Tanizaki explores the subtleties of Japanese culture, through architecture, interiors, craft and food, with a deep dive into his appreciation of darkness and shadow; a stark contrast to western culture at this time.
The comparison between East and West is a recurring theme throughout this essay, as Tanizaki reminisces on the past and grieves the loss of an ancient Japanese society. During his lifetime, he witnessed dramatic cultural change. The Meiji Era was Japan's industrial revolution and a bid to modernise, industrialise and ultimately, compete with The West.
Beauty in The Darkness
The overriding theme for this essay is Tanizaki’s appreciation for still, subtle, everyday pleasures, through object, colour, tone, texture and light (or the shadow it may cast).
‘Were it not for shadows, there would be no beauty.’
We’re forced to consider that shadows are neither permanent nor still. They are transient, a moment in time, created by natural light, suspending both object and shadow into delicate balance of beauty and obscurity, Shadow can act as the concealment of beauty, which, in Japanese culture, makes the subject all the more attractive. Creating intrigue, encouraging you to come closer and see the subject up close.
Heirloom silver can be seen as an example of Japan's fascination with darkness. Over time, if silver is left unpolished it will develop a blackened patina, which is considered to be more precious and elegant than highly polished silverware. But, this isn’t just about aesthetics, these traces of touch, use and age are the intricacies that hold value - they’re connections to the past.
The fact that we’re still reading this essay almost 100 years later shows that Tanizaki’s nuanced approach resonates with a global audience, even today.
“The quality that we call beauty 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.’
This could be considered Tanizaki’s acknowledgement that beauty is subjective and with a final note on the inevitable course of the future, accepting of cultural changes within his society, as a new sense of beauty evolves.
Photography by Department Two
Excerpts taken from 'In Praise of Shadows' by Junichiro Tanizaki