Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 721
The Master of Go is a chronicle of a Japanese Go match that took place in 1938 between Go master Shūsai and his challenger, Minoru Kitani (named "Otaké" in the story). The story explores several themes concerning traditional Japanese society: including loss, the destruction of society, the virtue and nobility of tradition, and the acquisition of the sublime. Specific quotes from the text help to highlight each of these themes.
At the very end of chapter 5, Shūsai's doctor gives the following description of his patient: "He has a body like an undernourished child." This is in reference to the attenuated figure and child-like delicacy that the Master's old age had brought upon him.
However, immediately following these descriptions, at the beginning of chapter 6, Kawabata describes Shūsai as such:
That the Master seemed to grow larger when he seated himself before the Go board had to do of course with the power and prestige of his art, the rewards of long training and discipline; but his trunk was disproportionately long.
This characterization of the Master's appearance is a direct allusion to the vitality and goodness of tradition. Otherwise a sickly and weak man, Shūsai suddenly becomes a respectable-looking figure when seated behind the Go board.
Go is a game which Kawabata uses to characterize Shūsai, who embodies the finest characteristics of its history, as well as Japanese society in general. Furthermore, the fact that Shūsai "seemed" to grow larger implies that this was the perspective that other people had of him; this may be taken to characterize the respect that Japanese citizens (including Kawabata himself) have for tradition and custom, which, in the story, is symbolized by of Shūsai.
Near the end of the match, Otaké makes a single, unprecedented move by sealing his Black 121 (essentially meaning that he paused and made note of this play for the next meeting instead of making the move immediately). This piece was located far away from the main action of the game. For Shūsai, such a move breaks the traditional expectations and courtesy of play associated with the many years of the game's existence, effectively destroying the spirit of the game for him entirely.
At the beginning of chapter 38, after realizing exactly what had transpired, Shūsai expresses his grief as such:
The match is over. Mr. Otaké ruined it with that sealed play. It was like smearing ink over the picture we had painted. The minute I saw it I felt like forfeiting the match. Like telling them it was the last straw. I really thought I should forfeit. But I hesitated, and that was that.
This dialogue indicates a couple of things. First, the Master of Go has been completely disillusioned by what he sees as the introduction of an aberration—one that has entirely destroyed the beauty of the harmony and custom of the game.
Kawabata further discusses the impact that move 121 had on the Master's mentality later in the same chapter:
It [the game] has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony as of music. Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric flight of his own. A masterpiece of a game can be ruined by insensitivity to the feelings of an adversary.
Here, Kawabata (and the Master) laments the destruction of the purity of the way Go had traditionally been played, which serves as a reflection of the author's deeper sense of loss over the overthrow of traditional Japanese culture following Japan's defeat in the second World War.
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to the Master, the entire game—which had taken nearly six months to complete—is essentially lost with a single move. One interpretation of this holds that move 121 is a direct allusion to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Furthermore, the Master's willingness to throw the game by playing White 130 and ensuring his own defeat can subsequently be understood to represent the bombing of Nagasaki, which occurred only a few days after Hiroshima.
Just as the game had been completely sacrificed via the execution of two moves, so the entire Pacific war had been lost by the Japanese after two fateful events. In both cases, a beautiful and rich cultural legacy had been lost forever.