Review of The Key, by Junichiro Tanizaki

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 4/20/10


  Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Key is a short novel involving a husband and wife who both keep diaries yet are unsure if the other party has been reading each of their diaries. As result, a game of manipulation and deception begins. The husband is more than a decade older than his wife and has a strong sex drive, as well as being a bit of a foot fetishist. The wife is not interested in her husband sexually, yet they find they can get along if these disagreements are avoided.

  At one point the wife discovers the key to her husband’s diary, and a part of her believes he left it out for her to find. Within his pages he ruminates on his feelings of jealousy and the desire he feels for her body. She, in turn, begins detailing her own emotions, yet inserts a measured piece of scotch tape as a way of marking whether or not her own diary has been opened.

  In many ways this book offers both an interesting and complex portrait into the lives of a married couple, and Tanizaki does a good job keeping the characters separate, in that, we get a number of scenes that are told from both point of views. And, as readers, we are a witness to both. All this, of course, has to be taken with consideration that the diaries are not really being written as ‘real diaries’ would be written, in that, there are moments where the characters over explain their motives and give away too much. A good example of this is where Ikuko (the wife) digresses on the reason for why she used the scotch tape. We are given an entire paragraph of her reasons, when if she really wanted to fool her husband (believing that he is actually reading her words), she would likely not have mentioned all the details and intentions behind her motives since then she’d be less able to trick him a second time.

  Having said that, there are not as many moments of deeper rumination that one would expect from an artful work as this. The characters come across as rather average and dull—there is nothing too terribly unique about them. Moreover, even average and dull people will make insightful observations from time to time, although they don’t necessarily know they are doing so. The key (no pun intended) is to slip in those deeper moments of insightful rumination in such a way that appears ordinary on the surface, yet isn’t. My criticism is that there should have been more moments of this, but aside from that, The Key is, for the most part, concise and does offer some moments of complexity and insights. But more would have been better.

  In the end, tragedy occurs and we don’t really know what causes it (clues are given but one of the stronger points of The Key is that this is left ambiguous). The book also should have ended before the last paragraph, finishing with the wife speaking: “Yet I do feel, after all, that I can claim to have given him the kind of happiness he wanted.” There are moments of too much over-explaining and not enough implication—far more interesting is it for us to question the characters’ intentions, to really wonder if each member of the marriage really believes what he or she is saying. Not only should they be questioning their partner, but they should also be questioning themselves. There are moments of this, but then the final ending is a let down, because it ends more on actual plot rather than metaphor (though ironically that is more what people prefer but that’s why so many published books suck).

  Tanizaki has a big reputation in Japanese literature, but The Key is a comparatively minor work. He is more known for his novels Naomi and The Makioka Sisters, of which I will read in time. Writing a novel via diary entries can be a bit of a cop-out if it is not done well, or maximized to full potential. Much of this book is done well, and Tanizaki crafts intricate moments with the limited form he’s used, but there were many opportunities where he could have pushed further into the human psyche than what he has put for us on the page.


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


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