Tanizaki Junichiro’s The Gourmet Club is a story of overwhelming sensuality. The act of eating is exalted to the highest level of sensory pleasure, and the members of the Gourmet Club are held in bondage to the lure of experiencing the ultimate culinary delights. In fact the lust for food is so extreme, that at times, the sensual turns sexual, and the whimsical turns grotesque. An artistic movement in Japan that originates in the 1930s, called Eroguro Nonsense, seems to embody the story’s fetish with food. While Tanizaki’s 1919 novella predates the movement by about a decade, one can argue that his story was written in the same spirit, which perhaps may have influenced future eroguro writers. Eroguro Nonsense is a pseudo-Anglicist term that combines the words “erotic” and “grotesque” alongside the word “nonsense”. It is characterized by “prewar, bourgeois cultural phenomenon that devoted itself to explorations of the deviant, the bizarre, and the ridiculous, as manifested in the popular culture of Taisho Tokyo during the 1920s” (source: wikipedia). Through its aphrodisiacal sexual undertones, as well as its vivid descriptions that often meander towards the grotesque, Tanizaki takes a subject as innocuous as food, and deviates into the bizarre underbelly of the newly modern Japanese psyche.
As we are introduced to the nature of the Gourmet Club at the beginning of the story, we can already sense that this is no ordinary club of foodies. Through food, the members of the Gourmet Club are seeking to attain the sublime, and their devotion to food is more religious, than simply a form of diversion. Alas, the members of the club are no longer satisfied with the usual fine dining fare, and so they deviate into the obscure. Even their senses, having become so refined, could no longer be satisfied with simple gustatory pleasures. After Count G. serves his club members the Chicken Gruel with Shark Fins dish, he astutely asserts, “A dish where, the more you eat of it, the more delectable the belches that follow become–thats the sort of food we can fill our stomachs with and never get tired of!” (pg. 130). Such observation may be deeply perceptive in a way, but it is also rather grotesque and bizarre in its imagery. The many graphic descriptions of eating and belching are salacious in nature, and it seems that ‘belching’ as a motif represents the aberrant pleasures of eating, according to Count G.
The eroticization of the act of eating is another crucial element. Throughout the story, the sensory satisfaction that food provides is likened to the allure and seduction of a beautiful woman. The Bok Choi Fingers scene is overwrought with pornographic vivacity, with phrases like “licking and sucking persistently” and “suddenly inserted inside,” blurring the lines of food and sex. When Count G. introduces the dish, Deep-fried Woman, Korean Style, the narrator remarks, “In terms of Chinese food, it would have to mean literally the flesh of a woman, deep-fried as tempura. So it takes no great imagination to picture the excitement it aroused when the members of the club discovered this item on the evening’s menu.” (pg. 138). In search of exotic gastronomical experiences, the club takes a turn for the cannibalistic. And not only that, it is specifically a woman’s flesh, which takes on a perverse eroticism.
The Gourmet Club is a fantastical story about the earthly delights of food, but it also offers a glimmer into the deviant fetishizations that such ardor can produce. The result is a form of absurdity that is at once erotic and grotesque. The story’s elegant eroguro sensibility provokes the mind to think deeper of the delirium of modern hedonism.