Reticence, Lamentation and Futility in Yasunari Kawabata's Snow Country

Born on 14 June 1899, Yasunari Kawabata is an iconic figure of Japanese literature who won the Nobel Prize in 1968, the second Asian writer to win this prize after Rabindranath Tagore. In the ceremony speech of the Nobel Award in 1968, Anders Österling described him as, "... he has, with greater fidelity, retained his footing in Japan’s classical literature and therefore represents a clear tendency to cherish and preserve a genuinely national tradition of style... Kawabata’s writing is reminiscent of Japanese painting; he is a worshipper of the fragile beauty and melancholy picture language of existence in the life of nature and in man’s destiny." Under the influence of Yasunari Kawabata the unique Japanese aesthetics nourished by the reserved, exquisite Japanese culture, such as ‘the beauty of lamentation of things’, ‘the beauty of reticence’ and ‘the beauty of futility’, have become more widely known around the world. These aesthetics are strongly reflected in his work ‘Snow Country’.


Figure 1: Yasunari Kawabata


‘Snow Country’, published in 1948, is set around the time of the Second World War, but the story itself is not period-specific, focusing instead on the poignant beauty of the characters' delicate emotions. The ‘unattractive’ presence of the chaos of the war is weakened which makes the beauty of the work long-lasting and can be felt whenever people read it. ‘Snow Country’ tells a story of Shimamura, a western dance researcher, who travels three times to Snow Country. Although Shimamura is a researcher of western dance, he has never seen any performance; he merely collects books and pictures about it, as if he was wandering in his own imaginary world without touching reality, which gives him a kind of spiritual solace. On his first visit to Snow Country, Shimamura meets Komako in a hotel where she works as a geisha, and the two implicitly show affection for each other.


On his second visit to Snow Country, Shimamura sees the reflection of Yoko on the train with Yukio, a patient she is caring for. Their relationship appears to Shimamura as if they have been husband and wife for many years. On this visit, Shimamura and Komako continue their ambiguous romantic relationship, and Komako's love for Shimamura grows even stronger. As the novel continues, the relation between these characters becomes clear. Komako used to work as a sanshin geisha in Tokyo, while Yukio is the son of Komako's sanshin teacher. Komako's teacher intends for Yukio and her to be engaged, but Komako has no feelings for Yukio and she only wants to return to Tokyo. While Yukio is dying, Komako does not go to see him. Although Komako is devoted to Shimamura, Shimamura finds himself more attracted to Yoko. When Shimamura leaves Snow Country for the last time, the cinema Yoko goes to catches fire and she falls from the first floor to her death.


Figure 2: Shimaruma, Yoko and Komako, Snow Country Film


Yasunari Kawabata depicts love in most of his works, but there is no lingering and burning passion, only a faint melancholy and sadness, which is the beauty of reticence. In 'Snow Country', he does not express love in an obvious way, but depicts Komako and Yoko through Shimamura's eyes. Although Shimamura is attracted to both of them, they cannot get close to each other in the heart. This creates a sense of distance. In the beginning of the book, Yoko's serious gaze and her meticulous care for Yukio even make Shimamura embarrassed to look at her. When Shimamura meets Komako, on the other hand, she exudes sheer cleanliness, and even the grooves of her toes are clean, as if she was untouchable. Shimamura's feelings for Yoko and Komako continue throughout the book, mostly stopping at the obsession of their beauty.


‘Snow Country’ is also full of lamentation about the vagaries of the world. This lamentation is a unique style in Japanese literature: Mono no aware (the lamentation of things). It is lamentation for the impermanence of nature, the relationship between men and women, and life in general. The descriptions of natural scenery in the book create an unreal, white, and ethereal world of snow to reflect Shimamura's Mono no aware. It is against the snow that Yoko makes her initial appearance. Her beautiful face reflected in the train window, capturing Shimamura's attention. The image of her looking after Yukio appears to Shimamura like a vision in a dream. The scenery behind Yoko is constantly changing, suggesting the impermanent fate. The window, which functions as a mirror, allows things to be seen through itself, while it also dilutes reality for Shimamura, which fuels his imagination to lament things.


Kawabata also makes use of the snow-capped mountains, the setting sun and the endless wilderness at various points in the story to give Shimamura a sense of Mono no aware. In addition to the description of the natural landscape, in the middle of the book, the appearance of moldy snowboards and dilapidated houses all show the author’s lamentation that things in this world cannot last forever.


Figure 3: Komako and Shimamura, Snow Country Film


In addition to blurring reality with scenery to create a sense of illusionary beauty, the sense of futility of 'wanting something' is present throughout the story. At the end of the work, with the death of Yoko, everything that has ever happened and the emotional bond between Shimamura and Komako is reduced to nothing. In this book, Yasunari Kawabata uses the death of Yoko to embody the philosophy of 'living towards death'. This is also related to the loss of his father at the age of 2, his mother at 3, his grandmother at 7 and his grandfather at 15. In his life, these people seem to have passed through him in a hurry, staying for a while and then leaving him and never returning. In the book, Shimamura's encounter with Komako and Yoko as a traveler also sets the scene for the final separation of these characters. In this way, the tone of futility is set as soon as the characters are introduced. Although Shimamura has a decent job as a dance researcher and a family, he still feels lonely and empty.


Komako's futility can be seen through her struggle and failure to change the course of her life and her unrequited love for Shimamura. The only ties she can hold on to are with Yukio, who is not what she wants. Her life is full of futile effort and pursuit. The contrast between Shimamura's and Komako's reactions to Yoko's death demonstrates the futility of different choices. While Komako lets out a frantic shout of grief, Shimamura displays no intense sadness, like the book describes in the end, "As he caught his footing, his head fell back, and the Milky Way flowed down inside him with a roar." Whether they struggle, expect or do nothing, in the end they always fail to get what they want, and what has happened is buried in the snow with the death of Yoko.


The Japanese Nobel Laureate Yasunari Kawabata is a highly regarded figure in Japanese literature. His iconic work 'Snow Country' is filled the 'reticence', 'the lamentation of things' and 'futility', which are the unique beauty of Japanese literature.


References:

  • Award ceremony speech, The Nobel Prize in Literature 1968, The Nobel Prize, <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1968/ceremony-speech/>

  • Kawabata, Yasunari, Snow Country, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2013

  • Yokomitsu, Riichi, Sensory Activities, Literary Times, February 1925

  • Simizu, Fumio, Japanese Heart, Hijiyama University, February 1969

  • Tsuruta, Kinya, The Flow-Dynamics in Kawabata Yasunari's Snow Country, Sophia University, Monumenta Nipponica , 1971, Vol. 26, No. 3/4 (1971), pp. 251-265

  • Ye, Weiqu, A Biography of Yasunari Kawabata, New World Press, 2003

  • Ricca, Laura, The Aesthetics and Poetics of the Image in Japanese Culture. An Example from the Literary Tradition: Yukiguni [Snow Country], Proceedings, 2017-11-28, Vol.1 (9), p.1087

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Zhuotong Hou

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