April 21, 2020

Review: The Key, by Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

The Key - Tanizaki

Title: The Key

Author: Jun'ichiro Tanizaki

Publisher: Univers

Date of Publication: 5 August, 2004 (first pub. 1956)

Number of Pages: 160

See it on Goodreads: The Key


'This year I intend to begin writing freely about a topic which, in the past, I have hesitated to mention even here. I have always avoided commenting on my sexual relations with Ikuko, for fear that she might surreptitiously read my diary and be offended-' So begins The Key - a forthright and moving tale of a middle-aged man deeply in love with his younger wife. In spite of that love, they have grown physically apart, each unsure of the other's thoughts and desires - until the day Ikuko discovers the key to her husband's diary with its desperate hints of jealousy and voyeurism. The key, she realises, to his very soul.


I've said so in the past and I'll say it once again: I LOVE Japanese literature. I like the subtlety and the abstraction of the language. I like how things are shown and not told. I like how Japanese authors take a story without an intense plot and create something unique that pierces human emotions. With that being said, The Key is an example of all these traits. You might even go as far as to tell that they are too present that you might actually miss them. Before getting into that though, let's take a look at some general information on The Key.

The Key might not be the most important or popular work of Jun'ichiro Tanizaki as this author is known for his novels The Makioka Sisters and Quicksand. However, it was my first time reading this important Japanese author and I have to admit that it won't be the last. The themes of this book are sexual desire, obsession, and jealousy. It is not the first time that I'm reading a Japanese novel that has a triggering story. In fact, Hotel Iris by Yoko Ogawa was a much more explicit example, and since this theme didn't bother me there, it wasn't a problem for The Key as well.

In The Key, we read the story through the two diaries of a middle-aged couple. Both of them are writing with the intention that the other one is reading it. Nevertheless, they both deny that they do. The two perspectives of these diaries are completely different. 

The man decides that for the first time he will be explicit about his sexual desires towards his wife. He realizes that his drive is failing him and he feels that he is unable to satisfy his wife. This drives him on finding some weird methods that provoke him and enable him to perform every night. His solution is to get his wife drunk until she loses her consciousness and then to examine her naked body. When this method is starting to fail he adds another element, that of jealousy. He provokes his daughter's friend, Kimura, into liking his wife. The farther their affair seems to go the more sexual drive he seems to have. The diary seems to be an extension of this. Even in his deathbed, he wants to read his wife's diary.

On the other hand, we have the woman's diary. Up until a point, the woman is very modest and pretends that she doesn't know what is going on. However, she admits that her desire for Kimura is real and her daughter helps her get closer to him. Despite this fact, she is adamant that she hasn't cheated on her husband and she pleases him every night.

The story begins to get even more perplexing when the man's body shows signs that his health is declining, leading to his ultimate death. This is the point where the truth is uncovered. They have both been reading the diaries of each other. While the man was being honest all along, his wife drove him deeper into his obsession, by writing what he wanted to read. 

The two diaries become a part of an intricate sexual play. The man leaves the key to the drawer, where he locks his diary, in a visible place so that his wife finds it. The woman tries to write the diary in secret, even though she gives her husband indications that she has one. She even tries to seal it with some duct tape, but she never confronts her husband when she notices that the diary has been opened.

The sad truth is that she is in an unhappy marriage, where she never desired her husband. When she decides to give in to Kimura, she discovered what passion is. You can understand this transition from her choice of clothing. At the beginning of the book, she wears only traditional Japanese clothing as she states numerous times that she has an old-fashioned Kyoto upbringing. When she starts her affair with Kimura, she slowly transitions into western clothing and accessories. 

In The Key, there is no clear protagonist and antagonist. The line that distinguishes a character from being unlikeable is very thin. In the beginning, we focus on the husband and all of his questionable actions and pity the wife for being trapped in this marriage. Later, we witness his wife's infidelity and our feelings turn into sympathy. In the end, we realize the deception of the wife - the way she fooled her husband and how she pushed him far beyond his limits. However, I can't help but think that she herself is a victim. 

A very mysterious character in this novel is Toshiko, the daughter of the couple. It is explicitly mentioned that her parents invited Kimura at their place with their marriage in mind. It is even implied that she might have feelings for him. When Toshiko discovers her father's actions she rents a place on her own. During the story of The Key, it is she who helps her mother and Kimura get closer. It is also she who confronts her father about Kimura and her mother and it is also she who secretly gives her mother's diary to her father just before he dies. Ultimately, it is she who sacrifices herself to enable her mother and Kimura to live as a couple. However, this doesn't sound right to me. I can't help but feel that there is a deep understanding between Kimura and Toshiko as if they want to humiliate her. 

The Key is a novel that will challenge and trigger you. When you have finally formed an opinion on a character, it can destroy it at any moment. Nevertheless, it was a very enjoyable read and one that I am still thinking about. Erotic obsession is one of the themes that Tanizaki is using on his work a lot, so I think that I'll bump into it again. 

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