The Key and Diary of a Mad Old Man employ diary entries to chronicle the writers’ pursuit of sensuality. They offer ample lascivious thrills that one would not be hard pressed not to look beyond the fantastic struggles of the characters and the psychological games that sex involves. But these are classics. They are penned by a mind seeped in aesthetics of history and culture, a mind that couples fantasies of death with a slavish worship of the feet. Both go deep into forbidden territories and both cases, just like in Naomi, tear into marital psychology and the effect of new modes brought in by the western influences into Japanese family values.
The Key is about an ageing professor’s struggle to gratify his traditional and yet insatiable wife’s desires and the psychological battle of wits that ensue. He plies her with chemicals and engages in a dangerously escalating spiral of events leading to a dark climax. There is the usual vilification of Tokyo, the unabashed praises on Kyoto and an oedipal undercurrent pulsing through the diaries. Add chemicals to the mix and it will keep you squirming as you turn the pages.
However the masterpiece to me was the senior diarist Utsugi from The Diary of a Mad Old Man.
The Diary of a Mad Old Man – Who’s your Daddy
Early on in the story, Utsugi has an exposition about the attraction he feels for the male kabuki actor essaying a female character. And you know that this will be interesting. A waning physicality and an unreliable body that provides nuanced pain in place of virility forces Utsugi to shift his center of gravity of pleasure from the middle of his body to his head.
It is a study in objectification like no other. The old man has a growing fixation towards his daughter in law. A desire, that as his diligent diaries tells us, is abstracted from the body further and further. He doles out millions to the cruel temptress so that he can slobber at her feet with his toothless gums, or be fed his daily medical capsules creative(?)ly. The diaries remind us time and again the regression of his mental faculties, at one point even bordering on infancy.
Utsugi vacillates in his feeling towards death. Pain and pleasure sway his mind one way and the other. His meals are always sumptuous and show a lack of complete renouncement of the joys of life. His final requests and tombstone desires elevate his ramblings to heavenly timelessness. Here again, Tanizaki, I suspect, has drawn parallels between the brash superficial confidence of the daughter in law, Satsuko, as the new world (America) and the old man with the erudite but fast atrophying limbs as Japan. The helplessness of the old man is comical even to him. He scrunches his toothless face, he wails, he alienates everyone within his family relying completely on soporifics, pain killers and capillary injections in hopes of winning the disinterested beauty of unreadable values with flashy baubles.
Tanizaki scares me.