Characters Discussed

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Yoshio Eguchi

Yoshio Eguchi, a sixty-seven-year-old man. A light sleeper with a tendency to have bad dreams, he apparently has had several affairs and remembers the “ugliness” of spending nights with tragic, sad women. Given the opportunity to sleep next to young virgins, heavily drugged and therefore incapable of revealing anything about their lives, he longs for more than the physical touch he is allowed. In the five nights that he spends with six young women, he relives events in his life, all seemingly randomly evoked associations with each woman. Although conscious of the “dreariness” of old age and approaching death, he is indignant about the cavalier attitude to death he finds in the establishment.

Kiga

Kiga, Eguchi’s friend, who introduces him to this special house for older men. Kiga describes the experience of sleeping next to a drugged young woman as “sleeping with a secret Buddha.”

The Woman

The Woman, the unnamed manager of the house, a small woman in her mid-forties with thin lips, a youthful voice, and a calm and steady manner. Polite but firm, she serves Eguchi tea and delivers clear instructions about the strict rules of the house before taking him up to the room with red curtains where he sleeps with a young girl. Her cold efficiency is epitomized by her quick action in removing dead bodies to another establishment and by her ruthless advice to Eguchi to make do with the second girl when one dies during the night.

The First Sleeping Beauty

The First Sleeping Beauty, a short young woman not quite twenty years old, with long hair and wearing no cosmetics. To Eguchi, she gives off the scent of a nursing baby, bringing back several memories, including those of his three daughters as babies and of a young woman with whom he had an affair in his youth.

The Second Sleeping Beauty

The Second Sleeping Beauty, described as a “young witch” with deep red lipstick, pink fingernails, and slightly crooked teeth. Her scent brings memories and fantasies associated with peonies and camellias to Eguchi and reminds him primarily of the courtship and marriage of his youngest daughter and a trip they took.

The Third Sleeping Beauty

The Third Sleeping Beauty, a small girl with a small face who looks about sixteen years old. Her deathlike sleep reminds Eguchi of his affair only three years earlier with a young married woman in her twenties and provokes phantasms of hyacinths and orchids.

The Fourth Sleeping Beauty

The Fourth Sleeping Beauty, a large, full-bodied, white-skinned young woman who evokes pity in Eguchi and brings a dream of white butterflies.

The Fifth and Sixth Sleeping Beauties

The Fifth and Sixth Sleeping Beauties, two women Eguchi sees on his last visit. One is rough, wild, dark, and possibly a foreigner; she momentarily rouses a violent passion in Eguchi to strangle her. She dies during the night. The other woman is gentler, more elegant, and fair. Sandwiched between them, Eguchi has a series of erotic nightmares, ending with one associated with red dahlias.

The Characters

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The significant action of The House of the Sleeping Beauties occurs within Eguchi’s consciousness; the girls at the inn neither act nor speak. Eguchi assigns each one a personality based on her physical characteristics and the events in his past that she recalls for him. He does speak with the unnamed woman who runs the inn. The manager is a self-disciplined, unnaturally quiet person, more an emanation of the closely guarded house than an actual woman. She refuses Eguchi’s repeated requests for the medication which puts the girls to sleep. This request, like his repeated fantasy of sexually assaulting one of the sleeping girls or strangling her, reflects the internal tensions at work in Eguchi’s mind. Initially, he sees his visits to the inn as ways of both affirming and denying the fact that, like most of the place’s customers, he is losing his sexual powers. Eguchi repeatedly insists that, unlike the other men, he is still virile and capable of sexual activity. As time passes and Eguchi encounters a different young woman on each of his visits, the emphasis shifts from the sexual dimension of his dilemma to its moral and spiritual ramifications.

Eguchi both fears death and is attracted to it. He uses his experiences at the inn, and the memories that the girls evoke, both to assert his own vitality and to face the emptiness of most of the encounters between men and women. He recalls a youthful trip to Kyoto with a girl he did not marry, an affair with a woman married to a foreigner, and his youngest daughter’s marriage to the young man who did not take her virginity. Sexual activity, however pleasurable in itself, seems merely evidence of attachment to the world of human experience. Eguchi finds himself looking at the sleeping beauties beside him and speculating upon the motives leading girls in their teens and twenties to sell themselves to men such as him, and he considers the lives that these girls are likely to lead once they are too old for so innocent a form of prostitution. There is a tradition in Japanese folklore, and Eguchi refers to it, in which prostitutes are incarnations of the Buddha. If the dark girl to whom he is attracted at the end of the novel represents sensuality, the fair girl represents an inviolate purity with certain religious overtones. Eguchi may be choosing between them when he finds the dark girl dead beside him and turns from her to the shining, fair one asleep on his other side.

Kawabata’s handling of the sleeping beauties (the literal meaning of the book’s title in Japanese) is nothing short of masterful. Lacking knowledge of the men who kiss and fondle them, these girls remain uncorrupted by the experience. They vary in age and appearance, but all manifest the eternal woman. Eguchi sees them as embodiments of life’s complexity. His memories of the women he has loved, prompted by the six girls, confirm both his pleasure in his own sexual capacity and his recognition of his moral and spiritual emptiness. Like the Buddha, the sleeping beauties lead Eguchi to self-knowledge. Unwaking themselves, they awaken him.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

Keene, Donald. Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Era, 1984.

Lippit, Noriko. Reality and Fiction in Modern Japanese Literature, 1980.

Petersen, Gwenn Boardman. The Moon in the Water: Understanding Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima, 1979.

Ueda, Makoto. Modern Japanese Writers and the Nature of Literature, 1976.

Yamanouchi, Hisaaki. The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature, 1978.

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