I finished reading Junichiro Tanizaki’s Seven Japanese Tales last week, and A Portrait Of Shunkin stood out for me because of the complexities of the main characters. I felt compelled to write about this. I really don’t know why, but I felt that I had to stand up for the protagonists. I don’t want to give away too much and ruin it for anyone else, so I’ll try to keep the plot-revealing to a bare minimum. You know…I’ll probably fail with “bare minumum” but I’m still going to try! 😂
The story revolves largely around the relationship between Mozuya Shunkin and Nukui Sasuke, which is recounted by an unnamed narrator who arrives at their graves with Shunkin’s autobiography in hand.
Shunkin was born to the Mozuyas, a prosperous merchant family who owned a pharmaceutical house in Osaka. Apparently beautiful, intelligent and talented, she turns blind at a young age after mysteriously contracting an eye disease. Being unable to continue her dance lessons, she soon turned to the samisen, rapidly developing her talents on the instrument and garnering praise for them by her family and teacher. Shunkin and Sasuke first meet when Sasuke starts his apprenticeship with the Mozuyas, his parents having learnt their drugstore trade while working at their house. After becoming her helper, he also embarks on his lifelong samisen tutelage under her, gaining his master certification in the process. Shunkin’s prodigious abilities on the samisen are credible, but her arrogance and the caustic treatment of her own students render her unpopular with other people. Sasuke’s infatuation with Shunkin slowly deepens into an obsession, culminating in him ruining his own eyesight intentionally when Shunkin’s face is scalded with hot water by an unknown assailant. Ouch.
After finishing the story, I found it hard to accept Shunkin’s behaviour towards Sasuke. Similarly, I found Sasuke’s sacrifice hard to swallow, given her personality. Never mind that she thought herself the best, but someone resorting to brutality on her students and her own lover? But after writing this piece, (which I hope doesn’t muddle anyone in the process) I feel that Shunkin is a rather complex character. As much as one is repelled by her behavior, especially towards Sasuke, there exists many sides to her that seems masked by her physical disability.
Shunkin has a myriad of roles: jealous lover, female miser, ostentatious show-off, a brute with the visage of Buddha, as compared to by the narrator earlier in the story. But, for every repulsive quality of hers, I realized that there were some points that were possible for reconsideration.
Never mind that she was spoiled rotten by her family, and praised to heaven and hell for her abilities. But we can’t discount the deep-seated insecurity that may have stemmed from her disability, but which also blessed her with a remarkable shrewdness; the uncompromising confidence in her abilities as a culmination of her hard work on the instrument, and the harshness towards her own students that could have resulted from the strictness that, as the narrator observes, she witnessed from her own teacher. Of course, we could argue that a person’s character and views of life are strongly affected by their surroundings. But is the cross on someone else’s back really heavier than our own? Could we judge this person, or the both of them, by our own philosophy, of which we base our own life experiences on? It’s easy to criticize and crucify, but less so to be truly emphatic. Sympathy and empathy are difficult to distinguish from each other, being separated only by the thin veneers of hindsight (something which we often have no access to for most of the time) and boundless patience.
Sasuke, on the other hand, looks to be a rather ordinary character. Born into a lower class then Shunkin, he seems designated to continue his family’s menial drugstore business, even more so when you realize that his family is indebted to the Mozuyas. On first glance, he does not possess any ingenuous talent. But his fascination with the samisen, sparked from listening to Shunkin play leads him to learning the instrument through covert night practices. Eventually his secret is exposed, but the Mozuyas help him by granting Shunkin the permission to teach him. He slowly uncovers his own buried talents with the help of Shunkin, becoming a master samisen player like Shunkin herself.
I found it fascinating how their relationship resembles a parallel of sorts; a see-saw between reliance and independence – which – if you think about it – are largely what relationships are composed of. But wait! This is not strictly limited to us – in nature, we also observe this happening in symbiosis, a continual biological relationship that occurs between two or more organisms. A mutual interaction allows two organisms to exist in harmony with each other, with either party neither taking nor receiving more than the other. This co-dependence allows them to survive and weather Nature’s hardships as a functioning unit, albeit made up of two different organisms. A commensal interaction sees an organism sponge off its long-term “buddy”, but does not harm the other in the process. A parasitic relationship, on the other hand, is where one greedily takes more goodies than its buddy, to the detriment of the other. So what category does their relationship fall into? A mutual, commensal or parasitic relationship?
Shunkin’s disability shrouds her in uncertainty. Sasuke, as her helper, guides her, aiding her in her everyday life. In return, he is guided towards his own buried potential by Shunkin. They become other’s bedrock of support. This does seem to resemble the mutual relationship in biology. They help each other in areas of their weaknesses, and benefit from each other. This would have been a perfect fit if one chooses to completely discount Shunkin’s disfigurement and Sasuke’s blinding.
The definition of the commensal relationship makes me recall how Shunkin’s servants were glad to see Sasuke receive his samisen tutelage under her, thinking that he could help Shunkin to relieve her boredom. A happy, no-frills relationship that seemed harmless to those who witnessed this in the beginning…
But Shunkin’s treatment of Sasuke could be said to resemble the parasitic connection in some way as well. In the story, Shunkin denies Sasuke the honorific privileges of his status, which he also denies himself willingly. Despite his abilties, Sasuke trails behind Shunkin, continuously putting himself below her. Sasuke’s deep love never seems to be reciprocated from Shunkin, and he even sacrifices his eyesight for Shunkin so that he cannot see Shunkin’s disfigurement permanently. The prize that he has won is Shunkin’s tutelage, but one could say that this was paid with his entire life’s dedication towards her.
Throughout the tale, the narrator attempts to come to grips with their personalities, but I felt that the closest the narrator could reach was only a mutual sympathy with their cirucmstances, rather than an unbiased understanding. Indeed, how does one understand love solely on a cerebral level? Maybe this is what it means when they say love is blind…
Readers, what do you think? Is Sasuke’s love justified? Maybe it would be easier if you guys read a copy here and leave me a comment, so I can stop being so hung up over this story?