The hole was just about wide enough for a thumb to pass through. My eyes had been accustomed to the dark outside, so the bright light inside the room blurred my vision at first, and all I could make out were a few vague shadows. I had a very clear sense, by contrast, of Sonomura’s heavy breathing as he stood next to me. In the dead silence of the night, the tick-tock of his wristwatch seemed like the agitated beating of a heart.
After a couple minutes, my vision began to recover. The first thing I saw was an astonishingly white column-like object, lithe as could be, standing bolt upright. I recall that it took me several seconds more before I grasped that this was a long line of flesh just below the beautiful nape of the neck of a woman standing there with her back to me. In fact the woman was positioned so closely to the window that her body threatened to occlude the knothole, making it difficult to recognize as the back of a human being. All I could make out was a squashed Shimada hairdo and a light summer haori of black silk gauze that covered her back. The rest, from her waist below, was outside the range of my vision.
The room was by no means large, but for some reason it was lit by an extremely powerful electric light. It was no wonder that I had mistaken the woman’s neck for a white column. She was facing slightly downward and the expanse of skin from the nape of her neck to the edge of her clothing was covered in a thick layer of makeup that shone like white lacquer in the blinding light. She was near enough that my nostrils were flooded with the sweet and soft fragrance of her perfume. I felt that I could count each individual strand of her hair. It glistened and gleamed as if she had just stepped out of the hairdresser’s; the two side-bund puffed up like the breast feathers of a bird, and the smart chignon with not a single hair out of place, almost like a wig, in shiny black, had a chic and irresistible charm. It was a shame not to be able to see her face, but the gentle, feminine curves of her sloping shoulders, the delicate hairline peeking out of her clothing like the head of a doll, and the alluring musculature between the lobe of her ear and her back was more than enough evidence that this was a woman of astonishing beauty. It was all worth it, I thought, the effort to find this knothole, now that a peek through it had revealed such a woman in such an unexpected place.
It is necessary for me to record a few more of my impressions of the instant when I first saw her, and of the scene I observed over the subsequent minute or two. Even if Sonomura had been mistaken in his predictions, the very fact that such a woman was standing stock still in this way, at this hour, and in a place like this was nothing short of bizarre. The squashed Shimada was evidence that she was no amateur; she was clearly either a geisha or something similar. The elaborate and elegant hair and clothing were those of a woman who followed the latest fashions of the demimonde. And this was no ordinary geisha, but one of the very highest class, perhaps from one of the houses in Shimbashi or Akasaka. But what such a woman was doing in a place like this was more than I could fathom. When I wrote earlier that she was standing „stock still”, I meant it quite literally. She was a motionless as a figure in a tableau vivant. It was as if she had frozen the exact moment I peeked through the knothole, face turned downward and neck outstretched, as quiet as a fossil – perhaps she had heard our footsteps outside and was listening for more with bated breath? – as this thought occurred to me I hurriedly averted my eyes and looked over at Sonomura, who remained with his face pressed greedily against his own knothole.
Just then someone began moving around inside the house, which had been so hushed until then, and I heard a slight creaking sound, that of someone walking across tatami mats supported by wobbly floor joists. However contemptuous I may have been of Sonomura’s madness, at some point my own curiosity had gotten the better of me. No sooner did I hear the sound that I was drawn back unthinkingly to the scene inside. I brought my eye to the knothole again.
It had only been a moment – no more than one or two seconds – but the woman had changed her posture and shifted her location. This must have been the cause of the noise I had just heard. Whereas before she had stood directly in front of the knothole so as to block my view, now she had advanced diagonally – the distance of one tatami mat – into the center of the room, thus widening my field of vision considerably so that I could now see almost every corner of the room. Straight ahead, directly opposite the window where I was standing, was a yellowish wall with a peeling wallpaper that one finds in a typical longhouse. To the left was a bamboo screen, and to the right, reed blinds and an exterior veranda closed off with a sliding storm shutter. I had noticed some kind of white object fluttering about near her head, and now I saw it was a man wearing a white cotton yukata. He stood pressed up against the wall on her left, facing my direction. He looked to be about eighteen or nineteen, no older than twenty. His hair was cut square in a crewcut, and he was tall, with a swarthy complexion that made him look like a younger version of the last Kikugorō. The comparison comes to mind not only because he had the crisp good looks of an old-fashioned Edo dandy, but because somewhere, in his cool, narrow eyes and slightly protruding lower lips, there was hint of cunning and coarse slyness that called to mind characters from old kabuki plays like the Hairdresser Shinza or the Rat Boy Thief.
I was so transfixed by the sight of this beautiful woman that until then I had failed to notice the enormous metal tub that sat on the right side of the room. The presence of such an object in the room was in fact even more mysterious than that of the camera, and I would surely have noticed it long before if the woman had not been there to distract me. It was the size of a Western-style bathtub, an oblong container, narrow but deep, covered in enamel, and it sat there, hulkingly, next to the veranda and the reed blinds.
There was no doubt about it. No matter how you looked at it, the man’s gaze was hovering on the woman’s body, between her chest and lap. And not only that, the woman herself, who was also looking down, seemed to be staring at the same area on her own body. From what I could see at my angle, she extended her elbows outward and brought her hands together over her waist, as if she were sewing; she was in the process of fiddling with some kind of object that was resting there. Once I had noticed this, I began to discern the vague outlines of a black lump-like object on her lap. It was stock still and seemed to extend quite a ways forward in the shadow of her body.
„Could this be someone – a man – making a pillow of her lap?”
Just as this thought occurred to me, I was startled by a sudden thud, the sound of a heavy object being moved. The woman had turned her body toward the camera. And there, in her lap, was the head of a man looking upward, a corpse slumped over.
I am not sure how best to describe what I felt at that moment. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, a breathless feeling, as if all the blood iny my body had been drained, and my consciousness began to dim; the feeling had gone far beyond fear, reducing me to an insensate numbness that was close to ecstasy… I knew that the body was a corpse not only because the eyes were open wide despite his prone position, but because the collar had been torn from the elegant tails he wore, and his neck was wrapped tightly in a piece of crimson silk crepe that looked like a woman’s undergirdle. His hands were outstretched, as if caught in the throes of death reaching out for his soul as it escaped his body, and had reached the collar-piece of the woman’s kimono, which was covered in a gaudy embroidered image of wisteria flowers the color of celadon. She had inserted her hands in the corpse’s armpits, and twisted her body around to reposition it as it lay there like a dead tuna. But she was only able to move the torso. The rest of the body, from the fat waist swelling up like a white cummerbund-wrapped hill and downward, remained in the same position, such that the body was now jackknifed, like a recumbent letter „V”. Her delicate arms did not look up to the task of moving that ponderous belly – or so one would think from the sight of this dead man. He was quite obese despite having a relatively small frame. I could not see his face very clearly, but I could see enough from the side to guess that he was ugly and around thirty, with a low nose, a protruding forehead and skin flushed red as if he were drunk.
Junichiro Tanizaki, Devils in Daylight, translated by J. Keith Vincent, p. 32-34. 37-39, New York 2017.