11 August 2019
Tanizaki, Jun'ichirō. In Praise of Shadows. New Haven, Conn: Leete's Island Books, 1977.
Originally published in 1933 in Japanese.
This book is a discussion of Japanese aesthetics as understood through the first-hand observations of the author. The main theme is that the primary focus of the Eastern visual world is an appreciation of shadows and darkness. People, objects and places emerge elegantly from within dark voids as opposed to being presented starkly in bright light. One major implication of this theme is that by showing less, one reveals more. These ideas are contrasted starkly with Western aesthetics which are presented as a quest toward light lacking mystery.
The author draws on observations of Japanese household objects, domestic and religious architecture, landscape design, art, personal memories and family anecdotes to make his point. I would like to emphasize that I see a direct parallel here to the “direct observation” mode of design analysis presented by Josef Albers in Interaction of Color. I see this book as an important counterpart, or friend, to that text.
This text does present some problems for the contemporary reader, namely cultural absolutism. Gothic art, architecture and design - a Western art form that “praises shadows" - is not mentioned here, for example.
How is this text relevant to scenography?
This text is highly relevant to students of theatrical design in both explicit and implicit ways. Explicitly, it discusses the lighting, makeup and costume design of Japanese theatrical forms (Noh, Kabuki, Bunraku). Implicitly, it deals directly with the major aesthetic question of Western theater which conventionally presumes a dark room from which narrative and subjects are revealed. Importantly, it gives voice to important concerns of theater designers, such as creating atmosphere, careful observation, color interaction and cultural styles.