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Book Review: Diary of a Mad Old Man by Junichiro Tanizaki

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With a title like Diary of a Mad Old Man, one does not need guess too hard when trying to assume what this story is about. In it, we have an old man named Utsugi who, because he is old, is suffering from a list of medical ills, yet that does not stop him from recording his sexual perversions in his journal. One of the first things he mentions is how he is sexually attracted to male dancers dressed up to look like women. Not men, mind you, but men dressed to look like women. There’s a difference, Utsugi claims, and he justifies it plenty. And since he no longer finds his wife attractive, the object of his lust has shifted to his daughter-in- law, Satsuko — a feisty dancer with a past.

In many regards, the games that go on between the old man and his young daughter in law are ridiculous, but ultimately Utsugi is painted as someone pathetic and not so much mad per se, but a bit childish and sick. On one level their exchanges might seem like harmless fun, but given this is his daughter-in-law (his son is regularly traveling for work) makes the set up all the more taboo. Likewise, Satsuko is merely using her father in law in an attempt for him to purchase an expensive ring for her, and she does this by giving him bits of her body — not all of it, but just enough to tease and set his blood pressure through the roof. Her teasing begins by mentioning how she never locks the door while taking a shower, and so, the old man takes the bait and decides to test her on it. Well, what a surprise to find the door is open, he thinks, and so he enters the room while she is in the shower. Then, he sees her feet and becomes aroused. Perhaps the most ridiculous is his asking to kiss her feet, where he then begins to shove her toes into his mouth.

As all this is going on, Utsugi is suffering from a whole system of physical ills, which in turn, ultimately affects his journal writing. Days are missing and blocks of time are blotted out from his recording, yet readers likely won’t be wondering what’s gone on throughout these omissions, as Utsugi isn’t a particularly complex character. Perhaps the most insightful thing he mentions is his attraction to women with an evil character, and his justification for it. His daughter in law, while not necessarily “evil” is certainly not ashamed to use what she has in order to get what she wants. She knows her father in law is willing to be manipulated. But then, one can’t really feel sorry for an old man who stuffs his daughter in law’s toes into his mouth. At one point he mentions:

“Suppose there are two women equally beautiful, equally pleasing to my aesthetic tastes. A is kind and honest and sympathetic; B is unkind, a clever liar. If you ask which would be more attractive to me, I’m quite sure that these days I would prefer B. However, it won’t do unless B is at least the equal of A in beauty… Occasionally there are women whose faces reveal a streak of cruelty — they are the ones I like best.”

As the tale progresses, the story shifts into a list of the old man’s ills, his list of medications and his ultimate stroke and angina. One reviewer on Amazon claims this book is “too spare and too short of ideas.” While I can’t fault a writer for being stylistically “too spare,” I will agree that Diary of a Mad Old Man is a bit too short on ideas. It’s more of a novella and easily read in a couple of sittings, but what is missing is not length but added insights and observations that could have lifted this tale into something a bit more profound. As is, readers are given plenty of perversion but little profundity.

Tanizaki is a great writer whose works like Some Prefer Nettles (his best) and Naomi are proof of this. Even a minor work like The Key, which follows a similar format to Diary of a Mad Old Man, is a bit richer. Here, what readers are left with is a minor work from a major Japanese writer that, while arguably funny in spots, leaves nothing for the mind to argue afterwards. And just an aside, I have since lost track of the number of times in Tanizaki’s novels where the lead male protagonist is infatuated with some woman’s feet. After a while, one just has to wonder.

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