Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

After Japan’s fall in 1945, Kawabata announced that thereafter he would write only elegies. The Master of Go, as it comments on a changing order and the sad defeat of a Meiji master, is one such elegy, in tone as well as in theme. With this theme of a fallen world is woven another of Kawabata’s themes, that of the pursuit of ideal beauty.

Shsai and Otaké, tangled in their battle at the Go board, take on symbolic significance as representatives of two epochs of Japanese history. The nostalgia and sadness in the tone of the novel arise from Kawabata’s sympathies as he unravels the tale. In spite of Uragami’s affection for Otaké and the comfort he derives from Otaké’s openness and accessibility (much in contrast to Shsai’s aloofness), his sympathy is consistently with Shsai, and he records Shsai’s fall with unambiguous expressions of loss.

Most notably, the sadness is conveyed by Uragami’s direct comments about the beauty and elegance of the old style that is represented by Shsai. It is also conveyed by the attention paid to small details that suggest symbolic action. After his hospitalization and three-month recess from the match, the ailing Shsai returns, determined to overcome pain and the infirmities of age. Just before reentering the match, he has his hair dyed black. The action suggests layers of meaning: On the one hand, it is an attempt to lift his own spirits by denying his age, while on the other, it can be...

(The entire section is 552 words.)