Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Shimamura, a writer who lives in Tokyo with his wife and children, is on a train headed to a hot-springs spa in a mountainous area of northwest Japan, an area known for its heavy snows. Shimamura speculates about the nature of the relationship between an ill man and a girl seated across the aisle from him and becomes fascinated by the girl’s image reflected in the mirrorlike window of the train. He sees her disembodied face against the background of the mountains and has a vision of her eye floating beautifully and transparently over the passing landscape of the mountains.
The girl and the man get off at the same stop as Shimamura, where a woman in a blue cape is waiting. Shimamura asks the stationmaster whether Komako, the girl who had lived with a music teacher and whom he had met the previous spring, is still in the area. The stationmaster informs him that the woman in the blue cape is the same girl he is trying to find. Shimamura checks in at the inn, a resort popular with visiting tourists. After his nightly bath he is startled to see Komako standing at the end of the corridor. They go to his room.
Shimamura remembers the first time he visited the inn and his first meeting with Komako: After returning to the inn after seven days of hiking in the mountains, he requests a geisha. No geishas are available, however, because of a celebration going on that evening. The maid suggests calling the girl who lives at the music teacher’s house. The girl, Komako, is not a geisha, but she fills in when necessary to help at large parties.
Shimamura is struck by Komako’s youth and purity. They talk at length, and he begins to feel uncomfortable asking for anything other than her friendship. He asks her to suggest the name of another geisha. After much hesitation, Komako sends for another girl, whom Shimamura finds distasteful and sends home. After the geisha leaves, Shimamura takes a short walk to the Shinto shrine near the inn, where he again briefly meets Komako, who has been watching him; he realizes that he is attracted to her. Later that evening, Komako bursts into Shimamura’s room, drunk from a party at the inn. They make love, and she leaves early in the morning to avoid detection. Shimamura returns to Tokyo the same day.
Komako is now a geisha in snow country. She tells Shimamura that she has kept a diary of the events of her life. They again make love, and Komako leaves at daylight.
(The entire section is 1002 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” Through the opening line of Snow Country, the central character, Shimamura, and the reader are transported back in time. The snow country of the novel has only recently been linked to modern Japan by the railroad. Indeed, as Shimamura notes as he returns to Tokyo after his second visit, “the train . . . was not from the same world as the trains one finds on the main lines.”
Shimamura’s world, represented by Tokyo, is a world being invaded by Western influences in architecture and lifestyles. The world on the other side of the mountains from Tokyo is a world of rice harvests, winter carnivals, houses built in the style of the old regime, and Chijimi linen that can be traced back to antiquity. Clearly, when Shimamura travels to the snow country, he is leaving behind the decadence of modern Japan and returning to a Japan of the past, a Japan that values simplicity and purity. Shimamura himself acknowledges that he must return to the mountains to regain some of the honesty that is lost by living in Tokyo. Despite his professed desire for honesty, however, Shimamura is more concerned with illusion than with reality. In the opening section of the novel, he views Yoko through her reflection in the mirrorlike window of the train car, but what he sees is an image “floating” in the glass, not Yoko herself.
Shimamura’s fascination with occidental ballet is also representative of his desire to maintain a distance between reality and illusion, as if closeness to a dream destroys the dream. In fact, that is exactly what has happened to him with his earlier fascination with the dance-drama of Kabuki theater. As he researched and studied Kabuki dance and became acquainted with individual dancers, he became dissatisfied with the object of his obsession and turned his attentions to ballet. In this new study, he is determined to maintain the distance between illusion and reality by never watching a ballet performance. He will content himself with studying ballet through books and photographs, assuring that the new dream cannot be destroyed.
Shimamura’s relationship with Komako is also built around the pursuit of a dream, a spiritual relationship with a woman. This...
(The entire section is 928 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: World Fiction Series)
In Japan’s hot-spring resorts, the distinction between the geisha and the prostitute is blurred; it depends solely upon the conduct of the particular woman involved. Yasunari Kawabata’s Snow Country details the love affair between one such hot-spring geisha, a young woman named Komako, and a sophisticated literary man from Tokyo named Shimamura. The novel begins with Shimamura’s early December journey by train from Tokyo to the mountain resort at which he first met Komako the previous spring. It is bitterly cold once the train passes through the tunnel under the Japan Alps connecting the Tokyo side of Honshu with the “snow country” in Niigata Prefecture on the other side. Shimamura amuses himself by watching two of his fellow passengers, a young man obviously suffering some kind of illness and the younger woman who fusses over him during the journey. The girl has the fresh beauty that Shimamura finds attractive. He watches the reflection of her face in the darkened window of the train. “Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.” By contrast, his memory of Komako is not stirred by this kind of visual stimulus. His hand, “and in particular the forefinger, even now seemed damp from her touch, seemed to be pulling him back to her from afar.”
This detail recalls the fact that Shimamura and Komako became lovers toward the end of his initial visit to the resort, and it suggests his motive for returning to the same place in December. In conjunction to his attraction to the girl on the train, a young woman named Yoko who is nursing the dying Yukio, Shimamura’s sexual attraction to Komako suggests a fundamental split in his attitude toward women. It also foreshadows the hopelessness of his continuing his relationship with her. Shimamura was attracted to Komako in May because she possessed the innocent freshness he attributes to Yoko. She was not officially a geisha but a music student, and she worked at parties when the inns in the small resort had too many guests. Shimamura tests Komako by asking her to call a real geisha for him—by implication a woman willing to have sexual intercourse with him—and is satisfied by the shy modesty she displays at the request. “With her skin like white porcelain coated over a faint pink, and her throat still girlish, not yet filled out, the impression she gave was above all one of cleanliness, not quite one of real...
(The entire section is 1020 words.)