Review of ‘Beauty and Sadness’ by Yasunari Kawabata


kawabataAs a Westerner, coming to great Japanese literature (I was introduced to this corp of work through the living works of Murakami and the classical pen of tenth century Sei Shonagon) means not only savouring and understanding the story, but accepting the culture that drives the precise narrative, the delicate tones, the meticulous imagery. With Kawabata, as with Murakami and Shonagon, I put aside ‘Beauty and Sadness’ replete with exquisite prose, yet only permitted a tantalising glimpse of Japanese culture.

The theme of Kawabata’s 1964 novel would sit uncomfortably today in a Western culture that pretty much permits everything, save the exploitation of children. Whilst the act itself sits in the protagonist’s – Oki Toshio – past, the casual acceptance of impregnating a child of fifteen by the male and female individuals in the novel and the tacit agreement of the social mores, displayed through the lack of any civic comment in Kawabata’s tale, is something that – back in mid-twentieth century Japan – was permissible. It would be easy to judge the content of this story through western society’s mores but to do so would result in reading this novel through a dirty and cracked lense.

Acceptance is a strong cultural part of this novel. It is a concept that strikes the Western reader perhaps more acutely than those from Asia given our refusal to accept most things. We are well aware of the Asian belief in honour, in saving face…which tends to manifest in either individual or social passivity and all its associated behaviours, depending on the society. In this 1964 novel set in and around Tokyo this comes through in both Oki’s unblinking narrative of what he has done, in Fumiko’s marital acceptance of infidelity and consequence, in Otoko’s quick coming to terms with her girlish passions, the pregnancy, her attempt at suicide. It is enough to send many people into permanent trauma, yet the near-absence of emotional scarring is perplexing until we realise that Kawabata finds its outlet in the sociopathic, damaged, impulsive Keiko.

Keiko seems to be an embarrassment in this novel. Neither Oki, nor Taichiro, nor Fumaki, nor Otoko truly understand her, which may mean that Kawabata himself does not truly know her despite his perfect painting of her character. It is left for the reader to struggle to understand her place in the novel. She is the loose cannon, she is the violent passion that is missing from the paintings and novels of the book, she is the final stormy trip into an Du Maurier ‘Rebecca’-esque denouement. It is a denouement that we expect to be climatic…and it is for the reader….but, in keeping with the cultural theme of passivity and acceptance, is politely noted by the survivors, never to be spoken of again let alone allocation of blame and trauma.

‘Beauty and Sadness’ is the novel of an aging man, an author, whose unconcerned crime spawned his greatest work and condemned his wife to self-indulgent torture – “the fate of a novelist’s wife.” His novel, which is a mirror of this book, needs a tawdry setting where he can “soil her beauty and dirty up [the] novel” which is justified with the rhetorical question “does a novel have to be so pretty?”. Whilst Oki is lamenting his cruel parting from his once-teenage lover, giving cursory thought to his wife’s psychology, he moves in a world of selfish, perverted narcissism. It drives him to seek out Otoko years after their love affair, drives him to be seduced by her own girlish lover, sweeps him along in an neverending introverted self-analysis with no regard for the consequence of the destruction around him. In this sense, the novel is striving pass on an autobiographical message….that a novelist exists only to strip out the beauty from everyone around them, place it on the pages of a book, and leave destructive sadness behind in those who gave their all.

Oki admits to his selfishness early on: “he knew that what she felt for him was a young girl’s desperate love. He himself had gone on to other women. But he had never loved again with such pain.” This is his sadness, yet he counterbalances it with a measure of beauty: “It was the tragic love story of a very young girl and a man himself still young but with a wife and child: only the beauty of it had been heightened, to the point it was unmarred by any moral questioning.” Kawabata is firm on the point: ‘don’t judge the actions of the past, simply see the sadness and beauty therein’. As readers we can politely refuse his request and condemn Oki utterly; yet, if we do it becomes impossible to appreciate the linguistic craft of Kawabata. We must accept, if we are to see the beauty and sadness in its aching vulnerability.

When we realise that the story cannot be Oki as he accepts completely his role, our attention must turn to Keiko. Beautiful, predatory, fragile Keiko. Her professed sole intent is to be hurt, be ostracised, to cause hurt, to ostracise. All wrapped in an impassioned motive of revenge. In a sense she is the Otoko we would have thought to see after her break up with Oki all those years ago. An Otoko living from impulse to impulse, as driven by her wild youthful enthusiasm to hate as well as love, hurt as well as caress. This Keiko is the Otoko we want to see driven by revenge; we wait until Otoko realises “that in that fleeting murderous impulse lurks her old love for Oki.” In her timeless, murderous path Keiko strangles us in her schizophrenia, in her polarity, her yin and yang, through the touch of her left breast and right breast – one for the past lover, one for the doomed new lover.

There are touches of reflection, of philosophy which a reader can draw upon, identify with, understand. We may choose which we wish. For this reviewer one stands out:

“time flows in many streams. Like a river, an inner stream of time with flow rapidly at some places and sluggishly at others, or perhaps even stand hopelessly stagnant. Cosmic time is the same for everyone, but human time differs with each person. Time flows the same way for all human beings; every human being flows through time in a different way.”

There is a plot in this novel, a strong sociopathic desire for revenge, of youth telling old age how it should have acted all those years ago. Yet, it is not this which holds our imagination. Rather, it is the light touches of Kawabata’s prose that ensnares us, bears us along like leaves in a rushing streams, catches us in eddies of descriptive wonder, pushes us along in a current of poetic blossom. We melt into his language, feel the “slender threads of rain vanish into the river without a ripple. Cherry blossoms intermingle with young green leaves, the colours of the budding trees all delicately subdued in the rain”. Like the trees we are seduced by the gentle ripple of Kawabata’s words, we are delicately subdued into touching his narrative beauty and sadness.



Categories: Yasunari Kawabata

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