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Kawabata, Yasunari 1899–1972
Kawabata, a novelist, short story writer, and critic, was the first Japanese author to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature. Numerous deaths in his family left Kawabata virtually alone at a young age and impressed upon him the loneliness and impermanence of life, a view often reflected in his work. He is important both for his own fiction and for his support of such younger Japanese writers as Yukio Mishima. (See also CLC, Vols. 2, 5, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 33-36, rev. ed.)
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It is a maximal artistry which strikes me first about Kawabata, even in translation. Artistry in fiction among other things means that a reader is never bored, also that he accepts, that he has to accept, the inevitability and instantaneous quality of the things described, the persons, the actions, the situations, being just so….
At once Kawabata establishes a situation. Sometimes in the very first sentence. Snow Country, an extraordinary study of love and sensuality which was the first of his books to be translated into English (some twelve years ago), began 'The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country', a first sentence which the reader of the whole novel is unlikely to forget. (p. 200)
The title story [of House of the Sleeping Beauties] begins with the same involving immediacy. A man in his late sixties has passed through the locked gate into the reception room of a peculiar house of assignation. The proprietress or rather manageress, who has a sharp knowledge of our secret life, provides old men with unattainable, though not untouchable, youth and beauty—or not to use such abstractions, they pay to pass the night, that and no more, with young girls drugged into unknowingness.
This is Kawabata's device—though 'device' suggests a trickiness or an apparent artifice very opposite to the reader's experience—for getting deep into the being of Eguchi. Old Eguchi finds himself drawn again and again to the house, as if in pursuit 'of a vanished happiness in being alive'. Each sleeping girl, by a feature, a movement, a tinge, a scent, revivifies moments, experiences, sensualities, secrecies in his past life. Perhaps, he thinks, the attraction of this house is 'the longing of the sad old men for the unfinished dream'; which is all we have in fact, the dream of what is never obtained, never obtainable.
Crudely or bluntly stated, the situation if not the theme of this House of the Sleeping Beauties sounds morbid or designing. In fact this is a story of subtle directness, of open secrecy, with no desire to catch readers by its peculiarity. It is dramatic, sad, and full of that poetic 'realness', which is so much more than 'being real'. Phrases, particular moments, particular touches, stick to the mind…. The touches—touches only, because Kawabata does not go on too long or say more than he needs to say—are like this opening to the last chapter: 'The new year came, the wild sea was of dead winter. On land there was little wind'; or like this upward glance: 'The dampness clouded the window, like a toad's belly stretched over it.'
As for morbidity—to a charge that he was morbid Kawabata could reply that he at times examines morbidity because it exists, as a condition of men. (pp. 201-02)
Geoffrey Grigson, "Stories by Kawabata" (1969), in his The Contrary View: Glimpses of Fudge and Gold (© Geoffrey Grigson 1974; reprinted by permission of Macmillan, London and Basing-stoke), Macmillan, 1974, pp. 200-03.
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"House of the Sleeping Beauties" is most certainly an esoteric masterpiece. (p. 7)
[It] is dominated not by openness and clarity but by a strangling tightness. In place of limpidness and purity we have density; rather than the broad, open world we have a closed room. The spirit of the author, flinging away all inhibitions, shows itself in its boldest form. I have … likened "House of the Sleeping Beauties" 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. Or, given a certain reading, the work might be likened to a film negative. A print made from it would no doubt show the whole of the day-light world in which we live, reveal the last detail of its bright, plastic hypocrisy.
"House of the Sleeping Beauties" is unusual among Mr. Kawabata's works for its formal perfection. At the end the dark girl dies, and "the woman of the house" says: "There is the other girl." With this last cruel remark, she brings down the house of lust, until then so carefully and minutely fabricated, in a collapse inhuman beyond description. It may appear to be accidental, but it is not. At a stroke it reveals the inhuman essence in a structure apparently built with solidity and care—an essence shared by "the woman of the house" with old Eguchi himself.
And that is why old Eguchi "had never been more sharply struck by a remark."
Eroticism has not, for Mr. Kawabata, pointed to totality, for eroticism as totality carries within itself humanity. Lust inevitably attaches itself to fragments, and, quite without subjectivity, the sleeping beauties themselves are fragments of human beings, urging lust to its highest intensity. And, paradoxically, a beautiful corpse, from which the last traces of spirit have gone, gives rise to the strongest feelings of life. From the reflection of these violent feelings of the one who loves, the corpse sends forth the strongest radiance of life.
At a deeper level, this theme is related to another of importance in Mr. Kawabata's writing, his worship of virgins. This is the source of his clean lyricism, but below the surface it has something in common with the themes of death and impossibility. Because a virgin ceases to be a virgin once she is assaulted, impossibility of attainment is a necessary premise for putting virginity beyond agnosticism. And does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death forever at that same point? (pp. 7-9)
Yukio Mishima, in his introduction to House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (copyright © 1969, by Kodansha International Ltd.), Kodansha, 1969, pp. 7-10.
YOSHIO IWAMOTO and DICK WAGENAAR
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[No] one can fail to notice the obsession with time modern man exhibits…. To think about the literary masters of this century is to think in large measure about the temporal concerns pervading their work….
[All] have striven to celebrate and describe those moments in which the mind's experience of time is somehow absent, those moments in which it can be said of the mind that it shares in the timeless, in the eternal. Writers in the Orient too have partaken in the quest….
Invariably observed by commentators who attempt to distinguish between the mentalities of East and West is the former's generally subjective and the latter's generally objective outlook on living in the world. (p. 330)
If the generally introspective bent of the East is a symptom correctly diagnosed, such a disposition must have its consequences in the East's vision and handling of time. An introspective propensity would suggest that those under its influence attend more to subjective time, that is, the psychological, personal, and private time an individual mind experiences, rather than to the objective, impersonal, and public time measured by clocks and calendars. Furthermore, any proposed "escape" from time will be determined by the kind of time more deeply and acutely experienced. As a result, any cessation of time the Oriental will point to as desirable will have more to do with its absence in the mind than in the world…. When Western man has conceived of the timeless, he has tended to visualize it, not-withstanding the notions of some Western writers, as a cessation of objective time. Locating eternity not in the mind, in the present moment, in the psychic, eternal "now," he has envisaged it in the stasis beyond death, beyond the world, and ultimately beyond the end of history.
To pursue these distinctions, although foolish and simplistic in certain contexts, cannot be entirely amiss here, for they define the cultural situation in Japan from which [The Master of Go] … draws its concerns.
The Master of Go reconstructs the playing in 1938 of an actual championship Go match between Shūsai, the old "Master of Go," and his young challenger, Kitani Minoru, renamed Otake in the novel…. [The death of the master a year after his defeat] casts its shadow over the entire novel, investing the match for Kawabata, the novelist, with a symbolic significance far beyond what the actual match could have had. The retirement match comes to mean "the end of an age and the bridge to a new age."… The Master's defeat and death represent the demise of that entire traditional way of life the immanent war somewhat more decisively dispatched. Otake, "the representative of a new day" … heralds the approach of a new modernity, largely Western in nature. By pitting the two representatives in a game of Go and charting the Master's deterioration and defeat, Kawabata quietly mourns the passing of an era he considers more amenable to satisfying certain spiritual cravings—especially the desire for the timeless—than the frantic modernism about to replace it.
This clash over the Go board, which is the clash between Japanese tradition and Western modernity, delineates two opposing ways humanity confronts existence. Intuitive, non-rational knowledge, with its subjective experience of time, seems to inform the first. Logical, rational knowledge, with its objective experience of time, seems to comprise the basis of the other method for living with the various limitations and mysteries of existence. The novel sharpens the theme of this cultural conflict by focusing much of its attention on temporality, which plays a considerable role both in the content and procedure of the narrative. (pp. 331-32)
For the Master, for Uragami [the narrator], and for Kawabata, the game of Go is not merely a game…. The reason for its assuming such awesome importance to the Master is that at its deepest level the game of Go is a physical vehicle for a spiritual quest toward timelessness…. At stake, then, beyond merely losing or winning the game is the Master's continued ability to initiate in himself and sustain a state of mind … in which the self, no longer aware of itself as a discrete entity of consciousness separate from the universe, connects, merges, and freely communicates with everything in an undifferentiated reality. In such a state, individual identity disappears, human passions melt away, the physical world ceases to make an impression, and the perception of time too vanishes.
But the Master finds it increasingly difficult to achieve that mystical state, the goal of his high dedication and the justification for his sacrifice of the reality most of us cling to. At the limits of his being, his spiritual resources undermined, the Master arrives at a kind of limbo between, on the one hand, a conventional happiness and, on the other, a life redeemed by periods of mystical ecstasy. (pp. 333-34)
What gradually erodes the Master's potential to appropriate these mystical states, cheating him of spiritual triumph, is that whole complex of relations to human experience called the modern sensibility, a sensibility rooted in and nurtured by scientific rationalism and its veneration of objective time and the practical, physical, everyday world. Already vulnerable to complete physical collapse and death because of the heart disease the ineluctable process of aging has wrought in him, the Master collapses spiritually as well under the relentless pressure applied by the modernity embodied in his challenger, Otake. Contesting the shape of Japan's destiny in the sense of once again reaffirming or finally undercutting a cultural milieu traditionally conducive to the achievement of these states, the Master and Otake as they face each other over the Go board "presented a complete contrast, quiet against constant motion, nervelessness against nervous tension." (p. 334)
For Otake, the modern artist governed by rationality and logic, the game of Go assumes the aspect of a race with time. His every move on the Go board the result of careful and even crafty deliberation, he finishes the game with an expenditure of time almost twice that of the Master. Dictated by the obsession with clock time, his style of play is assiduous, and although seemingly passive, it is actually sustained by an "undercurrent of aggression and an unshakable confidence,"… partaking more of an egoistic will to power than any Oriental ideal of self-negation. (p. 335)
Otake's relationship with mundane reality, in conformity with his attitude toward time, is firmly earth-bound. Acutely conscious of the social proprieties, he is appropriately devoted to wife and children, and gathers about him an army of disciples. But if Otake's worldliness generates a congeniality laudable by ordinary standards, it encourages at the same time behavior not necessarily admirable. Unlike the Master who remains loftily unconcerned about his health, Otake resorts for his digestive difficulties to an extensive collection of medicinal palliatives. And in contrast to the Master's tranquility, Otake is frequently restless and impatient, ravaged by inner tensions. The absentmindedness which causes him on one occasion to forget and leave his hakama in the hallway, and on another to return to the board with it tied backwards, resembles more the commonplace professorial variety than the absentmindedness, as literal as it is spiritual, at the heart of the Master's vagueness.
Just as the game assumes a spiritual significance for the Master far beyond any metaphoric or symbolic inflation a Western reader might at first be willing to grant it, so the game for Otake, Uragami hints, assumes a significance far beyond any mundane humiliations of defeat or the various gratifications of victory. The passion for victory is so intense that Uragami does not preclude an insanely hysterical end for Otake…. Unlike the Master whose spiritual ambition exercised through Go is directed toward dissipating his consciousness in the universe and so losing the sense of time, Otake's ambition begins to approximate an almost Promethean defiance, a ravenous craving that on the spiritual level reveals itself as an imperious desire to subsume the universe in one's time-ridden consciousness.
The void Go unveils before the Master is "not the nothingness or emptiness of the West." And face to face with this void, the Master sustains an appropriate serenity. Otake's tremulous nerves, however, quiver with an anxiety only the disclosure of an entirely different sort of void could evoke. On the evidence of Otake's response it would seem reasonable to identify this void as resembling the Western variety, the secular meaningless nothingness someone like Nietzsche, for instance, predicted would confront man after all those justifications of human existence based on the belief in a reality beyond the ordinary had been discredited. (pp. 335-36)
Kawabata's vision of Otake's ending in hysteria suggests that … rationalism will end in insanity. A nihilism dug so deep cannot be climbed out of with the tools used to excavate it.
Therefore it is rationalism to which Kawabata points when he wonders what has happened to the nobility and mystery of Go…. And it is rationalism's subservience to objective time that Kawabata blames for robbing the game of Go of its spiritual overtones. (pp. 336-37)
The general tragedy, beyond the particular tragedy of the Master, is that the game of Go itself has been corrupted, no longer capable of functioning as a spiritual exercise to instigate and sustain in those who play it that mystical state of union with the universe. (p. 337)
Although the analogy cannot be entirely apt at every instance of possible comparison, the book could be visualized as the making of a Japanese garden whose rocks, sand, plants, grass, and trees are gradually arranged and distributed within a certain space, seemingly randomly, but actually designed to communicate a unified impression without violating the essential nature of the given topography.
Kawabata's particular way of breaking up chronology, although in the end it may reinforce whatever spiritual and cultural views he entertains concerning man, serves initially as an aesthetic strategy to present convincing portraits of his characters…. (p. 338)
The events memory recollects do not necessarily occur in a sequence corresponding to that in which they originally transpired. Associations other than those bound by chronology seem to decide the course of their unfolding. Since The Master of Go is a piece of the narrator's remembered past, his disclosure of the past, if it is to reflect human psychology, must likewise proceed discontinuously. And Kawabata had to paint a "realistic" portrait of Mr. Uragami, the narrator, because the significant function he performs in the scheme of the novel is to furnish the consciousness that reveals, distinguishes, and sets at variance the conflicting attitudes on which the novel turns. Uragami must faithfully reflect the human if the conflict he so subtly delineates is to possess the general relevance Kawabata certainly wanted to give it. (pp. 338-39)
Uragami's intense memory of the Master's death similarly focuses his vision to see with a special perception the poignant beauty of an era on the point of supersession….
However, it is not Uragami but the Master who dominates this book, and reasons involving the "realism" of his depiction, probably more than that of the narrator, must have been more decisive in leading Kawabata to the particular treatment of time we find in the book.
The fact that the events Kawabata wished to describe formed a part of his actual experience and the fact that he wished at the same time to communicate something of a cultural and spiritual nature, something that could not necessarily be inferred from a description of "raw" events, lodged him in a dilemma—that of divided loyalties between the reality of what actually happened and what truth he wants to convey by means of that reality. Sacrificing neither his experience by distorting what actually happened for the purpose of more sharply delineating his message, nor his art by diluting his artistic effects for the purpose of retaining a sense of verisimilitude, he extricates himself from the dilemma by breaking up chronology. In short, something the real Master may have said near the end of the match, suffering from his failing health, Kawabata may have felt "artistically" to belong near the beginning of his fictional account. (p. 339)
This fragmentation of chronology serves a further, and certainly the most important, function: to reinforce the spiritual theme of the novel. Kawabata's segmentation and arrangement of time into a progression that is not consecutive attempts to suggest the same aspirations toward the timeless the Master exercises through Go. It is to reflect in the very creation of his fictional world the same indifference to objective time, and also the same vagueness toward reality, which the Master exhibits…. But just as the Master weakens, becomes more and more conscious of the objective time and mundane reality he had previously been able to keep at bay, so Kawabata's unchronological narrative procedure gives way to a more rigorously chronological depiction of events.
The juggling of chronology, coupled with Kawabata's distaste for rational discourse, produces a narrative style that lacks the connective tissue associated with the typical Western novel…. Kawabata's fictional world is one of discrete physical and mental notations with little effort exerted to establish discernible relations between them. It is not a totally irrational world, not the radically surreal world the fragmented language of a William Burroughs creates, but neither is it stringently rational. Grammatical conventions within sentences continue to be observed (and so the rationality behind syntactical rules), but any one sentence neither necessarily follows from the previous nor leads into the next. The method reflects an Eastern bias against rationally and logically looking at the world. Each sentence can be regarded as a mirror reflecting some aspect of the chaotic world, and the spaces between the sentences as windows which allow us to look through that world into that emptiness discussed before, that emptiness where everything connects with everything else. (p. 340)
How the Master comes to lose this ideal world Kawabata presents in a structure vaguely resembling the structure of a traditional two-part Nō play, an art noted for its cavalier handling of time and space. (p. 341)
His previous distaste for speaking about the game evaporates and after the match turns into a willingness to comment repeatedly. Finally he publishes a volume containing his reflections about the game. But no longer being impervious to the world brings with it a susceptibility to the rule of human passion…. He becomes impatient, easily annoyed, finally exasperated. Otake's persistent quibbling over technical matters, however justified, sincere, and in the spirit of fair play, offends the Master's sense of Go as an art sullied by rationalistic haggles, and he is heard to grumble for the first time during a title match. His irritation culminates in the flash of anger that results in his defeat.
Uragami's terse observation that after his hospital stay the Master, as he plays, constantly consults his watch clearly betrays to what extent the impact of objective time now impinges on him, to what extent it has undermined his reliance on subjective time—in short, to what extent he has come to participate in the kind of consciousness Otake exemplifies….
Still puzzling Uragami is what both players say in their published reflections about the sealed play that assures victory for one, defeat for the other. Otake remarks: "I had been thinking that the time was ripe for Black 121 one of these times."… The Master observes: "Now was the time to make effective use of Black 121."… The puzzle involves Otake's "one of these times" and the Master's "now." Otake's uncharacteristic vagueness and the Master's uncharacteristic definiteness, while confirming the Master's contamination by objective time, also hints at a corresponding tendency (although in the other direction) on the part of Otake to rely more on subjective time. Conclusive evidence that Otake has learned something from the Master in this respect is perhaps provided by Uragami's description of him during the last session:
Otake seemed in a state of rapture, in the grip of thoughts too powerful to contain. The round, full face had the completeness and harmony of a Buddha head. It was an indescribably marvelous face—perhaps he had entered a realm of artistic exaltation. He seemed to have forgotten his digestive troubles. (pp. 342-43)
[Provisional] expressions of hope forestall a mood of complete and unrelieved sadness in this novel. Yet unmistakable is Kawabata's sorrow in the face of a future bound gradually to choke off a tradition's power to inspire a culture's deepest responses to existence, a future bound to disown a heritage so thoroughly that to Japanese ears as well the sound of such phrases as "the way of Go" will ring as hollow as they do to most Western ears now. (p. 343)
Yoshio Iwamoto and Dick Wagenaar, "The Last Sad Sigh: Time and Kawabata's 'The Master of Go'," in Literature East and West (© Literature East and West Inc.), Vol. XVIII, Nos. 2-4, March, 1974, pp. 330-45.
J. Thomas Rimer
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[Snow Country] holds the potential to shed considerable light not only on the larger purposes of Kawabata's work but on the techniques of Japanese narrative fiction in general. In this regard, Snow Country is a mirror, reflecting both backwards and forwards….
[Kawabata's Nobel Prize acceptance speech] provided a selection of certain principles especially important to him, many of them related in turn to Zen Buddhism.
The first of these is asymmetry. (p. 162)
Asymmetry and a resulting suggestiveness provide the means by which one small thing can evoke a whole world. Closed structures, harmoniously arranged, merely define themselves. Kawabata is careful to point out, however, that the asymmetry is not naturally evoked but comes from a discipline created through "a balance imposed by delicate sensibilities" that have in turn been rigorously formed and refined. (p. 163)
A desire to pay homage to the nourishment provided by the past seems to put Kawabata in the role of advocate for traditional styles and roles of literature in Japanese culture. In assuming this stance, he was … self-conscious about his own distance from the past…. Kawabata's very distance from his tradition gave him a self-conscious awareness of the workings of the traditions necessary to permit him to adapt them for his own particular purposes. Indeed, what now strikes the readers of Kawabata (including those who have no knowledge of traditional Japanese aesthetics) is his ability to capture with startling freshness the psychology of his characters and the atmosphere that surrounds, and indeed helps define, that psychology. His remarkable skill certainly attests to the continuing vitality in the older traditions, but it shows as well his uncanny agility in recasting the traditional literary techniques into a modern narrative form so compelling that the results seem not only agreeable but inevitable. (pp. 164-65)
The particular place and the poetic implications of that place form one element in the delicate balance that produces the narrative style of Kawabata in Snow Country. The concept of the poetry of place may provide a useful way to open a discussion of the book itself…. Kawabata's ability to evoke a natural scene represents one of his strongest talents as a writer. Whatever the larger purposes of his descriptions, his sensibilities (like those of the great haiku writers) are invariably particular, sharp, and precise….
Above and beyond Kawabata's skill in the technique of nature description, however, rests his ability to construct his whole novel on an extended metaphor of travel…. Reduced to the level of plot [Snow Country] seems to have a number of precedents, including Sōseki's Kusamakura, Bashō's travel diaries, and even the Tosa Diary of Heian times. Like the travellers described in these earlier accounts, Shimamura too is in search of something. (pp. 167-68)
[Kawabata] often blends the character and the geography of his story together, until Shimamura finds it difficult to distinguish in himself any distinction between his attraction to Komako and his attraction to the "snow country." (p. 168)
Such blurring and blending produces the suggestiveness so important to Kawabata in setting up the larger evocative purposes of his novel, purposes that lie behind any given set of narrative particulars.
Kawabata is careful to make this blending of character and setting a source of self-conscious pleasure to Shimamura…. (pp. 169-70)
All the other characters in the book are seen through the eyes of Shimamura, and the reader's basic sense of confusion over their various relationships mirrors Shimamura's own. In particular, Komako's relationship with her friend Yoko puzzles Shimamura. Both women seem to have been in love with the same young man, Yukio, who dies of tuberculosis early in the novel. The tensions between the two women seem at times to be intense, yet Shimamura, glimpsing both women only from time to time, cannot grasp the precise nature of their feelings for each other. (p. 170)
Kawabata's own narrative structure helps create the necessary dream-like quality…. The movement of the novel is often oblique. In the opening chapter, for example, the reader is provided with the suggestion that some important events have happened before, yet the nature or meaning of the events is never clearly stated. Again, the novel has no clearly defined ending at all: the final episode presents Shimamura with a last unsettling vision of the "snow country" just as he decides to leave it, probably forever…. Kawabata manages to make the reader accept his … open aesthetic structure by changing the reader's expectations, who is slowly led to see that, in its totality, the novel makes a surprisingly unified whole.
Kawabata's unusual structuring of Snow Country has been studied by Nakamura Mitsuo, one of the leading contemporary critics of Japanese fiction, and his observations provide a most suitable means to come to terms with Kawabata's techniques. Nakamura suggests that Kawabata has constructed his novel along the lines of a nō drama. Komako, the focus of attention in the novel, functions something like the shite in nō, the character whose personality the spectator must penetrate as the drama proceeds. Shimamura is the modern equivalent of the waki, or subsidary character, often a priest travelling in search of enlightenment. (pp. 171-72)
An examination of the text of Snow Country in terms of the nō drama reveals not only … structural similarities …, but a series of consistent references to the nō. (p. 175)
Snow Country enlarges an evocation of the poetry of place to a general comment on the human condition, specifically on the sadness, and on the beauty, of human dedication. Kawabata's particular method of manifesting these larger themes comes through his constant reference to the beauty that lies in wasted effort, a beauty that ultimately justifies that effort. The references are explicit and cumulative. (p. 176)
Shimamura's fascination with the Chijimi linen woven in the "snow country" leads to a passage in which all the related images are combined. The infinite care and labor required to produce the cloth can perhaps be justified, despite the wasted effort involved, because of the love that went into its making:
The thread of the grass-linen, finer than animal hair, is difficult to work except in the humidity of the snow, it is said, and the dark, cold season is therefore ideal for weaving. The ancients used to add that the way this product of the cold has of feeling cool to the skin in the hottest weather is a play of the principles of light and darkness. This Komako too, who had so fastened herself to him, seemed at center cool, and the remarkable, concentrated warmth was for that fact all the more touching.
But this love would leave behind it nothing so definite as a piece of Chijimi. Though cloth to be worn is among the most short-lived of craftworks, a good piece of Chijimi, if it has been taken care of, can be worn quite unfaded a half-century and more after weaving. As Shimamura thought absently how human intimacies have not even so long a life, the image of Komako as the mother of another man's children suddenly floated into his mind.
Here Kawabata binds together the characters (Shimamura, Komako), the plot (Shimamura's realization that he must leave for good), the images recurrent throughout the text (the cloth, the "snow country" itself), and the thematic concern of wasted beauty, a concept that in turn evokes those characters, images, and plot. Such linking, such reinforcement, becomes impossible to unravel. The poetry of place becomes the poetry of self-realization and, as in a nō drama, the dream then comes to an end. The image of the Chijimi cloth, like the waka poem embedded in the climax of many a nō play, serves as a kernel from which all the other images can be seen to have sprouted and grown.
Kawabata's achievement in Snow Country shows the strength of the earlier traditions to which he remained so attracted; and his achievement reveals the pliancy of those traditions as well…. For Kawabata, who never imagined abandoning the best of [the traditions of earlier generations] his advocacy produced a body of work that, for all its homage to techniques and values of the past, remains in many ways the most contemporary among the work of all twentieth-century writers. His inner poetic world, like that of Lady Murasaki's, moves quickly across the spaces of time, out of its own culture and into our own, remaining both accessible and suggestive at the same time. (pp. 179-81)
J. Thomas Rimer, "Kawabata Yasunari, Eastern Approaches: 'Snow Country'," in his Modern Japanese Fiction and Its Traditions (copyright © 1978 by Princeton University Press; reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press), Princeton University Press, 1978, pp. 162-81.
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[The] early loss of [Kawabata's] parents seems responsible for the unique quality which one perceives in his life and work—a peculiar tension between life and death, detachment and attachment, the abstract and sensuous, whence derives a very special awareness of beauty bordering on sorrow….
[The] uniqueness of Kawabata's style is not its imitation of European modernism but rather its use of quintessentially Japanese poetic sensibility in the once prosaic genre of the novel. (p. 123)
Snow Country comprises a series of episodes, each of which evinces very concisely Kawabata's refined sensibility.
Despite [its] process of composition, Snow Country has a coherent structure. Shimamura, a married man with no particular profession, is attracted to two different types of women in the snow country of north-western Japan. Yōko is intangible or inaccessible to Shimamura, and in this respect an extension of Kawabata's famous Izu dancer (The Izu Dancer [Izu no Odoriko, 1926]). In contrast Komako, a snow country geisha, willingly gives herself to Shimamura. The past lives of the two women are quite different. Komako became a geisha to pay the medical expenses of her invalid fiancé, who is now looked after not by Komako but by Yōko. Shimamura lives in unresolved tension with the ironic distinctions between the tangible, fully embodied Komako and intangible, ethereal and, as it were, disembodied Yōko. (p. 124)
Shimamura views Yōko as an ethereal, intangible entity, but, objectively, she is very much flesh and blood…. Komako is certainly tangible to Shimamura, because they have a physical relation, but that does not make their relationship any less transient. Only by synthesising the paradoxical dualities of the tangible and intangible is Shimamura able to attain an enduring sense of beauty. As it is, he has only momentary glimpses of it in the snow country. Furthermore, the vision of beauty borders on death, as is illustrated by Yukio's death and finally Yōko's probable death in a fire. The fire which in the opening chapter is associated with beauty in the mirror image of Yōko thus becomes the fire that brings death.
Thousand Cranes (Senba Zuru, 1949–51) begins with two striking images, a birthmark and cranes…. These two key images reappear later in the novel, one ominous and the other beautiful, innocent and decent. (pp. 124-25)
One may wonder … why the thousand cranes are used as a key image and in fact as the title of the book. Had this work been composed in the carefree manner of many other Kawabata novels, it would probably have lacked any predetermined ending before starting its serialisation. But since the period during which Thousand Cranes was serialised was much shorter than that of Snow Country, Kawabata quite possibly from the start used the image of the thousand cranes to symbolise the innocence and decency embodied by Miss Inamura to contrast with the darkness that befalls [the protagonist] Kikuji. (pp. 125-26)
One may find in Thousand Cranes Kawabata's unique ability to represent the supra-sensory powers which are kept in balance with the sensory. The language he uses is compact and evocative like that of traditional haiku poetry. He gives hints and suggestions instead of stating everything in explicit and realistic terms. In brief, his language is symbolic. (p. 127)
The serial publication of The Sound of the Mountain (Yama no Oto, 1949–54) extended to over four years and partly overlapped with that of Thousand Cranes. Kawabata projects his central concerns into the character, Shingo, who is older than the author was himself at the time of writing the work (instead of being a younger man as in Thousand Cranes). Since it concentrates on the relations between fewer characters, Thousand Cranes is relatively limited in scope, whereas the introduction of more characters furnishes The Sound of the Mountain with the scope of a realistic novel. Yet Kawabata seems to aim not so much at describing the complicated relations of these characters in realistic terms as at representing the symbolic effects that derive from their relations. Just as Thousand Cranes centres round the consciousness of Kikuji, so does The Sound of the Mountain focus on the consciousness of Shingo. More important, the quasi-incestuous relations in Thousand Cranes are transformed into a platonic affair between Shingo and Kikuko, his daughter-in-law. Also, though Kawabata's treatment of the ethically immoral relations is, as it were, amoral, the platonic relationship between Shingo and Kikuko occurs under moral restraint and is set off against the immorality of Shingo's son, Shūichi. In other words, in Thousand Cranes the sins of the fathers are handed down to the son, whereas in The Sound of the Mountain the sins of the son are partly redeemed by the self-control of the father. (pp. 129-30)
In The Sound of the Mountain Kawabata seems to stress the concept of love that is handed down for numerous generations—not for only two generations as in Thousand Cranes. (p. 130)
Comparable to Kawabata's symbolic use of tea bowls in Thousand Cranes is his use of the Noh mask in The Sound of the Mountain. Shingo buys from the bereaved family of his friend two Noh masks representing boys' faces to which he feels unusually attracted. There are a number of paradoxical implications. The episode of Shingo's buying these masks immediately follows that of his dream about his embracing a young woman in Matsushima. The paradox about dreaming is that it arouses sensations rooted in the subconscious libido, yet it is nothing more than a substitute for an actual experience. A Noh mask, on the other hand, is a paradoxical synthesis, which at once represents human emotions and yet transcends the sensory. The irony of the present situation is that Shingo is attracted to the potentially sensuous in the supra-sensuous mask. Another irony is that although the mask is that of a boy, it is neither entirely masculine nor entirely feminine; it represents at once the angelically neuter and feminine beauty…. (p. 133)
In The House of Sleeping Beauties (Nemureru Bijo, 1960–1), written a decade afterwards, Kawabata presents the amorous life of an old man in a different light. Though he has long been impotent, the protagonist, an old man Eguchi, finds pleasure in a house where he is provided with a beautiful young girl naked and made insensible with drugs. One may easily find the setting analogous to that of Tanizaki's The Key, in which the elderly protagonist watches his wife naked and drugged with brandy. However, the difference is as obvious. In Tanizaki's work, the protagonist's motives and behaviour are geared towards amorous fulfilment; in Kawabata's Sleeping Beauties, fulfilment is out of reach for the old man who only indulges in recollections of his affairs in the past while lying beside the sleeping girl. External reality, therefore, becomes somehow disembodied for him. Even the boundary between life and death becomes indistinct, with his erotic vision verging on necrophilia, for indeed one of the girls sleeping beside him turns out to be dead the following morning. (pp. 135-36)
Hisaaki Yamanouchi, "The Eternal Womanhood: Tanizaki Jun'ichirō and Kawabata Yasunari," in his The Search for Authenticity in Modern Japanese Literature (© 1978 Cambridge University Press), Cambridge University Press, 1978, pp. 107-36.∗