An Eye Through The Knotted Peephole In Junichiro Tanizaki’s Devils in Daylight

Reviewed by John Biscello

Devils in Daylight
by Junichiro Tanizaki
New Directions Publishing, 96pp., $9.95

I would call back at least for literature this world of shadows we are losing. In the mansion called literature I would have the eaves deep and the walls dark, I would push back into the shadows the thing that come forward too clearly, I would strip away the useless decoration. I do not ask that this be done everywhere, but perhaps we may be allowed at least one mansion where we can turn off the electric lights and see what it is like without them.” – Junichiro Tanizaki, In Praise of Shadows

Early 20thcentury, Japan. You, caped in shadows, find yourself watching two men who are watching, through a grainy peephole, two other people, a man and a woman, who are seemingly killing another man. The entire thing is busy, complex, furtive; erotic in its staggered geometry. Outside, where you are and where you aren’t, the rain-slicked street holds tiny concentric halos of light projected out from the window of an Inn that dizzies its patrons with licentious allure, while Rockwell’s paranoia blares from a jukebox — It always feels like somebody’s watching me, tell me is it just a dream — and you can’t help but look over your shoulder as you see a lantern-eyed black cat, smiling. Mind you, the song and the jukebox haven’t been invented yet, and Rockwell lingers as a figment awaiting popstar iteration, but still, they are there, this is happening, a confluence of elements, which includes you and five other people (one of them now very much dead), and the whole thing gets you thinking about the dreamlike immediacy of voyeurism, or the pyramidic folds of role-playing. You have entered that place between realms, where the novelist Junichiro Tanizaki so comfortably dwells.

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Devils in Daylight, originally published in 1918, is one of the numerous Tanizaki books that New Directions has reprinted, giving the celebrated Japanese author and playwright (1886–1965) a new lease on life, and deservedly so. His seminal essay — In Praise of Shadows — originally published in 1933, was a perversely elegant testament to the aesthetic importance of shadows. In that respect, Devils in Daylight is kin to the same brood.

Setting a gothic tone with its opening line, “Sonomura made no secret of the fact that mental illness ran in his family,” this novel is a concentrated hybrid of speculative pulp, pink film, and Edgar Allan Poe remix. The premise is simple: a writer, Takahashi, receives a phone call from his friend, Sonomura, a wealthy eccentric and avid reader, who claims to know when and where a murder is going to take place, after decoding a cryptogram. The cryptogram, whose roots link to Poe’s story, “The Gold-Bug,” was part of a covert exchange involving three people in a movie theater, where Sonomura had gone to watch a film, and instead found himself riveted to the “real-life” cinema taking place in the shadows several rows in front of him. Sonomura convinces the dubious and reluctant Takahashi to join him and play hidden witness to the anticipated murder. Soon the two men find themselves, eyes pressed greedily against knotholes in a wooden exterior, peering into a lighted room, where, in abstracted close-up, a scene plays out with cinematic tension on par with Hitchcock. The startling immediacy and visceral action of Tanizaki’s rendering, indeed owes part of its style to the medium of cinema, which at the time of Devil’s publication was a brand-new form, and one which would become an integral part of Tanizaki’s sensibility and career.

The plot of Devils is secondary, or rather a necessary grist for the psychic X-rays exposing its characters and their machinations. “Recently I have somehow lost interest in an ordinary life, and am no longer at home in my own skin. I have begun to feel without some bizarre stimulus I cannot go on living. In fact it’s only seeing things like what we saw tonight that prevents me from going insane from sheer boredom.” These words, spoken by Sonomura to Takahashi, encapsulate the perverse urges which compel Sonomura, and lead to his romantic obsession with one of the murderers, “a heroine ripped from the pages of a detective novel, a devil incarnate,” and set the stage for a dangerous strain of intimacy.

Takahashi, on the other hand, while always questioning Sonomura’s sanity and motives, is also magnetically drawn to his friend’s bent disposition, which reflects his own shadow-self and its latent cravings. Both of these men’s ingrown attachments to vicarious pleasure, touch upon the knotted implications of what it means to be a voyeur, and perhaps specific breed of writer: one who can only “feel” deeply when immersed in the role of witness. It is a way to engage intimately without the burden of participation, a passive and privileged state of relishing. In that sense, you can say that writers, like voyeurs, function most comfortably as ghosts with existential hard-ons.

By the time you reach the novel’s inside-out climax, the nature of storytelling, and artifice, have joined fetishism and obsession as essential ingredients in Tanizaki’s elemental stew. And maybe, if you listen closely, ear to the thin wooden wall, you will hear faint echoes — It always feels like somebody’s watching, tell me is it just a dream — and you will turn around to see yourself, listening.


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