The short story or the vignette is the essence of Yasunari Kawabata’s literary art. Even his great novels were written piecemeal. Not only were they originally published in serial form, the parts frequently presented as separate stories, but also many segments were rewritten and revised for both style and content. Japanese tradition has applied the term shosetsu, loosely “fiction,” to both novels and short stories, and as a result, such works as “The Izu Dancer,” consisting of only thirty pages, and The House of the Sleeping Beauties, forming less than a hundred, have been treated critically as novels.
“Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old”
Kawabata composed his first work “Jrokusai no Nikki” (“Diary of a Sixteen-Year-Old”) at that age and published it eleven years later. The work describes the humiliating last days and suffering of his grandfather and foreshadows the themes of aging and death in his later works. Comparing the diary with his recollections at a later date, Kawabata maintained that he had forgotten the sordid details of sickness and dying portrayed in his narrative and that his mind had since been constantly occupied in cleansing and beautifying his grandfather’s image.
“The Izu Dancer”
With “The Izu Dancer,” his first work to obtain international acclaim, the opposite is true. Here, he idealizes a somewhat commonplace autobiographical incident and group of characters. The story, told in the first person, concerns the encounter of a nineteen-year-old youth on a walking tour of the Izu Peninsula with a group of itinerant entertainers, including a young dancer, who appears to be about sixteen. The young man accompanies them on their way, spurred with the hope that he would eventually spend a night with the young dancer. One morning, as he prepares to enter a public bath, he sees her emerging naked from the steam and realizes that she is a mere child, and a feeling akin to a draught of fresh water permeates his consciousness. Learning that she is only thirteen years of age, he, nevertheless, remains with the players and is accepted by them as a pleasant companion until they reach their winter headquarters. There, he takes a boat back to Tokyo, and his eyes fill with tears as the dancer bids him farewell, floating in a “beautiful emptiness.”
The situation of a young man joining forces with a group of itinerant entertainers resembles that in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1795-1796; Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, 1824), perhaps the reason that the work was translated into German in 1942, more than twenty years before being rendered into any other Western language. Some years after the original publication, Kawabata revealed that the portrayal of his youthful journey is highly idealistic, concealing major imperfections in the appearance and behavior of the actual troupe. Presumably in real life, moreover, the young age of the dancer would have been no deterrent to his amorous inclinations, since he later portrayed a thirteen-year-old prostitute as the heroine of one of his popular novels concerning Asakusa, the amusement section of Tokyo. The longing for virginal innocence and the realization that this degree of purity is something beyond ordinary attainment is a recurrent theme throughout Kawabata’s work, portraying innocence, beauty, and rectitude as ephemeral and tinged with sadness. The sentimental ending of “The Izu Dancer” is considered to symbolize both the purifying effect of literature upon life as well as Kawabata’s personal passage from misanthropy to hopefulness.
“The Man Who Did Not Smile”
Kawabata pursues the theme of the psychological effect of art and nature in another autobiographical story, “Warawanu otoko” (“The Man Who Did Not Smile”), representing his middle years. The author of a screenplay, impressed by the beauty of the dawn in the countryside, where the script is being filmed, rewrites the last scene with the intention of wrapping “reality in a beautiful, smiling mask.” The rewriting is inspired by his notion of having every one of the characters in a mental hospital, locale of the film, wear a laughing mask. On returning to Tokyo, the author visits his own wife in a...
(The entire section is 1765 words.)