Yasunari Kawabata World Literature Analysis - Essay

Yasunari Kawabata World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

When Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize, many Japanese readers reacted with the same confusion expressed by American readers when William Faulkner was awarded the same prize in 1949. The native audiences for both writers were surprised that an author whom they found so difficult to understand could be appreciated by foreign audiences. Kawabata earned his reputation for being inaccessible through his early experiments with Western-based literary techniques such as stream of consciousness and Surrealism. Even after he moved beyond his flirtation with Western literary styles, he confounded Japanese writers with his fondness for plotless, open-ended stories and his fragmentary, anecdotal “palm-of-the-hand stories.”

The characteristic open-endedness and incompleteness of Kawabata’s fiction, combined with the failure of many of his major characters to attain their goals, led some critics to label him a nihilist. Kawabata complained that such critics missed the point of his fiction: “I have never written a story that has . . . nihilism as its main theme. What seems so is in truth a kind of longing for vitality.” Makoto Ueda, a critic and scholar of Japanese literature, has suggested that Kawabata’s fondness for incomplete endings and open-ended stories is the result of Kawabata’s desire to capture the free-flowing nature of life, not a desire to suggest a lack of meaning or completeness for life.

Ueda has noted that the chief characteristics of Kawabata’s fiction are beauty, sincerity, and sadness. These three characteristics are not, however, separate entities. Rather, they are intertwined. For example, in Snow Country, Yoko’s voice is described several times as being so beautiful that it is sad, and even her nose is described as being beautiful with an element of sadness. Beauty also incorporates an element of sincerity, for one who is sincere and pure of heart has a spiritual beauty. Certainly, Kawabata was interested in the outward beauty of landscapes and people, but he was more concerned with the beauty of tradition and emotions.

Kawabata believed that three groups were best prepared to recognize pure beauty. First, little children, because of their innocence, inexperience, and purity of soul, were incapable of seeing ugliness in the world. Second, young women who had not yet experienced life or physical love, who still believed in spiritual, asexual love, were capable of recognizing pure beauty. Finally, dying men were capable of recognizing pure beauty because their closeness to death helped them to transcend the desire for sexual love.

Kawabata’s conception of the beauty of pure love can be seen in his first major literary work, The Izu Dancer. The Izu Dancer is structured around a female dancer and a young student who comes upon the traveling troupe to which the dancer belongs and is immediately attracted to the girl. The young man happens to see the dancer emerge from a bath in a stream, and he is relieved to discover that she is actually a child. His relief is the result of being released from the sexual tension implied by a male/female relationship. Now he will be able to enjoy love in its purest, most unattainable form and travel freely with the dancers until it is time for him to return to school.

The beauty of tradition is also apparent in Kawabata’s fiction. The ancient tea ceremony and the equally historic game of Go figure prominently in two of Kawabata’s major novels, Meijin (serial, 1942-1954; book, 1954; The Master of Go, 1972) and Thousand Cranes. Kawabata was as much concerned with the beauty, purity, and simplicity of these Japanese traditions as he was with the characters of the novels for which the traditions provide the structure.

Kawabata believed that the writer’s goal should be to create in literature a life of unusual beauty, simplicity, and truth. He recognized that this would be an artificial world, an ideal world, yet he also believed that it was a world that needed to be created. Kawabata believed that a “pure life” was one devoted to the pursuit of an ideal. Recognizing that few dreams are ever realized, Kawabata believed that attaining the ideal, whatever form it may take, was not as important as the pursuit itself. For him, the ideal often took the form of a pure, virginal love, a love that, by its very nature, was unattainable because humankind’s desire for physical love ultimately results in the destruction of virginity. Kawabata’s use of the unattainable virgin has been linked to his engagement to a fifteen-year-old in the early 1920’s.

Death is also present in much of Kawabata’s fiction, for anyone who seeks the essence (purity) of life must be willing to risk everything, even death, in pursuit of the ideal. Also, death that occurs before spiritual love can be breached, as in the case of the young man who is the center of Yoko and Komako’s lives in Snow Country, assures the continuation of the spiritual love. Yoko, for example, states that she will never be able to nurse or mourn another man as she has nursed and mourned the music teacher’s son. The Sound of the Mountain is reflective of Kawabata’s concern with his own mortality. Although he was only in his early fifties while he was writing the novel, death had been an important part of his life from the earliest days.

Snow Country

First published: Yukiguni, 1935-1937, serial; 1947, book (English translation, 1956)

Type of work: Novel

An independently wealthy man makes three visits to his mistress in the mountain country of Japan in search of an elusive dream that remains unfulfilled.

“The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country.” Through the opening line of Snow Country, the central character, Shimamura, and the reader are transported back in time. The snow country of the novel has only recently been linked to modern Japan by the railroad. Indeed, as Shimamura notes as he returns to Tokyo after his second visit, “the train . . . was not from the same world as the trains one finds on the main lines.”

Shimamura’s world, represented by Tokyo, is a world being invaded by Western influences in architecture and lifestyles. The world on the other side of the mountains from Tokyo is a world of rice harvests, winter carnivals, houses built in the style of the old regime, and Chijimi linen that can be traced back to antiquity. Clearly, when Shimamura travels to the snow country, he is leaving behind the decadence of modern Japan and returning to a Japan of the past, a Japan that values...

(The entire section is 2727 words.)