Beauty and Sadness Themes
by Yasunari Kawabata

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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Far from resolving the thematic ambiguity of his treatment of Keiko, Kawabata reinforces the complexity of her characterization. At a significant point in the book, Taichiro discusses with his parents an article in a magazine on the excavation of the grave of Princess Kazunomiya (the wife of the shogun Iemochi Tokugawa), who died in 1877. The team of archaeologists finds, in the arms of the Princess’ skeleton, a photograph on glass of a young nobleman in court robes. Exposed to light and air after so long a time, the image on the glass plate fades, and the archaeologists are therefore unable to determine if the picture was of the Princess’ husband or of her reputed lover, Prince Arigusawa. Oki, Fumiko, and Taichiro discuss the article at length, and Kawabata intends that this conversation be applied to the other art objects in the novel. Oki’s own A Girl of Sixteen is as much a picture of love’s fragility as is the photograph in the grave of the Princess. Both are the images of a love lost, and both memorialize an absent lover.

Kawabata uses Otoko’s and Keiko’s own paintings to reveal their different personalities. Working in a traditional Japanese style, Otoko initially subsumes her emotions in her art and paints to project an idealized conception of herself and her dead daughter. She has tried over the years to paint a picture of this child, whom she never really saw, in the style of either Western paintings of the Christ child or Buddhist paintings of Saint Kobo. When Keiko asks to have her portrait painted, Otoko turns to the sketches for this abortive project. “Perhaps she could portray Keiko in the manner of the paintings of the boy saint. It would be a purely classical Portrait of a Holy Virgin. Though works of religious art, some of the saint’s portraits had an indescribably seductive charm.”

On the surface, this idea is ironic, for Keiko is not a virgin; Otoko’s thoughts suggest Kawabata’s purpose in his treatment of her. The idea of painting Keiko as a saint ascending toward the heavens suggests that in resolving this problem of representation, Otoko will achieve emotional and spiritual insight. “Why not paint a nude of Keiko, then? She could still follow the design of the boy saint’s portrait, and there were even Buddhist figures that gave the hint of a woman’s breasts.” Only by rejecting an approach to painting that turns even a portrait of her mother into a picture of herself will Otoko be able to accept the loss of her child, reconcile herself to the pain caused by her affair with Oki, and break free of an obsession with the past. Her sexual feelings for Keiko, repeating the manipulation of her own feelings by her former lover, are a sign of her deeply troubled mind.

In a sense, Keiko is less a real girl than the projection of those emotions that Otoko has blocked out and sublimated in her painting. Keiko’s pictures express the emotional turbulence that Otoko has excluded from her work, and they are not traditional in style. One of the paintings Keiko takes to Oki’s house in Kamakura depicts a...

(The entire section is 826 words.)