‘In Praise of Shadows’ written by Junichiro Tanizaki and translated into English by Thomas J. Harper and Edward G. Seidensticker is a vintage classic, one that is as elegantly and eloquently expressed as the subject it explores itself. It essays the stark differences in the Eastern and Western cultures, how the portrait of aesthetics stems from the underlying contrasts in the philosophy of thought. Tanizaki explores the under-currents of beauty, the shadows and darkness that render value to light. As Charles Moore writes in the Foreword of the book, we are thrilled to read shadows being lauded as we are excited when it dawns on us that all over the world, musicians craft sounds to capture silence and architects build complex structures to envelope emptiness. Indeed, reading ‘In Praise of Shadows’ spurs delight in the readers, realizing the paradox artists and designers constantly work with.
It is short and sweet, at well under eighty pages. It flits between weighty subjects of Shadows, Color and Architecture with seemingly more trivial ones such as Japanese toilets, paper, wiring Japanese homes and several other subjects.
The book is an enchanting essay which dwells on the profundity of Japanese style, which is a reflection of the inherent simplicity and depth of Japanese culture. It asks the fundamental question of what beauty is, how it is perceived, and how it changes. Tanizaki makes the strong proposition that the qualities of an object that render its beauty must always grow from the realities of life. To digress from the truths of our life and create something that is dishonest is to create imbalance in the harmony of nature. By embracing the adversities and fortunes, it is possible to create art that is relevant and relatable.
Tanizaki talks about the necessity for natural elements to be experienced in the elegance of their authenticity. His essay is extensively about the qualities of light, and how in the modern age, there is little emotional and spiritual value to light. It is so blinding and direct that the light falls flat on the subject, rather than creating a dialogue with its environment. With the lack of shadows, the modern lights are, for the most part, monotonous and spark-less.
East and West
The book is directed at a wide audience and explores the foundations of Japanese aesthetic tradition. It is powerful, especially because it points out the contrasts from Western thought. Tanizaki describes the West as fiercely industrialized and motivated by a capitalist system, one that places value on commodities. He asserts that Japanese society holds little value for the tangibles, instead appraising the experiential aspect of objects. Experiential aspects include the forms and patterns of shadow, the importance of ‘white’ space and positive absences. These are essential to the Japanese understanding of beauty.
Tanizaki describes the polarity that fundamentally exists between Eastern and Western aesthetics. He criticizes the West which attempts to morph reality into its mental ideals. The Japanese tradition, however, embraces imperfection. They believe the relationship an object has with its numerous past identities is required to be studied. A seminal piece of work in the history of Japanese aesthetic philosophy, the book is famous for its compelling rebuke of the West.
Citing an example of Japanese aesthetic tradition, Tanizaki writes about origami paper. He describes origami paper as starkly different from the printing paper used in the West. The difference lies in its malleability and the capacity to absorb light. Origami paper mirrors the intricacies of the natural world, accepting the transfigurations made to it by human hands quietly. Tanizaki suggests that although the Japanese understand the power of machines and technology, materials, even as simple as paper, are always connected to human thought.
In Praise of Shadows often draws comparisons to the aesthetic teachings of Buddhism. Tanizaki’s book is salient in explaining modernity as being obsessed with rigidity. The book elucidates how subtlety, mystery, and incompleteness are essential in the formations of beauty.
This particular essay has a conversational tone to it which makes it intimate. It is further enhanced by a smooth narration. ‘In Praise of Shadows’ features musings on Japanese cuisine, lacquer ware, and the changing standards of Japanese beauty. As a whole, the book is a uniquely introspective experience, with vivid images of smoky lustrous jade, rustic teahouses, and the tranquility of a traditional Japanese washroom.
In conclusion, it is a beautiful book about Japanese aesthetics and the nuances of perception in the shadows. It is the flourishing of a beautiful flavor of Japanese themes. The book is bittersweet in its nature, as the author reflects almost melancholically of an aesthetic he seems aware will pass with his generation. The beauty of the shadows from the light emanating from a candle in a traditional Japanese home has already been replaced by harsh electric lights in most towns and cities in the west. The author laments their arrival but also recognizes their inevitability.
The book was written in 1933 but translated into English only in the 1970’s. It portrays a world that has itself now slipped mostly into the shadows. Yet it serves as an iconic fragment of the aesthetic whole. This book speaks of the impressions objects leave, the feelings they impart and the chance of beauty to be found even, and especially, in the seemingly negative spaces. It appeals as an aesthetic sensibility that has now passed, but as a universal conditioning that perhaps we can learn from or at least take a glimpse of.
It’s a great writer’s equivalent of a sketch, a classic essay that every student interested and invested in design should read.
Declad. (2018). https://declad.com/in-praise-of-shadows-by-junichiro-tanizak/
Forewordreviews. (2018). (https://www.forewordreviews.com/reviews/in-praise-of-shadows/)