The Sound of the Mountain

by Yasunari Kawabata

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Characters Discussed

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Shingo, a businessman. At roughly sixty-three years old, he is a year younger than his wife and preoccupied with some of the principal concerns of aging. His unreliable memory at one point makes him forget momentarily how to knot his tie, whereas his longing for his beautiful, long-dead sister-in-law is disturbingly fresh. It is right before her death that he first hears the sound of the mountain. Concerned that the problems of his son and daughter point to his failure as a father, he feels inept trying to straighten out their lives as adults. Unable to sleep soundly, he dreams frequently and is forced to remember his old friends as they pass away. A man sensitive to the beauty of nature, especially of flowers, he takes refuge in a subtly erotic but platonic friendship with his daughter-in-law, who seems to care more about him than do his own children.


Yasuko, Shingo’s wife of some forty years. She is a plain woman who grew up in the shadow of her beautiful sister. When her sister died, Yasuko, in love with both her sister and her brother-in-law, went to live in her sister’s home, willingly becoming a maid. Rescued from this domestic slavery by her marriage to Shingo, Yasuko has settled into a comfortable matronly role. She annoys her husband with her snoring and her habit of collecting newspapers for several days before reading them, sometimes aloud, to her family. Her relationship with her daughter is strong, but her long marriage has made her indifferent to her husband.


Shuichi, Shingo’s son and a coworker in the same office. He appears to be suffering from his traumas as a soldier during the war, and perhaps it is for this reason that, though married to the beautiful and loving Kikuko, he finds a mistress soon after the wedding. With his mistress, he drinks excessively and becomes violent, but with his wife he seems to show his softer, hurting side. He and his wife share a love of French songs.


Fusako, Shingo’s daughter and the mother of two children. Only thirty years old, she has left her husband and come to live with her parents but appears to be in touch with her abusive failure of a husband until he commits suicide with another woman. Somewhat defensive about her plain looks, she perceives her father’s attraction to her sister-in-law and is jealous.


Kikuko, Shuichi’s wife. The youngest of eight children, she retains a delicate, fragile, and childlike quality about her, a quality that her father-in-law describes as “clean.” She is the only beautiful woman in Shingo’s household but is childless. Although she is an ideal daughter-in-law and a loving and forgiving wife, she quietly rebels against her husband’s philandering by aborting her long-awaited pregnancy.

Tanizaki Eiko

Tanizaki Eiko, a secretary in Shingo’s office for three years, a slight, petite woman recommended to Shingo by an acquaintance. Eiko has a passing fling with Shuichi and has to leave her job. She visits Shingo briefly but regularly and is the chief go-between who brings the father together with the son’s mistress to negotiate a breakup.


Kinuko, also called Kinu, Shuichi’s mistress. A large woman with a round and cheerful face, she is a war widow resentful of women whom she perceives to be pampered wives, those who still have their husbands. She is determined to have a child, even illegitimately. Although Shuichi beats her in his attempts to get her to have an abortion, she is determined to carry her pregnancy through and breaks up with him. She soothes everyone’s conscience...

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by avowing that the baby is not Shuichi’s.

The Characters

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The protagonist, Shingo, is a man in his early sixties who is preoccupied with growing old. Incessantly, he reflects upon his encroaching ailments, shooting pains, and the deaths of old acquaintances. He is an aesthete and takes great pleasure in beauty. Whether it be the alluring charms of a woman, the finely sculpted features of a No mask, the bright colors of cherry blossoms, or the hue, aroma, and flavor of gyokuro tea, beauty, in all its manifestations, consoles and sustains Shingo. His aesthetic sense might be deemed peculiarly Oriental, for he shows little sign of discriminating between the aesthetic pleasures of art and those of nature. To Shingo, a devoted student of Japanese art and literature, a rock formation, butterfly, flower, or even pampas grass will, more often than not, suggest one or another of his favorite artistic works. There is, however, a dark underside of beauty of which Shingo is equally aware: its transient and evanescent nature, beyond which lurk dissolution, death, and decay.

Shingo strives to live a morally decent life as he sees it, but the effort he expends in doing so only seems to contribute to his feelings of guilt and inadequacy. His genuine and fatherly love for his daughter-in-law seems, to him, sullied and degraded by his finding in her a sexually appealing woman. Although he tries to assist Fusako through her periods of crisis, he is haunted by the plausible notion that at the heart of his daughter’s problem is a dearth of paternal care and affection. He married Yasuko—or so he remembers—to rescue her from the clutches of her cruel brother-in-law, yet he has withheld from her the very tenderness and affection which his marrying her had intended to restore. Shingo’s love of beauty and Yasuko’s lack thereof seem to be at the core of the problem. Shingo habitually recalls Yasuko’s beautiful sister, who is now long dead and with whom he was secretly infatuated. This woman is Shingo’s ideal, whose flesh-and-blood counterpart he restlessly and compulsively seeks. On learning that Kikuko has had an abortion, for example, he entertains the depressing thought that the baby might finally have turned out to be Yasuko’s sister incarnate.

The other characters are all subordinate to the protagonist, their roles essentially limited to fragments of Shingo’s consciousness. The character of Fusako, very sketchily drawn, serves mainly to remind Shingo of the colder side of his nature. Shuichi’s womanizing, although it excites Shingo’s sense of moral revulsion, also makes Shingo rueful of his own inexperience with women. Yasuko, an unremarkable and unattractive woman, is the reality of Shingo’s everyday existence, in marked contrast to her sister, who is now only the stuff of dreams. The beautiful Kikuko incessantly evokes the memory of Yasuko’s sister but is at the same time Shingo’s last link to the here and the now.


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Backstead, Richard C. Kawabata and the Divided Self, 1972.

Miyoshi, Masao. Accomplices of Silence: The Modern Japanese Novel, 1974.

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

Tsuruta, K. “Two Journeys in The Sound of the Mountain,” in Approaches to the Modern Japanese Novel, 1976.

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




Critical Essays