Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Sound of the Mountain may be regarded as Kawabata’s most important work. The pared-down yet highly evocative prose of the novel as well as its focus on the subjective reality of the protagonist was anticipated as early as the mid-1920’s by Izu no odoriko (1926; The Izu Dancer, 1955), which established Kawabata’s reputation. That novel is not, however, characteristic of the writer’s early period, which is noted instead for its reliance upon imported Western forms. Kawabata was a leader of the so-called Neo-Perceptionists, a group of young writers who endeavored to modernize Japanese literature by exposing it to as many “isms” from the West as it could absorb.

Kawabata’s best works, however, shed all obvious Western influences and are noted for their very Oriental sensibility. In Yukiguni (1947; Snow Country, 1956), for example, a story of a country geisha is simply told with a structure and imagery that recall haiku and renga verse. Sembazura (1952; Thousand Cranes, 1958) is built around the tea ceremony of Zen Buddhist origin, yet it is also Kawabata’s most experimental postwar novel. Meijin (1954; The Master of Go, 1972) recounts the defeat of an aging go master once regarded as invincible, taking up as a main theme the dichotomy between the glorious but stuffy world of art and the perhaps more wholesome beauty of nature.

Though by no means single-handedly, The Sound of the Mountain has certainly called attention to the subtle and masterful craft at work in modern Japanese fiction. It treats such familiar themes as beauty, death, and traditional values with sensitivity and depth. The multitudinous aspects of nature, described with both passion and detachment, are the correlatives of Shingo’s shifting moods and states of mind. Thus Kawabata’s prose, bearing the characteristics of both naturalism and impressionism, resonates with symbolic meaning.