Critical Context

Though uncharacteristic in its absence of the erotic or of deeply probed relationships between men and women, The Master of Go nevertheless remains similar to much of Kawabata’s writing. From the beginning of his literary career, in the mid-1920’s, Kawabata demonstrated an interest in sensations and details that are described for their own sakes, which undoubtedly trained him for the observation of small, telling details in The Master of Go. Also characteristic of his writing is loose plot construction, as exemplified in the circular presentation of chronology in The Master of Go, which begins and ends at the same point and contains within it many abrupt jumps in time.

The Master of Go was published in book form in 1954, the same year as was Yama no oto (1954; The Sound of the Mountain, 1970), which many consider to be Kawabata’s most important work. Common to the two books is the theme of postwar spiritual chaos. In both, traditional Japanese sensibility takes a stand against modernism.

Kawabata’s creation of unique worlds as settings for his stories is another characteristic that distinguishes many of the works for which he is best known. The setting of Yukiguni (1947; Snow Country, 1956) is a winter resort, remote from the environs to which its main characters are accustomed. Sembazuru (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958) isolates itself in the world of the tea ceremony. Nemureru bijo (1961; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, 1969) takes place in a brothel catering to old men. The worlds of these books, like the world of Go at the level of masters, are rarefied and abnormally focused, which lends intensity to their action.

Most significant, The Master of Go is the elegiac masterpiece of a writer so taken with eulogies and obituaries that in his lifetime he was dubbed “the undertaker.” In this novel, Kawabata uses the freedom of the form to go beyond conventional elegiac writing. He expands his meditation to include commentary on the era that was ushered in with the defeat of his country and the deaths of all his immediate family. Kawabata began the novel during World War II and completed it nine years after the war’s end. It can be fairly regarded as his major work on the theme of the loss that he observed in the historic change.