but there is no doubt that she is empowered by the end of Naomi in a way that few women of her time would have been. Even today’s Japan might raise eyebrows at her ability to rule in her own queendom.
I have a hard time imagining this novel during its release almost a hundred years ago. How was it received? Was it banned and burned? It is progressive by even today’s standards, both in its empowerment of a female character and in its sheer creepiness. It is also a classic example of the ability of even the most sordid storytelling to affect and teach us something about the human condition. Humans can be depraved and loving and manipulative and pitiable. Naomi puts this all on display, and we are not allowed to ignore it.