The intricacies of a deteriorating, loveless marriage are revealed within this rich and beautifully structured novel. Some Prefer Nettles is a great work of beauty and art that so captures the universal themes of the lonely and loveless while also addressing the struggles between the East and West throughout Japan at that time. Kaname and Misako’s marriage is one of function. They do not love one another, but likely had they never married, it is possible they could have been friends instead. They share a young son, Hiroshi, and although their marriage has become nothing more than perfunctory, neither can claim he or she has been treated poorly. Tanizaki’s precision with dialogue captures perfectly the politeness and facades of the culture, where much is shown by what is not said.
In the opening chapter, Misako’s father invites the couple to join him and his very young mistress to a puppet theater. As Misako is helping to dress her husband in his kimono, the narrator notes that Misako’s skill in knowing how to arrange his clothes is perhaps “the only function she really discharged as a wife, the only function for which another woman would not do as well.” And when her hand touches the back of his neck, it feels impersonal, as if it could have been the hand of a barber. From the exterior, the narrator mentions that there is nothing that makes them appear not as husband as wife, for not even the servants have suspected their troubles. Likewise, Misako has taken on a lover with Kaname’s permission, and Kaname too has been allowed to explore his sexual prowess elsewhere.
Once at the theatre, Misako is repulsed by her father with his young “doll-like” mistress, believing him to be nothing more than “an old lecher whom she found generally repulsive.” Misako manages to reveal her dislike for O-hisa through her passive aggressive remarks and overall aloofness towards her. During the performance, Kaname is irritated by the “Osaka style of singing,” where much of it is “coarse and noisy.” The Osakan is viewed as loud and gauche to that of the more reserved Tokyo native, or as the narrator mentions: “He disliked the Osaka samisen, but even more he disliked the uncouth Osaka narrator, the embodiment, it seemed to him, of certain Osaka traits that he, born and reared in Tokyo like his wife, found highly disagreeable, a sort of brashness, impudence, forwardness, a complete lack of tact when it came to pushing one’s personal ends.”
Kaname is a great flawed character because he is so hypocritical. On one hand, he likes to think of himself as “Modern” and as someone easily adaptable to change (the permitting of his wife’s infidelity is example of this), yet at the same time he has a love for those things foreign — and detests the Osakan differences for its gaucheness. He also reviles the merchant class of the Edo period, a culture that his father in law still holds in high standard. Basically, Kaname is a class snob, and he doesn’t mind those things foreign when they are representations of high culture, such as France. Or even Hollywood that, “For all its vulgarity…was forever dancing attendance on women and seeking out new ways to display their beauty.”
Throughout the novel, Tanizaki allows the dialogue to speak for itself — in it one sees first hand the disconnect between people. There is no shouting or screaming fits like in Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, but, rather, interactions are much more subtle and subdued, and it is this subtlety that makes Some Prefer Nettles such the intricate, complex work of beauty it is. There are moments of philosophical rumination, such as a beautifully written scene involving Kaname watching O-hisa and thinking how her life has been lived a thousand times over. Ultimately, there is nothing particularly special about her, and for all her youth, she is nothing but a stale relic from a dated time, and a prop for his father in law:
“Fifty years ago, a hundred years ago, a woman like her, dressed in the same kimono, was perhaps going down this same street in the spring sun, lunch in hand, on her way to the theatre beyond the river. Or perhaps, behind one of these latticed fronts, she was playing ‘Snow’ on her koto. O-hisa was a shade left behind by another age.”
There is also a wonderfully written chapter about the puppet theatres, and how the Osakan puppet is inferior and lacking in lifelike skill to that of the Awaji puppet, which unlike the Osakan puppet, is able to open and shut its eyes. That Tanizaki chooses to use puppets as a larger metaphor throughout the tale is no coincidence. Even when it comes to making important decisions, such as whether or not Kaname and Misako should separate, neither can come to their own decision — instead they are too cowardly to make the move out of fear of how it will appear on the outside. Instead they are both passive, and resort to questions: “Would you like to separate then?” Misako answered: “Would you?” Both allow the external culture control their happiness, their choices, and are suckered in by the shallowness and materialism it offers.
Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, Some Prefer Nettles is a great novel. It is perfectly structured, lyrical, rife with insights, multi-layered, and composed of terrific and realistic dialogue. The theme of the deteriorating marriage is also addressed in Tanizaki’s short, diary-like novel The Key, but Some Prefer Nettles surpasses The Key in complexity and perfection. It is rare that I rave about a novel so highly, despite having encountered a number of excellent and near great novels written by a number of other very fine Japanese writers. Thus far, the only novel I can say rivals Some Prefer Nettles in greatness is Kawabata’s Snow Country, but I am certain that number will grow as I continue to familiarize myself with more works by these great writers.