75 Books in 2015 – VI (In Praise of Shadows)

Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows is ostensibly a book-length essay in defense of traditional Japanese aesthetics, especially in architecture. He doesn’t really present a formal argument, though; instead, he presents a series of ruminations and anecdotes on topics loosely related to the main idea of the importance of shadows, darkness, and quiet in Japanese architecture. The book reminds me of taking a short, meandering walk with someone through their garden, as they relate some story of each place you come across. Some subjects include cuisine, noh and kabuki theatre, restaurant lighting, and toilets. I found this style interesting, even persuasive, but it may be the sort of “argument” that you either get or you don’t.

The book is so short, under fifty pages, that there’s no excuse not to read it if you have any interest in Japanese culture, aesthetics, or architecture, and the book’s a pleasure to read. Just to give a feel for the book, here’s Tanizaki on gold used in a priest’s garments:

I have said that lacquerware decorated in gold was made to be seen in the dark; and for this same reason were the fabrics of the past so lavishly woven of threads of silver and gold. The priest’s surplice of gold brocade is perhaps the best example. In most of our city temples, catering to the masses as they do, the main hall will be brightly lit, and these garments of gold will seem merely gaudy. No matter how venerable a man the priest may be, his robes will convey no sense of his dignity. But when you attend a service at an old temple, conducted after the ancient ritual, you see how perfectly the gold harmonizes with the wrinkled skin of the old priest and the flickering light of the altar lamps, and how much it contributes to the solemnity of the occasion. As with the lacquerware, the bold patterns remain for the most part hidden in darkness; only occasionally does a bit of gold or silver gleam forth.

One more excerpt, this time from his discussion of why the Japanese prefer their darker aesthetic, whereas Westerners try to bring in as much light as possible in their architecture:

But what produces such differences in taste? In my opinion it is this: we Orientals tend to seek our satisfactions in whatever surroundings we happen to find ourselves, to content ourselves with things as they are; and so darkness causes us no discontent, we resign ourselves to it as inevitable. If light is scarce then light is scarce; we will immerse ourselves in the darkness and there discover its own particular beauty. But the progressive Westerner is determined always to better his lot. From candle to oil lamp, oil lamp to gaslight, gaslight to electric light – his quest for a brighter light never ceases, he spares no pains to eradicate even the minutest shadow.

So, that’s six books for the year. Next up are a couple volumes of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. After that, I’m not sure, but probably it’ll be more history.

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