Kagi (键):A comparative analysis

Junichiro Tanizaki was one of the major writers of modern Japanese literature after Natsume Soseki (夏目漱石). Born to a rice merchant family in Tokyo in 1886, Junichiro ended his study in university of Tokyo in 1910 and published in the same yar his first short story, the tatooer, in which the influence of western culture, notably Edgar Allen Poe, is obvious. In 1923 he moved to Kyoto where he started to immense himself with traditional Japanese literature, particularly the regional culture of the Kansai region comprising Osaka, Kobe and Kyoto. His famous masterpiece Sasameyuki ("A Light Snowfall", also called The Makioka Sisters), is considered a rewriting of the eleventh-century classic The Tale of Genji. After World War II Tanizaki emerged into literary prominence. He was first nominated Nobel literature prize in 1964, four years ahead of Yasunari Kawabata(川端康成) and one year ahead Yukio Mishima(三島由紀夫)[1] .

Most of Junichiro’s works are of a subtle sensuality which mount to eroticism. KAGI (1956, The Key) was such a story where the protagonist, Kenji Kenmochi, an old professor and ‘authority of classical objects’ is using diary to both fight senility and to liberate the sexual desire of his wife, Ikuko. Apart from writing in the diary stimulating phrases which is meant to be discovered later by his wife, he also willingly exposed the body of his wife in front of his young protégé, Kimura, in order to provoke the necessary emotional response of jalousie to help him accomplish sexual acts. This obsessive erotic desire is soon proved to be dangerous as he is finally paralysed out of cerebral apoplexy. Many of these elements reappeared in another novel, Diary of a Mad Old Man (1962), which depicts an aged diarist who is struck down by a stroke caused by an excess of sexual excitement. He records both his past desires and his current efforts to bribe his daughter-in-law to provide sexual favors in return for Western baubles.

Kagi was first adaptated in 1959 by the renowned japanese director Kon Ichikawa (市川昆), who is recognized for depicting japanese traditional life and explorering the depth of human nature[2]. The film won the jury prize in Cannes film festival, tied with L’aventura of Antonioni. The following passage is only a brief analysis of how the narrative is reconstructed in the filmic medium. Lack of space forbids further treatment of the topic here.

Major differences of the novel and film narration

Sexuality at Junichiro is foremostly and fondamentally a psychological matter. It is only depicted when it serves to reveal the hidden interrelationships of characters. Like other psychological motives, it is a subject to be discovered, not directly in our view. This approach is illustrated by the fact that the novel bear the title of ‘key’ which leads to the actual central object, the diary. And the diary itself is figuratively speaking a key to the sexual interaction between the diary keepers, the protagonist and his wife, Ikuko. Diary is choosen probably because of its immediate connotative intimacy – it is the key to a private and personal world – yet it is explicitly written for the other party, no longer for oneself. This literary device generates an unusual ‘textual’ relationship where the description of daily events are read and commented reciprocally. These textual actions, carried not on their conventional level in the real world but parrelle to them, created on purpose a rejuvenating energy source.

In the film, however, the importance of diary is almost totally eliminated. The narrative does not rely on such an object and adopts on the other hand the usual omnipresent mode. while this arrangement is not necessarilly problematic, it makes the key useless.

The film also made substantial modification on the character themselves. The role of Kimura, in particular, is considerablly strenthenged. He is no longer the passive props used by the two diary keepers but becomes an explicit opportunist. The point is made clear several of his added appearances. The first is the opening passage, when Kimura is seen addressing to the spectator (to Kenji), lecturing about the issue of senilty. Second, we notice that Kimura is an active seducer who sucessfully made the daughter, Toshiku, agreed to come to that hotel room in Osaka. Thirdly, near the end of film, by means of internal monologue, he actually confessed that he is now thinking of how to get rid of this – this means both the marriage and the relationship with Ikuko.

Another signification structual change is the murder. In the end of the film, both Ikuko, Toshiko and Kimura are poisoned by the old maid, Baya, whose confession is then refused by the investigating police. Obviously, this sense of tragical trivialness or black humour can be found nowhere in the original novel. As if suddenly, the whole structure of sexual perversity is covered with a black veil. This moral condemnation is definitely strange(Baya confessed that she killed them because they are ‘wicked’).

Pehaps in order to give more reasons to Kimura’s unfaithfullness, the film modified the financial situation of the Kenmochi family so that when Kenji died, the family is literally ruined – everything was taken by antique dealers who have already purchased them but agreed to leave them as long as Kenji lives.

Apart from these significant narrative reconstructions, the film differs from the novel in various visual elements. One shoot, the bamboo forest at night, is repeated several times. A buddha statue is also emphasized by making Kenji carried it from his study to bedroom. However, in terms of visual expressiveness, the sensuality typical of Junichiro is almost completely ignored. In this respect the film is insufficient, adhering to an almost natualist view. Although it is a color film, it gives me the impression of lacking anying noticable color. In the most recent adaption of this novel by Toshiharu Ikeda, this insufficiency is largely compensated (or even consider the Tinto Brass version, with its characteristic depicting of female flesh). For example, when Kimura is developing the film, he sees that the image of Ikuko emerge from the negative. But as they are black and white photos, the effect is totally unconvincing. Toshiharu Ikeda made this emergence visually annexed to the real body rising from the hot water, which is highly effective and fidel to Junichiro’s general line. A stern moral judgement, such as the one found in Ichikawa’s version, is not compatible with Junichiro’s aestheticism and is a most grave error.

A brief overview of the influence of Junichiro on Japanese Pornos

One of the unique phenomenon of Japanese cinema is its affinity with pornography. Many active and important figures of contemporary Japanese cinema, before they ‘officially’ started their career, had almost always already made some Pinkeiga or Pinkfilm[3]. Due to an explicit sensualism and controversial moral stance, Junichiro has always been a favorable object for filmic adaptation, especially Pinkfilm. The following list of japanese directors are all directly connected to Junichiro:

Tetsuji Takechi (武智鉄二), whose The daydream (Hakujitsumu, 1964), adapted from the homonymous novel of Junichiro, was regarded as the first important Pinkfilm. This film was also remade in 1981.

Two of the four internationally acclaimed great porno makers[4] have made their tribune to Junichiro: Tatsumi Kumashiro (神代辰巳) did the second adaptation of Kagi (1974) and Koji Wakamatsu (若松孝二) did the third (1983). The most recent fimic adaptation (1997) of this novel came from Toshiharu Ikeda (池田敏春).

Yasuzo Masumura (増村保造), the representative Japanese Nouvelle Vague figure and the ultimate admirer of Junichiro made Manji (1964, remade in 1983), Irezumi (1966) and Love for an Idiot (痴人之爱, 1967) from Junichiro.

Kaneto Shindô (新藤兼人) is another prominent figure of japanese new cinema. He made Acuto (1965) and Sanka (1972) from Junichiro.

Katsumi Nishikawa (西河克己), who did the famous Izu no odoriko[5] (the dancer of Izu, 1974), adapted from Yasunari Kawabata, did Junichiro’s Shunkinsho (1976).

Junichiro’s themes are of course not only of domestic interest: the notable foreign adaptation are La chiave(1983), the loosely adaptation of Kagi by Tinto Brass (well known softcore) and The Berlin affair (1985) of Liliana Cavani.


We have seen that extensive modifications are made to accomendate the specificities of film medium. In the case of Kagi it is even more challenging due to its original form of diary. This mode of narration is completely literary and need to be rebuilt into the film. But this same need of reconstruction gives an extra degree of freedom on the part of the film maker. That is one of the reasons that this kind of novel is always adapted more than once and every new generation sees new potentiality in it[6].

As Ruth Bennedict pointed out, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword coexist in a japanese society. Junichiro is an important symbol because he manifest one of these two polarities of japanese culture. Along with Yasunari Kawabata, he represents the ‘good’, peaceful way of aestheticism, which is constantly contradicted, subverted by the ‘bad’, perversity and agressiveness.

[1] Yukio Mishima got another nomination at 1967. But like Junichiro he did not win.

[2] The homage of Kon Ichikawa to Junichiro is better illustrated by his version of The fine snow (1983), arguably Junichiro’s chef d’oeuvre.

[3] Strange enough, Nikkatsus Corporation, one of the most important base of such activities, refered to these people ‘Roman’ and today their DVD release are categorized under the title of ‘Roman Porno series’.

[4] The other two are Nagisha Oshima (大岛渚), favored by French producer, who supported his In the Realm of the Senses (1977) and Shuji Terayama (寺山修司) known by Fruits of Passion(1981).

[5] Played by two extremely popular stars and dominant figures of early 80s TV show in China, Momoe Yamaguchi(山口百惠) and Tomokazu(三浦友和).

[6] Consider Les liasons dangereuses, it is also adapted by Roger Vadim and Stephen Frears, with totally different focuses.


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