Mizuno is a morally suspect, slothful and self-centered man, yet he’s sufficiently talented that his social misdemeanors — rent arrears, missed deadlines, personal debts, lies, cruelty to others — are tolerated. Here, as elsewhere in Tanizaki’s oeuvre, there are recognizable sexual obsessions and female types. Mizuno has an ex-wife who left him because he wrote too many wife-murder stories; she ends up marrying a Methodist minister and converting to Christianity. Then Mizuno falls under the spell of Fräulein, a heartless Japanese prostitute who speaks German and eats black bread and sausages. The innocent and dull wife stands in sharp contrast to Mizuno’s “contract mistress,” who has “the look of a Western streetwalker.” Mizuno gives Fräulein the yen he has taken dishonestly from his publisher so she can “pretend and make it seem to me like real love.”
“In Black and White” is highly plotted and self-consciously clever. Nevertheless, the reader is left wanting because the story lacks the pathos and bathos that great comic fiction requires. At times, this slim novel can drag, something a serial writer must take great care to prevent. That said, Tanizaki does raise important aesthetic questions about what fiction writers do and why.
Under duress, Mizuno confesses to a detective: “In actual daily life when I’m dealing with people, I do tell lies all the time. But when I take up my pen and work creatively, I expose myself bravely and frankly even if it goes badly for me. In that respect, I believe I am more honest than most of what the world calls ‘good men.’ That is my way of working to be a man you can believe. And that’s where I take my pride as an artist.” Here Tanizaki allows the immature Mizuno his shred of integrity.
Nevertheless, the murder mystery doesn’t make sense because there’s nothing in the plot that offers a rationale for the important question of motivation behind the most serious action a novelist can take — the death of a character. Why does Mizuno want the fictional Codama to die? Why does the Shadow Man want Mizuno to be guilty of a crime he didn’t commit and be executed? Why does Tanizaki want his central character to die?
Well, there is that actual death. In 1927, a year before “In Black and White” was written and published, Tanizaki engaged in a famous literary spat with the writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, remembered now for having written the stories that formed the basis of Akira Kurosawa’s classic film “Rashomon.” To put the aesthetic fight in crude terms, Tanizaki argued that plot mattered and Akutagawa disagreed. The spat went on for months in the pages of the literary magazine Kaizo, and ended only when Akutagawa, age 35, killed himself by taking an overdose of barbiturates on Tanizaki’s birthday, July 24. The literary world was set aflutter with recriminations and vicious gossip. Within a year, Tanizaki had started “In Black and White.” Although an English translation of the Japanese title, “Kokubyaku,” means “black and white,” the word is also a homonym for kokuhaku, meaning “confession.”