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Finding the Villain in Junichiro Tanizaki’s the Key

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Double Standards and Villainy in The Key

The differences between tradition and modernity find their way into Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s 1956 novel The Key as something of a double standard: where the ways of old help retain the feelings of goodness within its female protagonist, Ikuko, her husband seeks pleasure in what would widely be accepted as “bad” through the usage of modern objects. The unnamed male protagonist, who will from here on out be referred to as “the Professor”, is the object of Ikuko’s hatred, and yet, love: while The Key is told in two separate diaries written by Ikuko and the Professor, both of whom focus on the sexual feelings one holds for the other and how it translates into the progression of their lives, Ikuko almost becomes the focus of the novel, for her thoughts and feelings close the novel, and she as a character changes the most. But it is through her husband that these changes occur, and collectively, Tanizaki is able to reveal an interesting moment in the lives of an aging couple; whereas both husband and wife seek to fulfil their pleasures through the extreme, The Key is able to take its two main characters and divide them, thus begging the question: who is the villain? and in the quest for both happiness and pleasure, who won?

The double standard is what channels both Ikuko and the Professor’s villainy; the Professor opens the novel with the first entry dated New Year’s Day. He describes his wife as having “[an] old-fashioned Kyoto upbringing [that] has left her with a good deal of antiquated morality; indeed, she rather prides herself in it” (Tanizaki 3). While certainly “a good deal of antiquated morality” can leave the impression of goodness within a person, this notion that Ikuko thinks she exhibits changes throughout the novel: Ikuko does frequently comment on her traditional upbringing, but this is not the only characteristic seen in her throughout the novel’s story. In a diary entry dated January 8, Ikuko writes, “I violently dislike my husband, and just as violently love him” (Tanizaki). Ikuko’s sense of “goodness” (that she holds for herself), and how she feels about her husband, are repeated throughout The Key. What marks their importance is how both set of emotions, expressed inwardly and initially only through Ikuko’s diary, both eventually affect the people around her: Ikuko’s belief that she is the embodiment of tradition drives her sexual pleasures, and the love/hatred she has for the Professor seems to do the same thing. Thus, what Ikuko is inwardly most passionate about seems to fuel her lust.

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But what drives the Professor? What makes Ikuko’s passions particularly interesting is how they affect her husband: more than Ikuko, the Professor spends a great deal of time within his diary discussing his spouse. He describes what he likes about her, both sexually and otherwise, and demonstrates a clear devotion towards her. The Professor explicitly states in his diary that he loves Ikuko (as well as, unlike Ikuko, how he holds no hatred) and even notes, within his first diary entry, “she possesses a certain natural gift” (Tanizaki 6), that makes sex with her all the more gratifying and desirable. He describes certain elements to her body, singling out “her extraordinarily shapely feet” [Tanizaki 7], as well as her legs, “slender and trim enough, but excessively curved out from knee to ankle [… and yet] pliant and feminine in the traditional Japanese style, a style that is suited to kimono” (Tanizaki 107). In fact, the Professor’s observation of Ikuko’s traditional appearance is in a way contradicted by what the Professor uses to enjoy her body: by consulting Kimura, a younger man is ends up being suitor to both his wife and daughter, the Professor gets his hands on a Polaroid camera, a modern and even Western device, to photograph Ikuko’s body. Ikuko, who suffers frequently from fainting spells brought on by the overconsumption of alcohol and general poor health, is at the Professor’s mercy once he discovers he has unlimited access to her body. With the aid of another modern invention—the fluorescent lamp—the Professor is given unadulterated sight of his wife, “to explore all her long-hidden secrets” (Tanizaki 25).

Fundamentally, the Professor and Ikuko seem to represent modernity and tradition, respectively; however, this is not quite true as their changes in character seem to allow them to experience both sides to the spectrum. The Professor, unlike his wife, has not actually chosen to categorize himself as either traditional or modern, although he does state his appreciation for traditional appearances; Ikuko, as mentioned, is proud of her roots and consistently refers back to them, if only for her own reassurance. But while both husband and wife seem to think of themselves as relatively good (and even normal) people, they eventually both dabble in the dark side: the Professor uses Ikuko’s delicacy to sate his desires, and Ikuko uses her husband’s lust to satisfy herself. It is ultimately, though, that Ikuko realizes she has complete power over her husband: when the suitor to their daughter Toshiko is introduced, Ikuko discovers a new way to toy with her husband and to enjoy herself at the same time. This young man, named Kimura, manages to be the guiding force of modernity for both the Professor and Ikuko; Ikuko, in her states of now-feigned unconsciousness, murmurs his name when the Professor has sex with her, replacing her husband in her thoughts with Kimura, even noting later how his body is much better than her husband’s, and how he has “skin [that] seemed dazzlingly fair, not the usual dark skin of a Japanese” (Tanizaki 33). The Professor, of course, uses Kimura to gain access to the Polaroid camera, and allows him to come over for drinks and take his wife and daughter to the cinema. Kimura himself seems to fascinate both the Professor and Ikuko, but their acknowledgement of his differences from their ways of tradition is mute; Ikuko believes she is doing nothing wrong when she does consummate her relationship with Kimura (she even writes, “Somehow I have the notion that no matter what happens, as long as I don’t engage in what my husband likes to call ‘unorthodox sexual intercourse’, I haven’t really been unfaithful” [Tanizaki 92-93]), and the Professor, totally aware now that something is going on between his wife and Kimura, seems to not really mind, if only to be fuelled by the gravity of his own jealousy but to still get the satisfaction he so craves in the end.

The Key presents the Professor and his wife as both two-faced, selfish individuals who are allowing their libidos to control them. However, either seem to have a redeeming factor—Ikuko appears to have led on the Professor for a long while, even before the events of the novel, and Ikuko herself is somewhat unhappy, citing her husband as a “miserable man” and only truly content after meeting Kimura. Yet is one’s plight more sympathetic than the other? By the novel’s end, both the Professor and Ikuko acknowledge the distances they have gone to enjoy themselves and what they did at the other’s expense—it leads to the Professor’s death, Ikuko’s guilt, and a sense of an uncertain future. But is there anyone to blame? Perhaps husband and wife can both be, and yet, Ikuko, who learns how to control her husband and drive him crazy, present more antagonistic qualities than her husband does. It his last entry before suffering a stroke, dated April 15, the Professor writes,

“I can see that my brain is steadily deteriorating. Since January, when I became intent on satisfying Ikuko, I have found myself losing interest in everything else. My ability to think has so declined that I can’t concentrate for five minutes. My mind teems with sexual fantasies. For years I have been a voracious reader, whatever the circumstances, but now I spend the whole day without reading a word. And yet, out of long habit, I continue to sit at my desk. My eyes are fixed on a book, but I scarcely read at all.” (Tanizaki 105)

In this entry, the Professor admits freely that he has become consumed by his lust and all that Ikuko has done for him. Of course, the Professor isn’t totally blameless—the manipulations of his wife’s body, and the photographs he took of her, when he thought she was asleep isn’t exactly a normal and acceptable thing—but Ikuko manages to take things a bit further by fuelling her husband’s jealousy and amplifying his fantasies. The last time Ikuko and the Professor have sex, is when the Professor’s health takes a turn for the worse, and he dies shortly thereafter.

It may not be the most concrete theory, but on paper, Ikuko is responsible for the Professor’s death. While he violated her physically, she did so to him mentally, and that in turn led to something external. Is Ikuko necessarily the villain? No. But her inability to reflect on her errors until after the damage is done is nearly unforgivable, and by the The Key’s end, she has become extremely unlikeable. Perhaps there is hope for yet, but unfortunately, Ikuko cannot take back what she has done.


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