There’s a story behind this book. It changed hands four times: starting from a friend of a friend in the US, it ended up on my shelf in Korea three years ago. My old chum Michelle, who gave it to me, said it had basically turned into a tradition. The strange tale of Naomi and her befuddled husband Joji could not be unshared – it was too novel, too delightful and outrageous.
Not everyone liked it, according to the personal note left on the cover page. Even Michelle herself hesitated to say it was “great.” So I read Naomi (pronounced “NAH-oh-mee”) with no real expectations. I was caught off guard both by the quietly hilarious main character and Tanizaki’s delightful, frank writing style. It grew on me like a guilty pleasure pop song. I have now read it twice, and confess I sort of love this book.
28-year-old Kawai Joji is a humble and hardworking engineer who lives a somewhat boring life. All that changes one day when he meets a young girl named Naomi working in a café. Naomi bears a striking resemblance to actress Mary Pickford and from the first moment our cinema-loving antihero is captivated. Joji is the awkward loner type who has no knack for social norms and Naomi is a waif on the fringes of society. The two “outcasts” find refuge from the normal world and move into a whimsical little house together with a garden and courtyard. A few years later they marry.
If it sounds like an idyllic tale frothed with romance, guess again. Joji introduces his story better than any commentator could.
I’m going to try to relate the facts of our relationship as man and wife just as they happened, as honestly and frankly as I can. It’s probably a relationship without precedent… I’m sure my readers will find it instructive, too. As Japan grows increasingly cosmopolitan, Japanese and foreigners are eagerly mingling with one another; all sorts of new doctrines and philosophies are being introduced; and both men and women are adopting up-to-date Western fashions. No doubt, the times being what they are, the sort of marital relationship that we’ve had, unheard of until now, will begin to turn up on all sides.
Joji is fascinated but intimidated by the west – so is much of 1920’s Japan. His relationship with Naomi often runs parallel to Japan’s relationship with the west. If you can get your head above the outrageous drama of the story you can glean some excellent cultural insight. A good novel, like a good cake always comes in rich layers.
Joji himself is a strange mixture of progressive and patriarchal. He abhors the stuffy conventions of Japanese culture and instead of having a sexual relationship with Naomi right away (she is only fifteen) he agrees to first live with her as “friends.”
However from the beginning is a notion in Joji’s mind that Naomi will ultimately become a trophy:
On the one hand, I was motivated by sympathy for her. On the other, I wanted to introduce some variety into my humdrum monotonous daily existence…Indeed, why not build a house, I thought, even a small one? I’d decorate the rooms, plant flowers, hang out a birdcage on the sunny veranda, and hire a maid to do the cooking and the scrubbing. And if Naomi agreed to come, she’d take the place of both the bird and the maid.
Together Joji and Naomi move into an eccentric old house, with no servants or guests to bother them. They pass the days “playing” childish games, eating take out food and shopping for cheap kimonos. Naomi calls Joji “Papa” and he gives her baths in the kitchen tub. It’s a rather…unique situation, to say the least.
Joji’s hope and design is to turn Naomi into a “fine, young woman,” one he can show off to others. He invests in English and music lessons for her, at the same time showering her with clothes and presents. But just as you’d expect in the case of a spoiled teenage daughter, Naomi starts to defy Joji’s ambitions for her. She sulks during her English lesson. She complains she doesn’t have enough clothes and she won’t even wash out the rice pot. So much for replacing the maid and the bird.
Here begins the story’s transition into dark comedy and perhaps one of the most twisted yet compelling looks I have ever had at a male-female relationship in literature. The more Naomi annoys and defies Joji, the more he finds her delightful. To save face he teases her and refuses to take her seriously. In a sobering flashback he confesses his misguided judgment.
It’s often said that “women deceive men.” But from my experience I’d say that it doesn’t start with the woman deceiving the man. Rather, the man, without any prompting rejoices in being deceived; when he falls in love with a woman, everything she says, true or not, sounds adorable to his ears…He has no intention of being misled by her. On the contrary, he laughs to himself that he’s deceiving her.
What Joji doesn’t realize is that Naomi is no kitten. She is in fact, a moga – a Japanese modern girl.
I was delighted to learn that well before World War II Japan experienced its own version of the Roaring Twenties. A moga, a Japanese version of a flapper, was a woman who donned Western clothing and lifestyles. Joji is fascinated by both Naomi and the moga world, but can’t help at times feel that he’s betraying his motherland. He also can’t help but wonder if his colleagues at work are beginning to suspect something’s fishy as his personal life spirals out of control.
When outrageous clothes and movies aren’t enough Naomi drags Joji downtown with her to take dance lessons. In 1920’s Imperial Japan this is not unlike going to a rave party. Joji meets the enchanting dance instructor who also happens to be a Russian countess in exile and falls further in love with the bohemian way of life (and with Naomi). He is glad that he has once again caved to stubborn Naomi’s wishes.
However, the Russian countess is not the only new character to make an appearance. Joji soon meets a host of rather unsavory folk, including a macho hotshot named Kumagai, and they all appear to already be well acquainted with Naomi. Joji has an uneasy feeling about it all. But even our humble country bumpkin narrator has no idea just how crazy things are going to get.
It takes a certain amount of talent to make a book about unlikeable people likable. Tanizaki is a master of it – at least he is with this novel. Joji is unexpectedly lovable as the self-deprecating, “snaggle-toothed” narrator who doesn’t shrink from admitting his blunders. He’s painfully uneducated in the arts and literature, yet he is in love with movies and theater. He doesn’t have many literary references up his sleeve, but when he does, he tries to make them relevant. At one point he compares himself to Marc Anthony being taken in by Cleopatra, based on a cautionary history lesson he remembers in high school. His endearing humanness is what makes the novel special.
By the end Joji is no closer to realizing or resolving anything than he was what he started off.
If you think that my account is foolish, please go ahead and laugh. If you think there’s a moral in it, then, please let it serve as a lesson. For myself, it makes no difference what you think of me; I’m in love with Naomi.
While some readers may be irked that Joji can still remain so bemused I actually love this about him – and about the novel. He has no pretense or sermon to give about the things that have happened. He invites the reader instead, to make what they will of his strange plight.
The English poet Sir Philip Sidney once wrote that poetry – and by extension, fiction – “affirms nothing”; therefore “it cannot lie.” Perhaps Tanizaki shares a sentiment similar to Sidney. Somehow there is something quite appealing in a story that just gives the facts and lets you derive your own meaning. Joji may be a stooge in some ways, but he never talks down to his readers.
Whether you want to read Naomi as a commentary on dysfunctional relationships, shifting cultural values, a sensational romp, a history lesson, or a comedy I doubt if Kawai Joji could care less. And frankly I don’t either. I just know that this is a delightful, hilarious book on many levels that will leave you with someone new to think about each time you read it. Who knows, maybe it’ll even make you want to take dance lessons.