Review Of Quicksand, by Junichiro Tanizaki

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 11/1/10


  I’ve not ever read a Tanizaki novel that was absent of merit or one that I did not enjoy. His breezy style, coupled with his moments of humor, make all of his books entertaining on one level, yet he also carries a psychological depth within his characters, often revealing them as flawed and yet creating them in such a way that causes the audience to empathize with them. Quicksand is no different.

  While Quicksand is not as humorous as Naomi and not as lyrical and deep as Some Prefer Nettles, it is still a very good book, and in the best sense, a fast character-driven read. The novel centers around four characters: Sonoko Kakiuchi, who is a lawyer’s wife, a young woman with ethereal beauty named Mitsuko, Sonoko’s lawyer husband, and Mitsuko’s male love interest, Watanuki. The tale is delivered in first person, from Sonoko’s point of view, and she soon reveals herself to be a very selfish, troubled woman.

  While taking an art class, Sonoko meets Mitsuko and is captivated by her beauty. The two begin chatting it up, till rumors surface that they are having a lesbian affair. So in light of such, they begin to act on the rumors, where Mitsuko will visit Sonoko’s house for hours at a time, posing nude for her, with the intention of Sonoko painting her. Nothing, however, ever gets painted and soon Sonoko’s husband begins to suspect something going on. He doesn’t like the way Mitsuko has invaded into their lives, and how willing Sonoko has been to surrender herself to her. The two women begin referring to one another as “sister” and even though Sonoko is older, she is the one forced to defer to the younger Mitsuko and her manipulation.

  When Sonoko’s husband asks his wife to stop seeing Mitsuko, she refuses. Then, when Sonoko begins to detect Mitsuko’s emotional manipulation, she begins to crave the love of her husband. Yet, when she discovers Mitsuko might be pregnant and in needing of help, the two reunite and she dismisses her previous feelings towards her husband, and once again craves the attention of Mitsuko.

  As the tale continues, events are played out and not as they seem—those who are believed to have been behind the entire scheme are later found to be innocent, and then maybe not. The relationship begins to get more complex when Watanuki, Mitsuko’s love interest, becomes involved. Both Sonoko and Watanuki sign a pact with their own blood where they promise to be the only lovers of Mitsuko. Eventually, suicides are faked, and results are tragic. The quicksand, of course, is the obvious obsession that has managed to pull each of them in, making them unable to manage or move without tragic outcomes or sinking deeper into it.

  In a sense, Quicksand is one of those tales one knows will be tragic before even reading, (if the title isn’t already a clue) for none of the characters are capable of seeing the results of their own actions. Sonoko, for all her so-called victimization, cannot see her own flaws and how her own obsessive jealousy is just as much to blame as Mitsuko’s dishonesty. No one trusts one another and yet they try to, only to then be hurt with some kind of indication that they’ve been lied to. At some moments, the realizations are genuine and at other times the characters still linger in denial.

  Mitsuko is a classic type of character found in Japanese literature—the beautiful girl whose beauty verges on perfection, and yet she is selfish, spoiled and manipulative. Tanizaki touches upon a similar type character in Naomi, as has Kawabata in a number of his own works. Though Mitsuko is different from Naomi (in the beginning readers sympathize with the young Naomi as opposed to Mitsuko, who is just a brat the entire time), both manage to successfully manipulate those around them to the point of getting others to do whatever they want.

  This is no better shown in Quicksand, where the young Mitsuko has become the central link between the marriage of Sonoko and her husband. She forces them to regularly perform an act against their will, and anytime either one protests, Mitsuko throws a temper tantrum. The end too, is not only tragic in one sense, but also delusional, for after the event has unfolded, Sonoko is still convinced the others conspired against her. Yet after witnessing the ordeal among them, the “tragic” end likely is best for all of them.

  Tanizaki is highly ranked writer on my “having read and will continue to read” pile and I recommend any of his books. Though I’ve not read them all, Quicksand is my fifth Tanizaki work I’ve read and despite the seemingly dour subject matter, the book is highly entertaining, well-written and can be breezed through in a couple of sittings. Although not as great as Some Prefer Nettles and as humorous as Naomi, Quicksand is a work worthy of examination.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Blogcritics website.]


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