Some Prefer Nettles – Junichiro Tanizaki

 Book # 688a

Reviewer: Kara

Some Prefer NettlesSome Prefer Nettles is about Kaname and Misako, a married couple that is no longer in love. Both are having affairs, both are interested in divorce, but both are putting off the end of the marriage. This is partially to conform to social standards but also to avoid the pain and changes that come with such a decision.

At the same time that Kaname is working towards this very modern life change — divorce — he is becoming increasingly interested in traditional Japanese culture. He goes to several traditional puppet shows with his father-in-law and begins to take an interest in his father-in-law’s girlfriend/consort O-hisa, who dresses, bathes, and generally lives in old-fashioned styles at the behest of her keeper.

This coupling of nostalgia with modernity, and the descriptions of lives lived right on the cusp of a cultural shift, as awareness and interest in western culture is beginning to grow in Japan, is a major theme of the novel and of Tanizaki’s work in general.

The most fascinating aspect is watching Kaname’s internal struggle. As his interest in traditional culture grows, so does his wish for divorce. Early on, it seems that his hesitation to bite the bullet is based on social appearances — what will others, including his father-in-law, think of him and Misako if they part ways? As the novel progresses though, it becomes more and more clear that Kaname is struggling within himself just as much. He fears the change for both himself and Misako, who he deeply cares about even if he does not love her.

To put it simply, Kaname is comfortable with the status quo and reluctant to change, even though it would bring both him and Misako happiness.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is its uncertain ending. I won’t say too much about what happens, but suffice it to say that Tanizaki leaves Kaname on the precipice of a decision. There are very different paths available to him, and we do not learn which one he takes. This is the ultimate example of the vagueness that is very much a part of Tanizaki’s writing style, and something that is even described in the novel as being typical of traditional Japanese writing:

“The composers didn’t think about grammar. If you see generally what was in their hearts, that’s really enough. The vagueness is rich in its own way.”

Tanizaki intends for us as readers to gather clues about Kaname — who he is, how he behaves — and determine for ourselves what decision Kaname will make. I know what I think he will do, and I found the lack of ending more of a fun exercise than a disappointment.

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