(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The action of Yasunari Kawabata’s Beauty and Sadness develops out of an affair that Toshio Oki had twenty-four years earlier with a fifteen-year-old girl named Otoko Ueno. The book begins with Oki’s decision to travel from his home in Kamakura, outside Tokyo, to Kyoto in order to surprise his former mistress, now a distinguished painter, with a request. Oki invites Otoko to listen to the tolling of Kyoto’s temple bells at midnight on New Year’s Eve. On the surface, Oki’s motives are superficial and sentimental. He finds himself intrigued by a glimpse of Otoko in photographs in a magazine article about her work; he wants to see if she has retained the innocent beauty of the fifteen-year-old whom he seduced and made pregnant. At the end of their affair, Otoko stayed in a mental hospital, after the death of her baby. Yet Otoko’s was not the only tragic loss resulting from the relationship. At the time, Oki was a married man with a young son; his wife, Fumiko, lost the baby she was carrying when the facts about her husband’s relationship with Otoko were revealed to her in the manuscript of the novel that Oki wrote about his young mistress.

Otoko finds this novel, which Oki has entitled A Girl of Sixteen, a curious document. While she recognizes his portrait of herself in the book, she does not find in it the mental anguish that she recalls as the most important characteristic of the affair. The novelist has softened and sentimentalized his account of their relationship; nevertheless, A Girl of Sixteen is his best, and most famous, book. When Oki telephones her from...

(The entire section is 660 words.)