Colorful Crime: In Black and White by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki

Tokyo circa 1922

A murder mystery in which the author of a crime story gets caught up in a real-life crime.

This is a fun and, for many readers, not entirely foreign premise.

In Black and White, which was written in 1928 by the famous author Jun’ichirō Tanizaki but only published in English translation for the first time last year, is the story of Mizuno, a writer so neurotic and self-absorbed that he’s virtually powered by his own tendency to think himself into corners.

When we first meet Mizuno, he’s recently submitted a story about a murder to a Tokyo publication, The People. He comes to realize that, in the last few pages, he may have accidentally used the name of the real man upon which the fictional victim was based. The man who the victim character is modeled after, Cojima, isn’t even someone who Mizuno really knows. He’s just a drippy acquaintance whose face makes Mizuno think of shoe leather. Still, Mizuno becomes paranoid, first that Cojima will read the story and recognize himself in it, then that someone will actually murder Cojima and Mizuno himself will look guilty of the crime.

Tanizaki in the 1950s.

When Mizuno contacts Harada, the editor-in-chief of The People, to have the name changed, Harada informs Mizuno it’s too late and laughs off his concerns. Mizuno continues to worry and imagine worst-case circumstances, but eventually has the idea of writing a sequel to the first story, in which he creates a fictional version of himself as the “author” and explores the very situation he fears. But he becomes sidetracked by supplying himself with ongoing alibis in case the first story inspired someone to kill Cojima. With the intention of procuring said alibis, he fakes having gonorrhea so that his neighbors can witness him going down the hall to pee frequently. He also schemes to finagle a large enough advance for his next story to spend his evenings in the company of prostitutes. He eventually gets sidetracked in this goal, too, and becomes set on whiling away his time with one particular woman of the night whose Western fashion and manners he finds irresistible.

I was a little concerned that In Black and White might be a meta story inside a story that would be tedious to follow. This didn’t turn out to be the case. The tale of Mizuno is a page-turner, if arguably a bit limp in the conclusion department. However, the reader is more or less warned about what to expect, and the story very much delivers on its own hints about itself. There’s even a certain item at the end that you don’t often see in novels, but I’ll hold back spoilers. I’ll still mention, however, that in an afterword, translator Phyllis Lyons delivers some interesting behind-the-scenes context for In Black and White.

While this novel was written nearly a hundred years ago, the character of Mizuno is achingly modern. As a human being, he’s shallow, but in his neurotic nature the frighteningly deep roots of abject materialism become visible. Mizuno idealizes freedom of a kind, having chosen what he sees as a solitary writer’s existence, to the point of driving away everyone, including his wife—who we learn left him, unsurprisingly, due to his penchant for writing wife-murder stories. Even Mizuno’s story is based around the idea of freedom from conventional morality. However, his tastes and desires are dictated to him by others, and he seems to derive comfort from feeling himself caught in society’s hapless machinery.

In Black and White is a humorous nightmare vision of a human being’s tumultuous relationship with himself. The comic heights Tanizaki takes us to are set against a landscape both hyperbolic and appealingly banal. It has the potential to be delightful for those who have a sense of humor about the writing life, anxiety or just the simple terrors of everyday existence.

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