In Praise of Shadows

Ever since I first encountered Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s ‘In Praise of Shadows’ at university, it has been a major influence in my life.

Published in 1933, Tanizaki offers his critique on a changing Japan, at a time when it was beginning to form an interest in the efficiencies of modern Western design, and architects were slowly shifting away from the traditional principles that had served them well for so long.

In perhaps his most memorable example, Tanizaki calls Western bathroom designs – with their bright, unflattering, and invasive lighting, and their sparkling white porcelain tiles – unnatural and alienating to the human body. He contrasts this with Japanese bathrooms: outdoor spaces of dark natural-lit ambiance which caress the bodily form, sheltered by wood and stone, harmonious with the environment around them. In Tanizaki’s mind, only under the blanket of shadow may pure, modest, beauty be found.

Later, he goes on to describe the patina which can form on lacquer bowls after years of heavy use as intrinsic to its character – something to be cherished.

At times, the modern image of minimalism is at odds with Tanizaki’s. It has led to an unhealthy obsession with some unattainable notion of perfection. For instance: how did the colour white, and by extension – light, become the unofficial mascots of minimalism? Why are bright, stark spaces what most come to think of when minimalism is brought into conversation? Why not shadows? Why are so many of these spaces filled with pristine, yet ultimately characterless, objects and furnishings – and as such more likely to resemble Tanizaki’s portrayal of a Western bathroom, rather than his beloved Japanese one?

His essay reveals just how influential aesthetic design can be, and the ideas contained within are no less relevant to Western society today, as they were in 1933 Japan. One thing is for certain – Tanizaki’s teachings have taken me down a healthier and more sustainable path. For me, minimalism has become a way of removing distraction by focusing on what is truly important; of being thankful for what I do have, instead of what I don’t; and to appreciate my body in it’s natural state, rather than focusing on how it compares to some archetypal ‘perfection’. He teaches us that not only is it acceptable to not be perfect, shiny and polished – it is desirable.

‘In Praise of Shadows’ warns us that the way in which we design spaces, and our frivolous pursuit of the nouveau, can powerfully shape how we view ourselves and how we treat and value the things around us.