A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkin Sho) by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, 1933

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by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, 1933

When Tanizaki Jun'ichiro published his short story "A Portrait of Shunkin" ("Shunkin sho") in 1933, he was still engaged in a bitter public debate with fellow author Akutagawa Ryunosuke as to the appropriate role for the author's imagination in the formulation of fiction. In response to the latter's public advocacy of the "plotless novel," Tanizaki argued passionately in favor of "complicated stories that are embellished with maximum intricacy." Nowhere is this determined advocacy of the author's duty to "construct" his fictional world by giving free rein to his powers of creativity more evident than in "A Portrait of Shunkin."

Immediately acclaimed by the majority of his critics as the embodiment of much that Tanizaki had long been propounding for his fiction, at first sight the work conforms to the author's express desire to "reconstruct the psychology of a woman of Japan's feudal past." The consequent portrayal of the blind Shunkin suggests a woman who, though "blessed with aristocratic grace and beauty," has become so accustomed to having her own way, especially from her dutiful servant Sasuke, that any hint of questioning of her absolute authority is met with a stubborn, even ruthless assertion of her dominance.

To interpret the story in such terms, however, is to reckon without Tanizaki's extraordinary "power to construct" and to overlook the story's complex narrative strategy that the author was subsequently to attribute to his reading of Stendhal and Hardy. Reviewed thus, far from the uncomplicated, objective portrayal of the spoilt mistress and her obedient servant, the story comes to be seen as an increasingly complex framework of carefully constructed, though often seemingly conflicting, messages, and it is only in penetrating the various levels of narration that the reader gains access to the issue at the core of the work—a questioning of the very nature of truth itself.

To achieve his ends Tanizaki frames the entire story through the introduction of the narrator-researcher who seeks to piece together an "accurate" portrait of Shunkin from the limited sources at his disposal. Thereafter, by casting increasing doubt on the objective reliability of each of these sources, the author succeeds in disarming his reader to such an extent that, by the end, the veracity of the narrator himself is called into question.

The sources of information concerning Shunkin available to the narrator are varied, but as the story develops, each of these is provided with plausible grounds for presenting a somewhat "economical" truth. At the outset of the work, as the researcher visits the graves of Shunkin and Sasuke, he is introduced to the old lady Teru, who had served both so faithfully and who now tends both their graves. In emphasizing her blind devotion to the couple, however—and hinting at a possible relationship between Sasuke and Teru following Shunkin's death—the story deliberately introduces a question mark over the disinterested nature of the information with which she supplies the narrator. A similar element of uncertainty surrounds the other source on which the narrator relies heavily, a biography entitled The Life of Mozuya Shunkin. As the narrative is quick to point out, the work was apparently compiled at Sasuke's behest, and Sasuke "undoubtedly supplied all the material and may well be regarded as the real author." Given the confused nature of the relationship between Sasuke and Shunkin, described by one critic as "at once brutal and sublime," the reader hardly needs to be reminded that Sasuke's "remarks cannot be taken at face value since he was accustomed to humbling himself while praising her to the skies."

The subsequent text is presented through a combination of conjecture, description, and several lengthy quotations from these "primary sources," with the narrator seemingly intent on maintaining a clear delineation between his own hypothesis and the various "facts" at his disposal. The text, however, gradually erodes this distinction, and as fact and flights of imagination become ever more interwoven, increasing doubt is cast on the authenticity of the fundamental "portrait" itself. This culminates in the incident in which Shunkin is deliberately disfigured by someone pouring boiling water over her face. The possibility that, rather than being the act of any of the potential culprits considered by the narrator, the crime is of Sasuke's doing, though not raised explicitly, is not far beneath the surface. Even Sasuke's subsequent and inexplicable blinding fails to clarify the issue. As the narrator confesses, considerable discrepancy exists between the depiction of this event in The Life of Mozuya Shunkin, which describes the "strange turn of fate [whereby] within a few weeks Sasuke began to suffer from cataracts", and Sasuke's own account offered some 10 years later of his sacrificial act of self-immolation to ensure that he would never been in a position to witness Shunkin's disfigurement. Whatever the "truth," the incident itself is pivotal; it calls into question the very nature of the relationship between Shunkin and Sasuke, raising the possibility that, for all his apparently unquestioning acquiescence to his mistress's every whim, it is actually Sasuke who exercises the dominant role, ensuring to the end that Shunkin remains totally dependent on her "servant."

In suggesting that through his blindness Sasuke acquires a new vision—an "inner vision in place of the vision he had lost"—the narrator appears to be hinting that a resolution of the various questions raised by the story will be achieved. But in enveloping even this comment in the countless layers of narrative that intervene between reader and the "real" Shunkin, the author succeeds in maintaining the ambiguity to the end, thereby retaining the focus on the questions of truth and objectivity that from the outset Tanizaki had sought to construct.

—Mark Williams

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A Portrait of Shunkin (Shunkin Sho) by Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, 1933

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