Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata’s works were among my very first foreign (non-Chinese) literary experiences back in my teenage years. At that time I was impressed by Kawabata’s unique ability to accentuate the tranquil beauty of Japan. Upon revisiting his top-rated works recently, I gained some more understanding on his interpretation of love and death, and his unresolved question about the conflict between tradition and new fashion.
The Dancing Girl of Izu was one of Kawabata’s earliest works, a semi-autobiographical short story about the narrator’s brief encounter with a teenage dancing girl, Kaoru, on his hiking trip to the hot spring country. The narrator is drawn to Kaoru by her innocence and sincerity despite her low social status at the time, and develops an affection so deep that it revitalizes him with hope and compassion. Kawabata’s pellucid and poetic language flows throughout the story, wholeheartedly praising the primitive beauty of the lower-class performers, which may be a projection of the Japanese culture heritage that Kawabata deeply admired.
In that sense, Snow Country can be viewed as a loose and peculiar sequel to The Dancing Girl of Izu. Once again in the remote countryside, the male protagonist Shimamura (a middle-aged wealthy loner) is physically and emotionally trapped in his obsession with two women, Komako and Yoko, both of whom are unattainable in different ways. In this little town that represents his delicately designed safe space, Shimamura’s attempts to establish intimacy with either (or both, at times) of the women end up tragically futile. The sharp turn of sentiments from Dancing Girl to Snow Country was surprising to me. But it may be a genuine reflection of Kawabata’s struggle about the fate of the traditional Japan. Komako, a geisha-turned-prostitute, depicted with vivid beauty and barely noticeable frivolity, is in danger of irrelevance despite Shimamura’s efforts. Her alternative, Yoko, introduced so vaguely into the story with an interesting western literary approach, however, only remains remote for the most of the time, and vanishes so quickly before becoming tangible.
Such sentiments are also the main theme in The Old Capital. Staged in the historic capital Kyoto, the story evolves around twin sisters, Chieko and Naeko, whose fates symbolize the clash between the old and the new. Kyoto’s spectacular natural and historical landscapes, together with its rich cultural traditions in the forms of festivals and rituals, unfold magnificently in this novel. More specifically, the art of kimono (thing to wear) is the vessel that showcases the delicacy of the Japanese traditional culture and Kawabata’s deep affection toward it. As the modernization of Kyoto becomes inevitable, the characters attempt to preserve the old and find peace with the new. Kawabata used this novel to gauge the acceptance of such transition in his heart, and in that of the Japanese people. Based on this story, his conclusion seems pessimistic.
Thousand Cranes continues to explore the state of Japanese culture heritage, in a much more intense, dramatic fashion. Tea ceremony, a traditional ritualized art that promotes harmony and grace, becomes the canvas on which Kawabata boldly portrays sexuality that is simultaneously impacted by old tradition and western culture. The main character, Kikuji, haphazardly steps into an entangled net of relationships after his father’s death. While gaining more appreciation of the charm of tea ceremony, of which his father was an expert, he treats Mrs. Ota, his father’s mistress also as a form of inheritance, through which he finds his identity and power . To me, this points to a phenomenon universal to many cultures, which is sin being passed over generations. What consoles me is to see the deep sorrow that is inflicted on Kikuji and Fumiko, Mrs. Ota’s daughter, after his incestuous actions, and their eventual but painful resolution to cross the bridge of the past.
Kawabata’s sensibility enabled him to compose such exquisite pieces with a highly enjoyable level of literary virtue. The Japanese mono no aware (an empathy toward things) tradition blends with modern realism touches, rendering his works vulnerable and poignant. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, Kawabata was praised for his ability to “express … the essence of the Japanese mind.” They are also deeply thought-provoking, in a way that aside from the author’s deep contemplation on and skillful interpretations of the very nature of humanity, they do not pretend to have reached any simplified, self-justified conclusions. Kawabata himself was tragically torn between the richness of the Japan he loved and the waves of modernity that struck the ancient culture. The beauty seemed to diminish, while the shades of hideousness never ceased to expand in many ways. That, to me, is a dilemma worth exploring at all times. —WZ