Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata Long Fiction Analysis

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When announcing the award of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Yasunari Kawabata, Dr. Anders Osterling praised the author as a “worshipper of the beautiful and melancholy pictorial language of existence” who had “contributed to spiritual bridge-spanning between East and West.” He also praised Kawabata’s highly refined prose for “an eminent ability to illuminate erotic episodes, an exquisite sharpness in each observation and a whole net of small secretive values that often overshadow the European techniques of the narrative.” In this statement, Osterling summed up the predominant characteristics of Kawabata’s fiction, as viewed by Westerners. Kawabata’s novels and short stories, despite their reference to subtleties of Japanese culture and other essential Japanese elements, seem to reach across the cultural gap between East and West. As Kawabata himself remarked, Japanese literature, which constitutes an unbroken tradition between the eleventh century and the nineteenth, opened to a torrent of Western influences in the twentieth. The influence of Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, and other Decadent writers has often been noted in the works of Jun’ichir Tanizaki, for example, and the influence of the artistic movements of the early 1920’s on Kawabata is crucial. Therefore, in the works of these and other authors so influenced, a Western reader recognizes familiar structures and motifs that also help make the foreign works seem less alien.

Nevertheless, things that are taken for granted in Japan acquire a gloss of mysteriousness in translation. A “whole net of small secretive values” manifests itself, so that what is at first glance very simple prose becomes complex because of the unfamiliar, implicit Japanese cultural assumptions. Kawabata, it must be noted, is mysterious even to Japanese critics—he deliberately maintains an enigmatic aurA&Mdash;but this effect is intensified when the works are transported to the West.

For example, Western criticism of Tanizaki, Kawabata, and Mishima often focuses on their “eroticism” (as in the Nobel Prize citation above), yet much of what is perceived as eroticism derives from the more sexually open traditions of Japan. Kawabata is, therefore, more relaxed than many Western writers in dealing with the erotic, achieving a naturalness in this regard that they have found elusive. Another example is Kawabata’s characteristic air of melancholy. One may point to his lonely childhood, when virtually every member of his family died before Kawabata was sixteen. One might also point to his suicide as a sign of his basic unhappiness, although no convincing reason was ever presented for it. One must also consider the cultural context, however. As Gwenn Boardman Petersen has noted, “Sadness is characteristic of much Japanese literature, the mono-no-aware or aware that is a delicate perception of transience, of sadness, of the implication of the gesture, or of the intersection of silence and time.” Others have asserted that melancholy is a pleasurable mood to the Japanese. Such subtle cultural differences obviously deeply affect one’s reading of Kawabata. In translation, his eroticism, his haiku-like effects, the implications of a simple gesture may be easily misinterpreted. At the same time, this very strangeness is a source of considerable pleasure to the Western reader of Kawabata’s fiction.

Snow Country

Snow Country , which Kawabata struggled with for some fourteen years, tells of the love of Shimamura, a jaded Tokyo writer, for Komako, a geisha at a mountain resort. Structurally, it is relatively simple. The novel begins as Shimamura is about to begin his second visit, then flashes back to their meeting the previous spring, then returns to the ground situation and progresses to his third visit, in which he takes the geisha’s advice and leaves her. It is in Kawabata’s suggestive imagery...

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thatSnow Country transcends the materials of the common love story. In particular, the theme of transience is highlighted in the novel’s imagery. Despite Shimamura’s desire to make the moment permanent, time passes. There is nothing he can do to slow it down. An image of a coach window early in the novel symbolizes this idea as he sees a girl reflected back to him, but the trees, mountains, and sky continue moving under her transparent face. Though the passage of time, aging, and death are inevitable, Shimamura feels his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty, especially when a light shines through the girl’s face. Transience thus enhances the preciousness of beauty. Another striking image of impermanence is the scene in which Shimamura observes the death of a bee: “It was a quiet death that came with the change of the seasons.” When he watches the bee struggle against the inevitable, he has an insight similar to the one he had at the coach window: “For such a tiny death, the emptyroom seemed enormous.” The imagery invites an existential interpretation: Even with the certain knowledge of death and impermanence, it is humankind’s fate to struggle against time.

The distinctly Japanese style of Snow Country has caused it to be compared to renga, or linked verse. Like all Japanese poetry, renga is characterized by its affective depth and its lack of didacticism and philosophical precision. This form derives in part from characteristics of the Japanese language, such as its imagistic, concrete nouns, and in part from the traditions of Shintoism and Buddhism, which led to a poetry concerned with different states of consciousness, marked by a complexity that is tonal rather than thematic. An appreciation of these traits contributes to a greater understanding of the elements of Snow Country and other Kawabata novels. Like renga, it is a progression of images, integrated more by association than by plot. As Masao Miyoshi describes it, “The ’shape’ of the novel is thus not architectural or sculptural, with a totality subsuming the parts, but musical in the sense of a continual movement generated by surprise and juxtaposition, intensification and relaxation, and the use of various rhythms and tempos.” This analysis helps explain Kawabata’s publication of the novel over a long period of time, in sections in different periodicals, with later substantial emendations; it also accounts for the novel’s lack of traditional Western structural unity. Like all of Kawabata’s works, Snow Country is unified not by plot or action, but by imagery, suggestion, and, to an extent, characterization.

Even the main character, Shimamura, has been described as “insubstantial.” The tale is told in the third person, but the narrator seems to imply no moral judgment of Shimamura’s behavior toward the women in his life. Miyoshi points out references to the legend of Kengyu and Shokujo, who loved each other so much that God made them stars and placed them at opposite ends of the Milky Way, eternally separated. This imagery is indeed suggestive but does little to explain Kawabata’s attitude toward the lovers Shimamura and Komako. Perhaps a clue to Kawabata’s stance is to be found in his treatment of nature imagery: When he uses images of the natural world, he does so not to mirror the inner life of the characters but to show that the world is indifferent to their affairs. This stance is curiously reminiscent of the comments made by Alain Robbe-Grillet concerning the New Novel and its need to remove the Romantic imagery that implies that nature “cares” about human beings. This would further explain why a writer as traditional as Kawabata often seems so ultramodern.

The House of the Sleeping Beauties

Like Tanizaki’s novella Ften rjin nikki (1962; Diary of a Mad Old Man, 1965), Kawabata’s The House of the Sleeping Beauties is an exploration of an old man’s sexuality. Eguchi, who is impotent, goes to a house where beautiful, drugged young girls sleep naked beside him. During these visits, he tries to understand the meaning of his existence and in drugged reveries remembers various incidents in his life. An atmosphere of doom is strongly evoked in the novel. There are locked doors and a red curtain that seem to conceal secrets. As he approaches the house, he wonders if the sleeping girl will resemble a drowned corpse. As the novel progresses, the weather turns colder, foreshadowing the approach of death, and the last section begins with Eguchi sipping warm tea to fortify himself against the winter cold. On his last visit, the conversation in the house is all about an old man who died while sleeping next to one of the girls. Eguchi sleeps between two girls this time, one symbolically dark, the other fair, but awakens to find the dark girl, whom he had called “Life itself,” dead. As the novel ends, he seems paralyzed, chilled by the knowledge of inevitable death. Mishima likened the book to “a submarine in which people are trapped and the air is gradually disappearing. While in the grip of this story, the reader sweats and grows dizzy, and knows with the greatest immediacy the terror of lust urged on by the approach of death.” Particularly notable in this novel is Kawabata’s use of color. As a painter, he employed it in all of his works, but the color red and the playing of light against dark stand out. The contrasting of fundamental opposites—ugliness and beauty, age and youth, life and death—is also done with extraordinary skill.

The major themes that reverberate through Kawabata’s fiction are especially manifest in The House of the Sleeping Beauties. Loneliness, the hopelessness of love, impermanence, old age, death, and guilt all appear in evocative imagery. In keeping with Kawabata’s Buddhist ethos, however, no conclusive statements on these themes emerge, except that the physical world consists of irreconcilable forces that humankind is ultimately unable to understand or transcend while in the human body. Kawabata reflects this worldview in a style that persistently hints at his meanings, particularly through visual imagery. He is a writer of suggestion. Arthur Kimball, for example, examines Kawabata’s tension of opposing imagery in great detail and states that the persistent accumulation of this tension leads any reader who has identified with Eguchi to the same feeling of chilled numbness that Eguchi feels in the last scene.

Paradox follows paradox. Ugly old men sleep beside beautiful young women who are alive, yet drugged into a deathlike sleep. Though they are real, the girls are like inflatable dolls, toys for lonely men’s amusement. One part of Eguchi’s character is disgusted by all of this, and he thinks he will not return. These nights, however, are as sexless—despite their obvious sexual overtones—as any night Eguchi has ever spent. On his second visit, Eguchi is given a girl described as being “more experienced,” but of what does her “experience” consist? The old woman in charge makes mocking references to men she can trust. The girl’s “prostitution” is apparently sexless. On his third visit, caught between his desire to stay awake to enjoy the beauty of the girl’s body and his desire for a “sleep like death,” he contemplates evil and thinks of the girl as a Buddha: She is a temptation to evil, yet her “young skin and scent might be forgiveness” for sad old men. In the face of death, however, Eguchi finds no answers. As Kimball remarks, “In his last extremity he stands, a chilly old man asking questions of himself.”

The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the Mountain also uses an aging man, Ogata Shingo, as itsprotagonist and focuses on his meditations on the meaning of his life. Written in very brief paragraphs, the novel consists of Shingo’s thoughts and relates the form of the book to the traditional haiku and renga. It does not work in the way most novels do. The character of Shingo is subservient to the succession of themes and images, just as the settings (Kamakura, Tokyo, and Shinshu) serve, as Miyoshi observes, as spatial correlatives of Shingo’s present and past. The novel is an accumulation of images, many of which center on Kikuko, Shingo’s daughter-in-law, who becomes a distant as well as unattainable love, similar to women in several of Kawabata’s works. Although Kawabata has been praised for his insights into feminine psychology, Kikuko, like Shingo, is not a fully developed character in the usual novelistic manner. She is part of a succession of images, expressing the transience of all natural phenomena. Without a clear plot line orclimax, The Sound of the Mountain nevertheless is powerful in evoking Shingo’s nostalgia and his inward voyage of regret.

Kawabata’s legacy includes some of the finest, most sensitive fiction of the twentieth century. The exact meaning of his characters’ gestures is never quite clear, yet they remain strangely evocative. Like the Japanese paintings that he so admired, Kawabata’s fiction reveals the shadowy nature of reality and the subjectivity of all human observation. One of the most traditionally Japanese of novelists, he is also one whose works speak with great authority to modern-day concerns.


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