Twenty-five years after his death--he was born in 1886 and died in 1965--Jun'ichiro Tanazaki remains one of the few Japanese writers to have fulfilled the dream of every Japanese writer: He managed to be peculiarly Japanese and yet worldly and modern at the same time. His preoccupations with sensuality and obsession, sensitivity and obligation, were as Western as Eastern.
"A Cat, a Man, and Two Women," although not top-drawer Tanazaki (as are "The Makioka Sisters," "Shunkin" and "The Key") is still a good example of his estimable but also terribly quirky talents.
Not too long ago, I picked up this novella and reread it in Japanese. The fact that the story takes place in an area where I once lived meant that I knew exactly how the mountains looked, which way the winds blew and the very manner in which the seasonal changes were revealed in the local Flora. I was amazed at the precision with which Tanazaki got it all so right, down to the last detail. In addition, although Tanazaki himself was born and reared in Tokyo, he also captured perfectly the warmth and humor of the spicy mix of Kobe and Osaka dialects spoken in the Hanshin district--no easy feat for most Japanese writers, and something Tanazaki himself did not succeed in doing half as well in "The Makioka Sisters."
Unfortunately, though Paul McCarthy's translation is a fine one, all such Japanese linguistic nuances and riches are lost in any English rendering. Fortunately, however, little else is. The plot, dealing with the obsessive and slavish attachment to a cat, first by a man and then by his former wife, is on the surface so simple that it always seems just one step away from the comic absurd. But Tanazaki, himself as sure-footed and graceful as a cat, never makes a single misstep. The result is a tale every bit as involving and moving as any custodial struggle. Only in this case what's at stake is a cat. Here, in other words, is that fictional rarity: an animal story with depth; an adult animal story.
Lily, the cat about which all revolves, "was of a Western breed, with soft, silky fur; a pretty female unusually elegant in form and features." And her master's fondness for Lily, as his second wife observed, "was definitely excessive." It also was definitely intimate:
"If Shozo interrupted his chewing to poke out a piece of fish with his tongue, Lily would nimbly dart her head forward to seize the morsel. Occasionally she would devour it all at once; at other times, she would lick the remnants from around Shozo's mouth, carefully and complacently. There were even times when cat and master would contend for the same piece, each tugging at one end. Then Shozo would put on an angry act, complete with grunts and cries, frowns, grimaces and a little spittle. Actually, though, he seemed to be enjoying himself just as much as Lily was."
Nor did Lily and Shozo confine their "love making" Tom Jones-style to food. "At night she always slept beside him. . . . In cold weather she would insert herself under the top quilt near Shozo's pillow and then work her way down into the bedding. She nestled against Shozo's chest, or crawled toward his groin. . . ." No wonder that added feline presence created a problem for both of his wives. And matters were complicated further when a third woman, his mother, tried to use Shozo's intimate attachment to the cat for her own ends. Indeed, the title could just as well have been "A Cat, a Man, and Three Women."
Like their Western counterparts, many Japanese writers and artists have been fascinated by cats. But unlike the narrator/hero of, for example, "I Am a Cat" (Soseski Natsume's certified national classic), who is cool, logical, ironically philosophical, highly critical of society, and gregariously male, Tanazaki's cat is erotic, warm-blooded, sensuous, intensely and independently female, very much like the cat in a Tsuguji Foujita painting. And I think there might be a special reason for Lily's strong and dominating Eros.
In 1936, when Tanazaki published this novella, Japan already was in the control of the rightist military regime that was embarked on its ruinous road of conquest. Like most totalitarian governments, that dictatorship put on a prudish face and was strongly censorious of anything dealing with sex--especially anything in which the primacy of the male did not prevail.
It was no accident then that Tanazaki, who always liked to dwell on the power of the female and the inevitable defeat of the male in any relationship, chose to spend most of those ensuing years safely re-translating "Tale of Genji." However, I suspect that not all of his erotic literary impulses could be so easily contained and submerged. And in Lily, the cat, he could create the object of his own obsessions--the sensual and all-conquering female lover--without encountering the censorship of the authorities.
In "Professor Rado," a postwar German Weimar-like tale published in the earlier '20s, these obsessions are even articulated down to all their S-and-M implications. And "The Little Kingdom," a short story written in 1918, describes the takeover of a class by a student with natural leadership qualities, and an unnatural way of asserting that rule until the teacher himself falls under his dominion.
But it is "A Cat" that I can most heartily recommend as an introduction to Tanazaki, not only Japan's greatest 20th-Century writer but also one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.