Kawabata Yasunari: finding harmonies between literature and traditional art

Kawabata Yasunari won the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature for works written with narrative mastery and sensibility. Academic Taniguchi Sachiyo explores the connections between art and the literary world of Kawabata.

What gave birth to the idea of ​​a literary work? How does this transform through the creative process in the text itself? While there can be many different answers to these questions, in some cases inspiration comes from an encounter with a painting.

In November 1947, when writer Kawabata Yasunari traveled to Kanazawa for the unveiling of a monument to writer Tokuda Shūsei, he also saw a six-panel folding screen. Also an art collector, Kawabata owned the national treasures Tōun shinsetsu zu (Snow sifted through frozen clouds) by Uragami Gyokudō and Jūben jūgi zu (Ten Benefits and Ten Pleasures) by Ike no Taiga and Yosa Buson. Both works, which are now part of the collection of the Kawabata Yasunari Foundation, were designated National Treasures after their purchase, testifying to his strong sense of aesthetics. Yet appreciating art was not just a hobby for Kawabata. The screen he saw in Kanazawa sparked his creativity.

Kawabata Yasunari examines a work of art at his home in Zushi, Kanagawa prefecture, in April 1972. (© Aflo)

Cinema and sensuality

When he looked at the screen, Kawabata was entering a new phase in his literary development, the beginning of which was marked by the completion of his novel. Yukiguni (Snow Country) – which would later gain international recognition as a masterpiece.

Born in Ibaraki, Osaka Prefecture, in 1899, Kawabata made a name for himself as a new author with the 1926 short story “Izu no odoriko” (translation “The Izu Dancer”) about meeting a student with a theater company. He then established himself with the reportage work of 1929-1930 Asakusa kurenaidan (trans. Asakusa’s Scarlet Band); the 1931 Suishō gensō (Crystal Fantasies), which used the latest method of consciousness flow; and the 1933 story “Kinjū” (translation “Of birds and beasts”), about a misanthropic man who can only love small birds and animals. After that he started to write Snow country.

Shimamura, the Snow country protagonist, travel from Tokyo by train, emerging from a tunnel in a spa town in the title “land of snows”. There he is drawn to the steadfast self-sacrifice of geisha Komako, while remaining himself constantly aloof. Kawabata deftly portrays their unsuccessful relationship through expressive techniques such as the association of images, metaphorical allusions, and free storytelling fixed at no particular point of view. Itasaka Gen, who has lectured on Japanese literature and culture at Harvard University for many years, noted the innovative way Kawabata used a cinematic method to indirectly express both sultry atmosphere and distance. separating the two with intentional close-up descriptions of Komako’s lips. and eyelashes. Kawabata is masterful in his use of literary techniques to create a world of beauty and sensuality, and it can be said here that he has brought his work to a point of perfection.

Snow country came together in an unusual way, as it originally appeared as short, separate sections in various magazines starting in 1935. Even after its publication as Yukiguni in book form in 1937, Kawabata continued to write history and edit what he had written thus far. Following the publication of a sequel in the magazine Shōsetsu Shinchō in 1947, a revised version of the set described as the “definitive version” was published in 1948. Despite this, Kawabata made other changes when it was included in his collective works. After he committed suicide in 1972, a handwritten manuscript was found with a condensed rendering of the story. It was truly a job he devoted himself body and soul to until his death.

The Kasumi-no-ma room of the Takahan ryokan in Yuzawa, Niigata prefecture, where Kawabata Yasunari wrote Snow Country.  (© Jiji)
The Kasumi-no-ma room of the Takahan ryokan in Yuzawa, Niigata prefecture, where Kawabata Yasunari wrote Snow Country. (© Jiji)

While the creation of Snow country was a complex process, the publication of the 1947 magazine put the book on temporary closure, and one can imagine that Kawabata had reached a major destination in his literary journey. With next year’s definitive edition of Snow country, it was time to make preparations for the release of his collected works. Thus, his encounter with the screen in Kanazawa comes as he consolidates his work dating back to the pre-war period and seeks a new direction.

Fall inspiration

What screen was it? In a letter to author Shiga Naoya, he wrote about Ogata Kōrin’s vision Kikuzu byōbu (Chrysanthemum screen) in an antique art store in Kanazawa. It was a screen of six panels – half of a pair – on which chrysanthemums were painted with enjoy (a white pigment made from crushed seashells) on a golden background.

Kawabata then began to work on another of his most famous works, Yama no oto (trans. The sound of the mountain). As Snow country, it first appeared in disparate parts in magazines from 1949 to 1954 before being consolidated into a single book.

In the context of a devastated post-war society, The sound of the mountain focuses on Ogata Shingo, a businessman in his sixties, and discusses aging and family issues. The title comes from the sound he hears from the mountain behind Ogata House in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, which he fears as a sign of near death. In addition to worries about his health, his children’s difficult relationships with their wives are another cause of grief. As he passes dark days, Shingo sees the step-sister he yearned for as a young man in his son’s wife, Kikuko. While his wife’s deceased sister is associated with freshly colored fall leaves, Kikuko is reminiscent of chrysanthemums (kiku) that are part of its name. The beauty of both is heightened in an autumnal setting.

A manuscript manuscript of Kawabata Yasunari's essay “Watashi no furusato” (My hometown) discovered in 2017 in Ibaraki, Osaka, where he lived from 3 to 18 years old.  The page shows repeated revisions.  (© Jiji)
A manuscript manuscript of Kawabata Yasunari’s essay “Watashi no furusato” (My hometown) discovered in 2017 in Ibaraki, Osaka, where he lived from 3 to 18 years old. The page shows repeated revisions. (© Jiji)

It seems that when Kawabata was writing about the two women Shingo wanted in The sound of the mountain, the screen may have given him the idea of ​​Kikuko, as he developed the sister-in-law by thinking about the traditional combination of chrysanthemums and maple leaves. I am moved to think that there is a code in the work showing that Ogata Kikuko’s name derives from Ogata Kōrin’s chrysanthemum screen. Traditional art thus inspired the next leg of Kawabata’s literary journey.

After serialization of The sound of the mountain was completed, in 1957 Kawabata visited Westminster Abbey in London. In his 1962 Jiman jÅ«wa (Ten Stories of Self-Pride), he writes that as he listened to the choir singing in the abbey, he suddenly remembered the works of Kōrin’s brother, Ogata Kenzan. It is possible to discern his interest in the Rinpa school from Tawaraya Sōtatsu and Hon’ami Kōetsu to Ogata Kōrin and Kenzan. Remembering the beauties of Japan in Kenzan’s paintings while in a foreign country made him homesick.

The specific works mentioned are Teika ei jūnikagetsu waka kachōzu (The Birds and Flowers of the Twelve Months of Fujiwara no Teika), based on waka by Teika; Yatsuhashizu (Eight Bridges), after a scene from Ise monogatari (trans. The Tales of Ise); Hanakagozu (Baskets of flowers), depicting baskets of autumn flowers and a waka by the medieval nobleman and scholar Sanjōnishi Sanetaka; and Shiki kachôzu byōbu (Birds and Flowers of the Four Seasons), a pair of screens with egrets and seasonal plants. The latter is known to have been in the Kawabata collection; its left screen represents the autumn maple leaves and white chrysanthemums that correspond to the two women in The sound of the mountain. A symphony of Rinpa school works contributes to the creation of the novel.

In Ten stories of self-pride, Kawabata discusses the theory of art historian Kobayashi Taichirō that the characters of The tale of Genji are represented in flowers and birds in Flower baskets and Birds and flowers of the four seasons. This shows his extraordinary interest in the harmonies between art and literature which can be found in the deepest layers of the works.

Kawabata’s later novels included the 1954 Mizuumi (trans. Lake), about a die-hard middle-aged stalker, and Bijo Nemureru (trans. House of the Belles au Bois Dormant; 1960-61), located in a facility where elderly men sleep alongside young and beautiful women who have taken sleeping pills. Such works have explored the depths of human sexuality and broadened the literary world of Kawabata. In 1968, he was honored as the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

(Originally published in Japanese on August 13, 2021. Banner photo: Kawabata Yasunari in 1957. © Jiji.)

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