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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Dark Room

Yoshiyuki Junnosuke

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To purchase The Dark Room

Title: The Dark Room
Author: Yoshiyuki Junnosuke
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970 (Eng. 1975)
Length: 170 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: The Dark Room - US
The Dark Room - UK
The Dark Room - Canada
La chambre noire - France
  • Japanese title: 暗室
  • Translated by John Bester
  • Awarded the Tanizaki Prize
  • The Dark Room was filmed as Dark Room in 1983, directed by Urayama Kirio

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Our Assessment:

B+ : off-putting attitudes but well-crafted, and very fine writing

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The Dark Room is narrated by writer Shuichi Nakata, now in his mid-forties. His wife Keiko died in a car accident a decade earlier -- "Not suicide, I'm sure, though there is just a shadow of a doubt", he notes -- and he has remained unattached since; indeed, he presents as a very detached person, with barely any social circle, living comfortably very much only for himself. He has, however, continued to seek out female company -- though solely, he insists, for sexual gratification. For a long time he relied on prostitutes, but when he begins his account he has two much younger women he can dependably turn to: "Whenever I wanted a woman, I'd call either Takako or Natsue. Usually I was hard put to it to make the choice".
       Nakata describes his seemingly largely uneventful life, and the women in it, but observes gradual changes taking place. If not in the midst of an outright midlife crisis, he definitely feels a bit out of sorts and unfocused; he describes it as a period of: "spiritual and physical decline". Yet even as he comes across as clearly somewhat unmoored, he only diagnoses rather than trying to really counter his sense of adriftness.
       Nakata clings to and expresses -- rather insistently -- strong feelings and firm convictions about the relations between the sexes -- focused on sex. He claims no interest in settling down again, and is emphatic about not wanting to have a child -- but he repeatedly reflects on both the institution of marriage and on procreation, especially in a post-war Japan that had gone through so much. So also he describes his own near-death experience during the bombing of Tokyo and almost chance survival, with its obviously lingering aftereffects.
       He intentionally keeps a certain distance from the women in his life, the relationships almost entirely about the sex. He doesn't reveal much about himself, at even the most basic level, and so after six years of seeing one another, Takako still can say: "I've never once seen your face properly". When a new female figure becomes part of his life -- to the extent he (and she) allow -- she soon observes:

"I think you must be a bit of a sadist."
     "I'm no sadist."
     "Mentally, I mean."
       Indeed, if not outright cruelty, there is certainly a coldness to his attitude and behavior. At times he literally experiments -- on the women, essentially -- curious about what he will feel; these are uncomfortably clinical scenes, Nakata a man who does not need to put much effort into avoiding feeling. (He also does not reveal much about his period of domestic partnership, the time, now quite long ago, when he was in a marriage; it's left unclear to what extent his difficulty connecting with women is a result of the trauma of losing his wife and the life they shared.)
       Two other significant women figure in Nakata's life here, at least for a time. There is Yumiko, a woman who had come to him as a young reporter to ask a question for her magazine -- "I've come to ask your views on masturbation", which was certainly enough to get his attention -- and whom he then employed as, essentially, a housekeeper. It is not a sexual relationship -- though he does find her attractive -- and:
     As far as I was concerned, my relationship with Yumiko consisted of nothing more than a daily round of small practical matters.
       Another woman who comes into his life is Maki. He even notes, soon after meeting her, that: "I didn't go with Maki's type of woman", but he is intrigued and drawn to her -- and puzzled by her lesbianism. With Nakata practically only able to relate physically, theirs is a confused relationship, yet they meet and engage with one another repeatedly; they do also have sex.
       The women in his life leave Nakata: Yumiko gets married, leaving a void in the household, and Maki goes to the United States to study -- though not before giving Nakata news of the consequences of their love-making (yet, through the immediate distance she sets between them, ensuring that he can not, for now, be any part of that, a situation he seems to have some difficulty processing). Takako also gets married -- "the women about me had disappeared one by one", he realizes -- leaving Nakata with only Natsue to fall back on -- and he finds, somewhat to his surprise, their relationship growing deeper and more complex. It's not necessarily something he welcomes:
     It was nearly two years after meeting Natsue that the dismaying realization struck me that I was beginning to let down my barriers toward her.
       Nakata sees his growing bond with Natsue as a weakness:
     Should I leave her, then ? A year earlier, I'd probably have been only too glad to duck out that way.
     But now I needed her. It's her body you need, I tried telling myself. No strong resistance to the idea arose in me; but somehow I felt it didn't account for everything.
       Yoshiyuki presents this gradual change in Nakata very well, right down to the novel's closing lines. Nakata writes and reads little during the period he covers; he is consumed by thought and feeling -- but almost the opposite of feverishly; his account is one of almost implacable calm, with even a few outbursts of action almost anticlimactic (including one session when Nakata and Natsue try some The Story of O-inspired role-play). The presentation of especially the relationships is remarkably reminiscent of Murakami Haruki, though Yoshiyuki's writing is much finer (in all senses of the word); as with Murakami -- indeed considerably more so -- some of the expressed attitudes and observations (specifically about women and sex, in all its variations, including abortion, homosexuality, and the female body) are discomfiting -- at times, in the extreme. Arguably of its time and culture (1970 and still ultra-patriarchal Japan), the expression of Nakata's casual and in many ways limited attitude towards women and sex is so far from contemporary norms that The Dark Room can be difficult to read and accept; the gut reaction can be one of outright dismissal. Yet it's still an indisputably good work of fiction, more subtle and far deeper than the first impression might suggest.
       There's also a lot more to it, with Yoshiyuki presentation, in particular, impressing. Incidental episodes, such as the very young orphans he encounters on a train, or stocking his small pond with fish, or the way he weaves longer excerpts from interviews he's given or other literary pieces into the narrative make for a surprisingly rich text, beyond (and in good contrast to) the rawer parts of it.
       As outrageous and unpleasant as Nakata's attitudes are, The Dark Room is nevertheless an impressive, worthwhile work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 December 2018

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The Dark Room: Reviews: Dark Room - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Yoshiyuki Junnosuke (吉行淳之介) lived 1924 to 1994.

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© 2018-2021 the complete review

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