Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata World Literature Analysis

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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...

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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 simplicity and purity. Shimamura himself acknowledges that he must return to the mountains to regain some of the honesty that is lost by living in Tokyo. Despite his professed desire for honesty, however, Shimamura is more concerned with illusion than with reality. In the opening section of the novel, he views Yoko through her reflection in the mirrorlike window of the train car, but what he sees is an image “floating” in the glass, not Yoko herself.

Shimamura’s fascination with occidental ballet is also representative of his desire to maintain a distance between reality and illusion, as if closeness to a dream destroys the dream. In fact, that is exactly what has happened to him with his earlier fascination with the dance-drama of Kabuki theater. As he researched and studied Kabuki dance and became acquainted with individual dancers, he became dissatisfied with the object of his obsession and turned his attentions to ballet. In this new study, he is determined to maintain the distance between illusion and reality by never watching a ballet performance. He will content himself with studying ballet through books and photographs, assuring that the new dream cannot be destroyed.

Shimamura’s relationship with Komako is also built around the pursuit of a dream, a spiritual relationship with a woman. This dream is nearly realized during their first meeting, related through a flashback as Shimamura is traveling toward a second meeting in the mountains. Shimamura and Komako’s first meeting is in the spring, a time of hope and promise. When Shimamura first meets Komako, he is attracted to her physically, but he moves quickly to separate her in his mind from a woman to be used for physical pleasure. He sees a purity in her that creates a feeling of revulsion for his physical desires. Komako also recognizes that they may be on the verge of something pure and magical and points out to him that relationships between men and women last longer if they remain “just friends.” Physical desire (aided by some sake) overpowers the couple’s good intentions, however, and the possibility of a purely spiritual relationship is destroyed. The remaining sections of the novel center around Komako’s “fall from grace” and Shimamura’s interest in the “unspoiled” Yoko.

Shimamura’s second visit to the mountain village begins with an air of optimism, for while he has been away from Komako, he has felt closer to her and hopes to recapture something from their first encounter. Once again, he is attracted more to possibilities than to realities. The openness of that first meeting, however, cannot be recaptured; it has been destroyed by the physical relationship. This meeting takes place in the winter, symbolizing the arrested state of their relationship.

Komako is presented in a different light during the second meeting. She is no longer the young woman whom Shimamura met six months earlier; she is now a geisha in the full sense of the word. Nevertheless, Shimamura still finds a purity in her because she has become a geisha to help pay the medical bills of her former fiancé, who is dying, and to avoid being trapped in a loveless marriage to an old man who has proposed to her. Komako, however, recognizes that there is no longer the possibility for anything but a sexual relationship between Shimamura and herself. Consequently, she drinks heavily when she is engaged to attend parties in her role as a geisha.

When Shimamura returns to the snow country for his third visit, it is autumn, a foreshadowing of the end of the relationship. During the third visit, Komako is drinking even more heavily and strikes out verbally against Yoko, telling Shimamura that the younger girl is insane. Komako is aware of Shimamura’s attraction to Yoko and the possibility of pure love that the younger girl represents.

Yoko, ironically, is the character who comes closest to realizing the dream of a pure, asexual love. Yoko served as a nurse for Komako’s former fiancé and has spent every day since his death tending his grave. Now she tells Shimamura she is ready to go to Tokyo; she knows she will never love another man in the same way. She has captured the purity of love that Shimamura and Komako had been seeking. Her apparent death at the end of the novel ensures that there will be no other men in her life.

The novel ends, characteristically for Kawabata, with nothing resolved for the main characters. It is not even certain that Yoko has died from her leap off the burning warehouse.

Thousand Cranes

First published: Sembazuru, 1949-1951, serial; 1952, book (English translation, 1958)

Type of work: Novel

A young Tokyo bachelor attempts to reconcile his life to the realities of postwar Japan and the traditions of the past.

The ancient Japanese tea ceremony, which provides the backdrop of Thousand Cranes, is as important as the two motifs intertwined throughout the novel: the loss of values in postwar Japan and the elusive search for love.

The tea ceremony itself is symbolic of Japan’s drift away from tradition and historical values. Kikuji Mitani, the protagonist, seems indifferent to his father’s collection of antique tea bowls and the tea ceremony itself. His office mates share his lack of interest in the ceremony. Chikako Kurimoto, a former mistress of Kikuji’s late father and a teacher of the tea ceremony, wistfully tells Kikuji that fewer and fewer young girls seem to be interested in learning the ways of the tea ceremony. Chikako also notes that the tea ceremony has also been tainted by foreign observers, such as some Americans who visited recently.

The two young women who are of interest to Kikuji in the novel have close ties to the tea ceremony. Chikako is trying to arrange a marriage between Kikuji and Yukiko Inamura. Yukiko, as a student of Chikako’s, is tied to the past. Fumiko Ota, a former student of the tea ceremony who is often seen in European dress, is linked to the present. Consequently, as Chikako tries to pressure Kikuji to accept an arranged marriage to Yukiko, and as he tries to define his feelings for Fumiko, he is not merely choosing between two women—he is choosing between the Japan of the past and modern Japan.

Kikuji lives alone in his father’s house, both his parents having died. It is a house of the past, in architecture and furnishings—even the maid is a remnant from his father’s days. Kikuji continually talks of selling the house and allows it to fall into disrepair. The house represents the traditions of the past, and Kikuji is unsure of the validity of these traditions in postwar Japan. He works in a modern building and leaves his house in Western-style suits, only changing into a kimono when he returns home.

When Chikako arranges a tea ceremony to bring Kikuji and Yukiko together, he is attracted by the latter’s beauty. Yet he is also offended by the tradition of arranged marriages and the role that Chikako is trying to play in his life. Despite his attraction to Yukiko, Kikuji realizes that there will always be a distance between them because of her ties to the past and because of his ambivalent feelings for the past.

Chikako’s tea ceremony also brings Kikuji together with Mrs. Ota and her daughter Fumiko. Fumiko, like Kikuji, is torn between the past and present. She has avoided learning the tea ceremony and is often found wearing European clothes. After her mother’s suicide, she makes a formal break with the past by selling her mother’s house.

Kikuji’s growing alienation from the past can be seen in his use of the antique water pitcher that Fumiko gives him after her mother’s death. The pitcher was created for use in the tea ceremony, but Kikuji uses it to hold Western flowers. Near the end of the novel, Chikako, frustrated with her inability to control Kikuji’s life, accuses him of being ignorant of Japanese thinking—the worst insult that she can think of making.

Kikuji’s dissatisfaction in the novel is not limited to his search for a cultural identity; his dissatisfaction is also related to an inability to find love. When Kikuji was eight years old, his father took him on a visit to Chikako’s—his father’s mistress at the time. Kikuji saw an ugly birthmark on Chikako’s breast and now associates ugliness with sex. He sees Chikako’s venomous behavior toward Mrs. Ota and Fumiko as an ugliness derived from her sexual relationship with his father. Even as an adult bachelor, Kikuji feels “soiled” after sexual encounters.

Fumiko also sees ugliness in sex. She blames her mother’s adulterous relationship with Kikuji’s father for the early deaths of Kikuji’s father and mother. She even believes her mother’s suicide is the result of her mother not being able “to stand her own ugliness,” an ugliness that stems both from her mother’s relationship with Kikuji and from her mother’s seduction of Kikuji. Fumiko’s own suicide at the end of the novel is linked by Kikuji to guilt that she may be feeling over her sexual surrender to him.

Ironically, Fumiko’s death comes after she has symbolically broken with the past by selling her mother’s house and by shattering a three-hundred-year-old tea bowl that her mother had owned. Her death is also ironic because through his sexual encounter with Fumiko, Kikuji has “escaped the curse and paralysis” that have dominated his life. Unfortunately, he fails to explain this freedom to Fumiko. When he goes to tell her the next morning, he discovers that it is too late. His indecisiveness the night before has allowed true happiness to escape him.

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