Themes

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The Characterization of Shūsai

Some of the more obvious themes that arise in Kawabata’s novel, The Master of Go, are centered around the nature of the protagonist, Master Shūsai, and the homage that is paid to him by the organizers of the match and by his opponent.

The Master of Go is based on a real Go match that took place between Shūsai and Mr. Kitani Minoru in 1938. In order to emphasize the centrality of the Master in the book, Kawabata uses Shūsai's historical name but assigns a fictitious one (Otaké) to his opponent. This is an important literary decision made by Kawabata, as it grounds Shūsai in a very real and tangible Japanese past, allowing Shūsai to serve as an embodiment of traditional Japanese history, morals, and ethics.

This characterization reveals the inner meaning behind the way the various characters in The Master of Go treat Shūsai, as well as the significance of his own role in the story. Kawabata's portrayal of Shūsai allows him to represent a deeper argument about the fate of Japanese society after its defeat in the second World War.

Pre-World War II Japanese Culture

Kawabata portrays Shūsai as a person of noble character and inner strength. The author's decision to render the Master in such a way lends to a faithful representation of the pre-war Japanese social order, the loss of which Kawabata very much laments. For example, in chapter 12, Kawabata gives a description of the Master that highlights both his timelessness and the reverence that others held of him:

The fact that today, a decade after the Master's death, no method has been devised for determining the succession to the title Master of Go probably has to do with the towering presence of Honnimobō Shūsai. Probably he was the last of the true masters revered in the tradition of Go as a way of life and art.

The author then counterbalances this perspective with the current-day notions of notoriety and assignment of rank in regard to the game of Go:

It may be that, like the system of certification by schools and teachers in so many of the traditional Japanese arts, the notion of a life-time Master of ranks is a feudal relic.

Thus, Shūsai is a "relic" of an age dead and gone, and his death represents that of the virtues associated with the loss of traditional Japanese society more generally.

Loss and Regret

Therefore, in addition to the more straightforward themes of The Master of Go—such as reverence, beauty, life, and death—I believe that the most significant theme concerns loss and regret.

The Master of Go is a story which symbolically parallels the loss of traditional Japanese society after 1945. Kawabata began writing the chronicle in 1938, but did not finish it until almost 10 years after the war's conclusion. This gave him plenty of time to reflect on his own society; its enduring, honorable, pre-war legacy; and the virtues which had been lost upon Japan's defeat.

Shūsai, who ultimately loses his Go match to Otaké, serves as a symbol of Japanese aristocratic tradition. Just as pre-war Japanese values had served to stabilize and make Japanese society and life fruitful, so too is Shūsai grounded in the traditional and respected style of playing Go—which Otaké completely overturns with his egregious move 121.

In such a way, The Master of Go is a forlorn narrative that celebrates the beneficence of a past age while simultaneously mourning its loss.

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