Review: Some Prefer Nettles – Junichiro Tanizaki: Tanizaki’s Novella Explores a Divorce in a Changing Japan

Kaname and Misako are trapped in a loveless marriage, but each lacks the courage to enter into a divorce. Considerations of face, timing, and reluctance to tell their young son Hiroshi of their pain lock them in a downward spiral of depression. While Kaname remains indecisive, he also discovers a longing for life in a more traditional Japan. As Misake and Kaname drift apart, this nostalgia reinforces the alienation experienced in a rapidly changing society.

Classic Japanese Novel

Misako, under Kaname’s tacit support, has begun an extra-marital affair. She wants to leave Kaname, who again expresses his desire for the West through a relationship with, Louise, a Eurasian courtesan. Kaname and Misako have begun to resent each other, but their personalities prevent them from making the final step towards separation. Tanizaki writes in a lucid style and does an admirable job of bringing their personalities to the fore.

Although much of the story is told from Kaname’s perspective, he lends weight to Misako and Hiroshi’s psychological makeups as well.

Some Prefer Nettles opens with Kaname and Misako attending a play upon an invitation from Misako’s father. Misako who aspires to be a modern woman with cultivated Western tastes is offset by her father’s young mistress, O-hisa. Kaname and Misako have difficulty in divorcing partly due to society’s expectations and being beholden to a more traditional standard. Although Misako’s lover is expected to take her in, divorce brings a sense of disgrace which the family would like to avoid.

Globalization in Japan

Kaname and Misako envision themselves as a modern Tokyo couple with predominately Western tastes. They enjoy Hollywood films, foreign literature, and Western food. Written in the 1920s, Some Prefer Nettles reflects a rapidly changing Japan, where cultural tastes have begun to differ and old ways have begun to die out. Kaname experiences personal turmoil as he discovers a preference for Japan he experienced in his childhood. Will he recapture his past or stay trapped in the present?

Kaname becomes intrigued with Japan’s past through Misako’s father and his strong adherence to traditionalism. His obsession with traditional trappings brings Kaname to traditional Japanese Puppet theatre. Kaname feels a stirring of nostalgia, and despite his Tokyo upbringing, he learns to appreciate the arts of Osaka. Some Prefer Nettles places Tokyo at the forefront of Japanese society while Osaka and Kyoto reflect a different class and period of time.

As Kaname delves into Japan’s artistic past and visits the countryside, he begins to question his current identity, while Tanizaki plays with the perspectives of tradition and modernity of different cities.

Female Characters in Japanese Literature

Tanizaki writes from a male perspective and this gives his female characters a certain flatness. Despite this, the archetypes presented to give insight into Tanizaki’s mind. O-hisa, forced into traditional roles by Misako’s father becomes Kaname’s ideal woman, despite his obsession with a Eurasian lover, and the modern tastes he and his wife prefer. O-hisa is being instructed in the arts of a geisha although she wishes for modern life.

Misako represents the women of a dynamically changing Japan. Still strongly rooted in the cages of culture, her want of freedom and ability to express herself make her Kaname’s equal.

Kaname finds himself choosing to prolong his loveless marriage with modernity through Misako and Louise or choosing the traditionalism represented by O-hisa. His obsession with tradition and O-hisa can be read as a desire for control. Kaname is lost in modern Japan and can only be sure of himself by mimicking Misako’s father who dominates O-hisa. This longing for surety remains undefined but encapsulates the emotions of many lovers and those disaffected by globalization.

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