- The Rhetoric of Photography in Modern Japanese Literature: Materiality in the Visual Register as Narrated by Tanizaki Jun’ichirō, Abe Kōbō, Horie Toshiyuki, and Kanai Mieko by Atsuko Sakaki
There is something mind-bending about encountering a photograph embedded in a work of fiction. A photograph that appears to represent someone or something mentioned in a fictional narrative throws into doubt its own provenance, its relation to the surrounding text, and the relation of both photo and text to reality. The reputation of the German author W. G. Sebald rests in large part on books that seem to float in an ambiguous and hybrid world between the fictitious and the real, the novel and the memoir, thanks to this device of the embedded photograph and the questions it prompts. Does the photograph simply evoke things of the kind the text describes, even if they are not precisely the same things? Does it succeed in verifying the existence of some subset of things described in the narrative, pulling the narrative at least partly out of the fictional realm? Does the proximity of the fictional narrative compromise the photograph, undercutting its supposed connection to reality and rendering it “fictional,” or otherwise highlighting its artifice? Or, conversely, might the artifice of the photograph undercut the apparent realism of the fiction? And what of cases where there is no easily discernible relationship between the photograph and the accompanying text at all?
Atsuko Sakaki’s deeply researched and thought-provoking new book addresses intricate questions like these, working mainly with examples drawn from twentieth-century Japanese literature and photography. As Sakaki says at the outset, the book “aspires to critically investigate how the photographic way of seeing and processing what one sees has inspired and transformed the way prose narratives have been [End Page 128] written and what that amounts to in terms of the registration of human experience of time and space” (p. 2).
Each of the book’s four main chapters takes up the role of photography in the works of a different writer. Sakaki begins with the two canonical figures Tanizaki Jun’ichirō and Abe Kōbō, followed by the less familiar Horie Toshiyuki (academic, art critic, book designer, novelist, and photographer active since the 1980s) and Kanai Mieko (poet, short-story writer, film and photography critic, and novelist most active from the 1970s to the 1990s). Her treatment of each writer is focused on a particular theme or concern: the family with Tanizaki, the city with Abe, what she calls “the community of connoisseurship” with Horie, and all three of these with Kanai. Despite this variety of emphases, Sakaki sees a strong similarity in the authors’ engagement with photography. “All four writers,” she says, sounding what will become a familiar refrain, “reveal the slipperiness of the enterprise of encapsulating facts by way of photography. . . . Upon close examination, the photographic image turns out to be not as transparent or objective as commonly supposed” (p. 1).
The chapter on Tanizaki Jun’ichirō treats a number of his fictional works including Shunkinshō (A Portrait of Shunkin), Chijin no ai (A Fool’s Love; published in English as Naomi), Yoshinokuzu (Arrowroot; analyzed in its 1937 limited edition, which includes photographs by Kitao Ryōnosuke), Sasameyuki (A Light Snowfall; published in English as The Makioka Sisters), and Kagi (The Key). Of these works, only one—the limited edition of Yoshinokuzu—contains actual photographs in the text, but the others all devote some degree of narrative energy to photographers and photography. Sakaki’s intent in this chapter is “to account for the ambiguous and dynamic relationship between image and text that Tanizaki brings to our attention as he writes about (or around) photographs” (p. 19). Her central insight is that photographs in Tanizaki “often contribute to a destabilization of present reality, leaving the viewer feeling disoriented rather than steady in space-time” (p. 18). So, for example, in Shunkinshō, the memory that...