Critical Context

Beauty and Sadness focuses on the thoughts and feelings of female characters, not those of males as in Kawabata’s Yukiguni ( 1947; Snow Country, 1956), Sembazuru (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958), or Nemureru bijo (1961; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, 1969). Both the novelist Oki and his son Taichiro are peripheral to Kawabata’s focus on the effects of creative, self-sufficient women’s passion. Nevertheless, Oki and his son are typical of the men at the centers of other of his novels. They are attracted to women, drawn most strongly by the prospect of sexual innocence, but are incapable of relating to women on a level beyond the sexual.

It is Kawabata’s characterization of Fumiko, Otoko, and Keiko that makes Beauty and Sadness unique among his novels. Because he portrays them from the inside and not through the eyes of a male protagonist as he does in other books, these three characters have a vitality and an integrity that his women often do not. In addition, Otoko and Keiko are shown as artists engaged in the kind of creativity often assumed to be a male prerogative. They are not the musicians, dancers, and practitioners of the tea ceremony found in Kawabata’s other novels, women devoted to arts that are merely re-creative of the primary activity of composer, dance teacher, or tea master. Keiko and Otoko grapple with the primary materials of their art; they embody in their paintings a way of seeing the world, as Oki does in his novels. Based on the evidence of A Girl of Sixteen and the paintings done by the two women, it is clear that Oki is inferior as an artist to Otoko and Keiko.