Critical Evaluation

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In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese writer to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, awarded in recognition of novels he published from 1925 to 1965, which had been brought to the attention of the West by his translator, Edward G. Seidensticker. Chief among Kawabata’s works are Izu no odoriko (1926; The Izu Dancer, 1955), Meijin (1942-1954, serial; 1954, book; The Master of Go, 1972), Nemureru bijo (1960-1961, serial; 1961, book; The House of the Sleeping Beauties, 1969), and his universally acknowledged masterpiece, Snow Country.

In evocative prose that calls upon traditional Japanese culture and motifs but also incorporates elements of modernist imagism and symbolism, Snow Country tells the story of the relationships between the urbane Tokyo aesthete and dilettante Shimamura and the mountain hot-spring geisha Komako. Told over a period of less than two years, the short novel follows Shimamura’s three visits to the hot-spring inn, told exclusively from Shimamura’s point of view.

The novel opens with one of Kawabata’s most celebrated scenes, the train ride bringing Shimamura to snow country. Shimamura observes a girl and an ill man sitting across the aisle. As he watches the image of the girl reflected in the window, her face becomes disembodied and floats across the passing snow-covered landscape and the night sky like a transparent mask, ultimately appearing as an abstracted eye fused with the landscape. In microcosm, this scene, conveyed in Kawabata’s poetic, visionary prose, anticipates many of his images and themes.

Shimamura’s stance as an observer in this scene reinforces his distance from human events. He sees the girl at second hand in the window, speculates about the nature of her relationship with the sick man, and transforms her from a real person with everyday concerns into an object of beautiful, but detached and symbolic, art. This detached aesthetic stance reappears throughout the novel, most strikingly in the final images of the story when Yoko jumps from the balcony of the burning cocoon warehouse. Shimamura transforms the image of the falling body into a slow-motion image of “an arrow figure against a red ground,” floating horizontally and noiselessly to the ground. This image combines in Shimamura’s mind with the overpowering image of the stars of the Milky Way rushing into his body.

Central to the novel is the relationship of Shimamura and the geisha Komako, seen only through Shimamura’s point of view. Her behavior, emotions, and apparent love for Shimamura are observed but not explained, and Shimamura seems incapable of understanding her feelings. The relationship is intense and claustrophobic, taking place as it does in enclosed rooms—the room at the inn, the baths, Komako’s lodgings. Shimamura escapes the stifling environment by going alone into the mountains and on a day trip to the neighboring town. Contrasting images of heat/cold and light/dark permeate the novel. The white of the snowy landscape and the bleached Chijimi linen are offset by the warmth of the kotatsu stove and the redness of Komako’s skin, which suggests her passion.

A sense of futility and sadness pervades the work. Shimamura refers to numerous instances of “wasted effort.” His trips to the mountains result from his loss of “honesty with himself” and his need to escape a “life of idleness.” He dabbles in Japanese dance, in writing, in collecting the prized Chijimi linen, and in his relationship with Komako. His only knowledge of Western dance (ballet) comes from books; he has never actually seen a performance.

The “wasted effort” of life, however, is most closely associated in the novel with women. Shimamura describes the production of Chijimi by mountain maidens, who...

(This entire section contains 733 words.)

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waste away the entire winter producing the fabric, which is then “collected” by men like Shimamura. His knowledge of the process, again secondhand, comes from books. Shimamura compares the geisha, in the person of Komako, to the Chijimi linen, another beautiful item for him to collect. He sees Komako’s life as “beautiful but wasted,” even though he is the object of her love.

Shimamura observes life but finds himself on the periphery, keeping Komako’s feelings and thoughts at arm’s length and finding her desperate and pitiable. His isolation from her emotional life is highlighted by the cocoon-warehouse fire, where he is outside the arena of action, a detached observer. He is capable of intense emotion, but it is intense emotion occasioned only by an aesthetic appreciation of the natural world.

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Critical Context