Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 660
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 his hotel in Kyoto twenty-four years after their separation, Otoko decides to meet him to hear the temple bells, but she brings along her student, companion, and female lover, Keiko Sakami, to keep Oki from broaching the subject of the past. Keiko is only nineteen, but she knows of Otoko’s affair with Oki, both from his version of it in A Girl of Sixteen and from Otoko’s own account. Keiko is obsessed with understanding the bond between Oki and Otoko, and perhaps it is resentment and jealousy of the novelist’s continued ability to affect Otoko’s feelings that lead Keiko to mount a calculated assault upon the Oki family to extract what she calls revenge for Otoko’s suffering.
After Oki returns home to Kamakura, Keiko delivers to him two of her own paintings, pieces more abstract and expressionistic than the work of her teacher. Fumiko, sensing the threat that Keiko poses, is tempted to destroy these pictures. Oki himself, however, does not see any danger, and he even takes the risk of going to bed with Keiko. She refuses him her right breast, suggesting that it is deformed or unresponsive to stimulation, and at a crucial moment in their lovemaking, she calls out Otoko’s name and prevents Oki from achieving an orgasm.
Later, Keiko initiates a relationship with Oki’s son Taichiro, granting him her right breast but not her left; she maneuvers Oki’s son until she can telephone Fumiko with the claim that Taichiro has asked her to marry him. This telephone call comes from a hotel on the shore of Lake Biwa, just outside Kyoto, where Keiko has brought the young man so that they can take a moterboat out on the lake. There is a boating accident, perhaps planned by Keiko, and Taichiro is drowned. Otoko, Oki, and Fumiko meet in Keiko’s room at the hotel, confronting in the tragedy of Taichiro’s death the consequences of their own complex interrelationship. The beauty and sadness of Otoko’s memories take on, in the light of Keiko’s savage expression of resentment, a somberness not unlike the reaction of Fumiko, who accuses Otoko of engineering her son’s death as revenge for the death of the artist’s own baby daughter.