Susan Budd's Reviews > In Praise of Shadows

In Praise of Shadows by Jun'ichirō Tanizaki
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it was amazing
bookshelves: japanese-literature
Recommended to Susan by: Akemi G

In this little book, Junichiro Tanizaki helped me understand why I ~ a thorough Westerner, NYC born & bred ~ am so drawn to the Japanese aesthetic. He begins his essay with an example I can totally relate to. Many Japanese people take pains to hide electrical wires because they don’t want to spoil the beauty of the traditional decor. I so get this. I wish I could hide all my electrical wires too. There are so many of them, not to mention all the LED lights from appliances that once were luxuries and now are necessities. But don’t think for a moment that I could part with my computer or my coffee maker! I love them. I just wish they didn’t jar so much with the decor.

Tanizaki doesn’t reject Western conveniences either. He just wishes they could have been designed with a Japanese sensibility in mind. He thinks that if these same conveniences had been developed by the Japanese, they would be more in harmony with Japanese taste. But instead of the Japanese making these innovations on their own in their own time, Japan’s contact with the West at the beginning of the Meiji era led to rapid modernization in the Western style. He thinks that if the Japanese had developed these things, they would be very different from the Western versions.

“The Westerner has been able to move forward in ordered steps, while we have met superior civilization and have had to surrender to it, and we have had to leave a road we have followed for thousands of years. ... If we had been left alone ... we would have gone only in a direction that suited us” (8-9).

In Praise of Shadows is his tribute to the Japanese aesthetic, to the beauty of darkness, to moonlight rather than sunshine, shadow rather than glare, softness rather than neon. His argument is that this aesthetic arose, not from some mysterious “national character,” but from people’s actual way of life.

“The quality that we call beauty, however, must always grow from the realities of life, and our ancestors, forced to live in dark rooms, presently came to discover beauty in shadows, ultimately to guide shadows towards beauty’s ends” (18).

In the course of the essay, Tanizaki writes of lamps, stoves, toilets (yes toilets), pens, paper, glass, lacquerware, ceramics, food, houses, picture alcoves, theater, women, clothing, skin color, and cosmetics. He fondly describes the austere beauty of darkness ~ the dreaminess, the softness, the silence, the mystery, the timelessness.

But it is not only darkness and shadow that the Japanese find beautiful. In fact, it is only because of this appreciation of darkness and shadow that the beauty of light and gold can be experienced. Gold is garish under the glare of harsh lights, but in a dim room it beautifully reflects the little light that is there.

“Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty” (30).

The simplicity of traditional Japanese decor appeals to me: the shoji doors, the tatami mats, the alcove housing an old scroll and a single flower in a humble vase. I like the minimalism, the subtlety, the naturalness. And I like the night. It’s slower, quieter, softer than the day.

Would I like it as much if it were the only thing I knew? Maybe not. I might be as eager to experience the new, the bright, and the modern as the Japanese were when first introduced to the Western lifestyle. But the Japanese aesthetic isn’t the one I have always known. I am a child of the West, of the bright lights of Times Square and the clamor of Grand Central Station. Too much yang. Not enough yin. For me, the Japanese aesthetic restores the balance.

In Praise of Shadows is a book about beauty, but there is also a sadness in Tanizaki’s praise of shadows. He despairs that the Japanese aesthetic is dying because the old way of life is passing away. He tells of a moon-viewing ruined by all the electric lights. And he hopes that something of the traditional beauty and richness of the Japanese aesthetic might be saved ~ in literature at least if no where else.

His plea touches my heart. To lose this “world of shadows” is to lose something essential to the human spirit. Light is good, but too much of it is blinding. Sound is good, but too much of it is deafening. Activity is good, but too much of it is exhausting. There must be balance. Without the “world of shadows” the light soon will overwhelm us and leave us longing for the shadows we have unwisely banished.
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Reading Progress

August 27, 2015 – Shelved
Started Reading
August 28, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-10 of 10 (10 new)

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Akemi G. Glad you liked it.

Susan Budd I did. Thanks for recommending it.

Rowena Beautiful review, Susan. I should read this one soon. Have you read The Book of Tea?

message 4: by Himanshu (new) - added it

Himanshu Beautiful indeed, Susan. Specially those last paragraphs. I have got to read this soon-er!

Susan Budd Thanks Rowena. I read The Book of Tea a long time ago, before I acquainted myself with Japanese aesthetics. Now I'm eager to read it again.

Susan Budd Thanks Himanshu. I think you'll enjoy it.

message 7: by Christopher (new) - added it

Christopher Howard Wonderful review. I'm picking this up to read soon.

Susan Budd Hi Christopher. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

message 9: by [deleted user] (new)

Excellent thanks for introducing me to this book

Susan Budd Thanks Shankar.

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