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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

In Black and White

Tanizaki Jun'ichirō

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To purchase In Black and White

Title: In Black and White
Author: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō
Genre: Novel
Written: 1928 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 240 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: In Black and White - US
In Black and White - UK
In Black and White - Canada
In Black and White - India
Noir et blanc - France
  • Japanese title: 黒白
  • Translated, and with a Preface and Afterword by Phyllis I. Lyons

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Our Assessment:

B : uneven, but fun idea, and goes to some nicely dark places

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 18/2/2018 Min Jin Lee
Publishers Weekly . 2/10/2017 .
TLS . 30/3/2018 Bryan Karetnyk

  From the Reviews:
  • "In Black and White is highly plotted and self-consciously clever. Nevertheless, the reader is left wanting because the story lacks the pathos and bathos that great comic fiction requires. At times, this slim novel can drag, something a serial writer must take great care to prevent. That said, Tanizaki does raise important aesthetic questions about what fiction writers do and why." - Min Jin Lee, The New York Times Book Review

  • "While marred by an abrupt ending and the choppy structure of a serial novel, Tanizakiís voice remains intact, making for a flawed masterpiece." - Publishers Weekly

  • "An ingenious metafictional travesty of the murder-mystery genre, this little-known work, now available for the first time in English, reveals Tanizaki on the cusp of artistic maturity, and at the forefront of Japanese modernism. (...) Beneath the novelís metafictional play lies a weightier literary debate. Lyons is to be congratulated for having brought In Black and White to anglophone attention, though her translation is at points uneven. Dialogue and register cause particular trouble, and she employs an incongruous mixture of archaisms (...), as well as an uneasy blend of dialects, vulgarizations and some bizarrely phonetic renderings of the Japanese." - Bryan Karetnyk, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In Black and White has a clever premise. The main character is Mizuno, a fairly well-established author, approaching forty and on the literary scene for over a decade now, and a regular contributor to a magazine called The People. He's written quite a few murder-stories -- with: "the murderers more or less modeled on himself" -- and just sent in (late, as usual) his latest one, titled: 'To the Point of Murder'. This, too, is a murder mystery, the protagonist -- "like Mizuno, a literary man" -- committing a crime that is: "evil for the sake of evil", a murder without any real motive or justification -- and as such also a sort of perfect crime. Only after he has sent in the manuscript does Mizuno realize that he might have miswritten the name of the victim a few times in the manuscript, not as 'Codama' but as 'Cojima' -- the distinctive name of a real person, on whom Mizuno had, in fact, based his murder-victim-character.
       Not only is Mizuno concerned that this acquaintance he sometimes runs into will take issue with how he is portrayed -- and then even named -- but also that this story in fact sets its author up as a perfect patsy to take the fall if someone should choose to murder Cojima in real life.
       Mizuno lives alone in a boarding house -- his wife left him after he wrote one too many wife-murder stories in a row ... -- and has little but his writing to distract him. He tends to lose focus, too, only able to write so much a day, and drifting off into daydreams -- and conversations with himself. He's amusingly obsessive, as he frets first whether he did write the name wrong in the story (he did, three times), then tries unsuccessfully to iron out his mistake, and then imagines what the consequences might be. He can't prevent the story from appearing in print, and once it does he has to try to figure out how not to get fingered for Cojima's murder -- should it take place.
       Mizuno strikes on an idea that he thinks might be a way out -- beyond desperate efforts to make sure he has an alibi for every hour of the day ... -- namely, to write another story -- a continuation, as it were, that spins out the scenario he is worried about and thus presents it as pure fiction, freeing him from the worry that he would get blamed for the (potential) crime by presenting himself as victim as well. 'To the Point of the Murder of the Man who Wrote To the Point of Murder' is the not exactly catchy (but certainly unambiguous) working-title he comes up with ("maybe it would be good to have a striking, unconventional title that would draw attention", he tries to convince himself).
       As usual, he gets off to a decent start -- before losing steam. He looks -- and finds -- distractions, both of very much unwanted (in the person of Cojima !) and more pleasant sort. In particular, he finds himself drawn to a woman, eventually entering into a relationship with her -- a paid arrangement, which complicates matters further, since he's neither good with money nor has easy access to much beyond through his publishers, who are however tired of his shenanigans.
       The woman also remains something of a mystery woman, living quite far away, and with Mizuno never even learning her name. He spends quite a bit of time with her -- but realizes, too, that if he's ever asked to prove it would be hard pressed to, unable even to identify her or where she lives.
       Tanizaki's story shifts focus from Mizuno's concerns about his story and its possible consequences to a rather sordid tale of his obsession with the mystery woman (with some amusing asides as to his dealings with his publisher and long-suffering editor). Along the way Mizuno even runs into his former wife, now married to a minister -- providing more insight into his relationships generally, as she tells him:

Just because it's better than when I was with you doesn't mean I'm happier, you know -- because being with you was way worse than 'unhappy.'
       The hard-drinking, determined woman he takes up with is certainly better-equipped to handle him, telling him philosophically:
All men are perverts. Some of them are even weirder, but for the most part I do what they order, if it's not too off the wall.
       Unsurprisingly, things do not work out well, and there's a nicely dark confrontation near the end -- "how about it, Professor, couldn't you make the world believe for a while that you could be the murderer ?" he's asked, as he's being backed into an ever-darker and more hopeless corner ..... But In Black and White doesn't quite offer the satisfaction of full resolution: it's a decent near-conclusion, a pencil pushed between his fingers -- he's a writer, and it's time to write ... -- but then Tanizaki simply quits while he's ahead, with a brief apology regarding the abrupt conclusion, which is something of a disappointment.
       If In Black and White isn't a neatly rounded-off story -- or, indeed, a polished one, the original serial presentation still a bit obvious in the rather different directions the novel moves in -- it nevertheless offers both enjoyment and rewards. Mizuno is a beguilingly frustrating character -- both frantic and lazy, and amusingly self-indulgent. He tries to plan ahead, but only rarely does so fully -- easily distracted, or pulled in other directions. His evasive behavior towards Cojima and his editor is comic, while his initial pursuit of the mystery woman show just how determined he can be when he sets his mind on something.
       In Black and White is also a story about fiction and reality, and writing fiction based on real people and events, with Mizuno debating with himself, and others, about it -- and finding himself confronted by the potential consequences throughout. What he has written -- 'in black and white' -- is, of course, not simply black and white, true or false. Mizuno finds both his fiction and true claims are equally plausible or not: "We can believe it or not as we wish", he's told, about his stories, at the end .....
       The more tightly focused Devils in Daylight is a more successful novel, as In Black and White rambles a bit too far and wide. But Tanizaki's ramblings, and his sordid secondary story involving the mystery woman (whom he, like Mizuno, gets a bit too carried away by ...), also have their appeal. But it's the original basic story, and its inspired premise, that overshadow everything else, and one can't help but wonder what this novel could have been, properly edited into a more focused work. Yet the form we find it in is appropriate too -- a reflection of Mizuno's own working methods, the conversations with himself he so easily loses himself in, and general attitude towards life; indeed, In Black and White is successful and satisfying as (writer-)character study, even as it isn't, quite, as (potential-)murder-mystery.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 December 2017

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In Black and White: Reviews: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō: Other books by Tanizaki Jun'ichirō under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Tanizaki Jun'ichirō (谷崎 潤一郎) lived 1886 to 1965.

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© 2017-2023 the complete review

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