A modern coating goes no farther than the large cities that are a country’s arteries, and there are not many such cities anywhere. In an old country with a long tradition, China and Europe as well as Japan—any country, in fact, except a very new one like the United States—the smaller cities, left aside by the flow of civilization, retain the flavour of an earlier day until they are overtaken by catastrophe.

This is Kaname, the young man in Junichiro Tanizaki’s short novel Some Prefer Nettles (1929), and he has this thought as he’s surveying the harbor town of the small island of Awaji, which sits in Osaka Bay. The entire book involves comparisons of this sort—between new cities and old cities, between Tokyo and Osaka, between traditional Japan and the more modern values that have filtered into the country since its opening in the 1850s.

Some Prefer Nettles is a straightforward novel, meaning that the story is quite simple; at the same time, the story is purely symbolic. Kaname and his wife Misako have been married for about ten years but they are both tired of their marriage, Misako has even fallen in love with another man with Kaname’s help and blessing. But divorce is a difficult thing to manage properly and they are waffling about it, very much paralyzed and unsure of how to move forward. A situation which works as a perfect symbol of Japanese society between the two world wars. Here is a country that was absolutely closed to the outside world until 1850, and when it opened up it was quickly inundated with images and media and fashion from other parts of the world. European and Middle Eastern culture especially–two “exotic” cultures with long and rich histories–became extremely interesting, as did American culture with its apparent ease and openness. Obviously, with any great cultural change, there are those who embrace the changes and those who run from them. Much of the book is about whether to look backward and honor traditions, even those that feel stale, or whether it’s best to look forward and embrace a new identity.

What’s most interesting to me about this book is how Tanizaki handles it all so directly – and yet it’s still a good story. Most of Kaname’s conversations are about the old Japan vs. the new Japan, his thoughts are constantly comparing tradition versus modernity, whether in puppetry or another art form, or even with respect to the roles of women, and even some of the narrative exposition directly addresses these ideas. Tanizaki is known for his constant East-West comparisons and his literary soul-searching to define the pure heart of Japan, and this book is an unsubtle expression of those questions. I don’t actually mean that word “unsubtle” as a kind of negative criticism, only that the idea being explored isn’t ever hidden. Everything Kaname thinks about, every person he encounters, every love relationship, every friendship, even every town or puppet play—all of these things stand in to represent one side or the other in this great debate. There’s a terrible risk of the book coming off as pedestrian – and yet Tanizaki has just enough poetry fitted in around the edges of everything that the novel is smooth and engaging.

At one point, Kaname goes on a three-day trip with his father-in-law and that man’s mistress, the very young but traditional O-hisa. She is practically a geisha, although she does not work for a tea-house, she is under the protection of Kaname’s father-in-law and he is “training” her so that when he dies, she will make a suitable match. It’s interesting that O-hisa, the very young woman, is a symbol of traditional Japan, while Misako, who is in her late thirties and already a mother, is the “modern” woman turning away from those traditions. And Kaname is stuck between the two and the stereotypes they represent, trying to decide which kind of woman he would like.

But I was talking about poetry, wasn’t I? On this three-day trip, the purpose of which is to watch some traditional puppet theatre, Tanizaki provides a series of truly stunning images of his traveling companions, the countryside, the theatres, the music, the puppets and the audiences.

From a walk through one of the towns:

The main road through the town stretched on under the blue sky before them, so clear and serene that they could count the people passing back and forth far into the distance. Even the bicycles tinkling their bells as they moved by seemed calm and unhurried.

From the last theatre they visit:

In the pit, where rush mats and rows of cushions were laid out on the bare ground, the children of the village had taken over. Noisy games, oranges, candy—it was lively as the playground of a kindergarten, untroubled as a country shrine festival. No one seemed to notice that a play was going on.

There are too many of these little moments to do them any justice by pulling out only two, but I wanted to show a little sampling of his style. Which, all in all, is very neat and simple, but he uses that simplicity to great effect. I’ve read Tanizaki before – his collection of stories Seven Japanese Tales is wonderful, so is his essay on aesthetics In Praise of Shadows. I read In Praise of Shadows probably once a year, and it’s both complicated and extremely beautiful—it’s also a primer on Japanese nationalism, but we will forgive him this when he writes so eloquently about the beauty of a cracked porcelain teacup. However, this was my first time reading one of his novels, and I’m obviously now really looking forward to reading his best-known work, The Makioka Sisters, as well as hoping to get a copy of another novel, Quicksand, which was written in serial form between 1928 and 1930, but only translated into English in 1994 – it sounds incredibly dark and psychological.