Yasunari Kawabata is one of two Japanese authors to have ever won the Nobel Prize in literature. He was a contemporary and friend of Yukio Mishima, who was the first Japanese author I featured, but wrote with a much different style and aesthetic appeal. While Mishima could often be prosaic and heavy handed in his philosophizing, Kawabata’s aesthetic was beautiful in its simplicity which masked a greater depth of emotion and complexity.
Kawabata literary career started before the Second World War, but outside of one landmark work that is arguably his masterpiece, his greatest achievements have been after the post-war period. Time after time, Kawabata impressed the reader with a stunning vision of a distinctly Japanese aesthetic crossed with the onset of a new and uncertain generation. His prose is short, succinct, but powerful with vivid emotions, and his ability to tell beautiful stories with simple symbols of hidden sophistication was one of the trademarks of almost all of his novels.
There are two things to note about Kawabata’s style. Kawabata hailed from a more aesthetic school of criticism in Japan, which rose against communist and proletariat schools of the early to mid 20th century. The school argued the infamous adage “art for art’s sake.” Kawabata was also, much like many Japanese authors of the time, very wary about the onset of Western culture and was uncertain of how it would affect traditional modes of Japanese life.
What results is a style that attempts to capture some beauty or profound emotion that lies intrinsic in the Japanese experience and is otherwise uninterested, as Mishima might have been, in subtle messages aimed at pushing a more political agenda. Kawabata’s writing is pure beauty; he writes with the intent of showing the exquisite nature of the Japanese language and the culture that it speaks from.
What follows is a list of recommended Kawabata novels. There are some that have not made the list, partially because I have not read them, and also because they are more cursory works. If you love Kawabata as much as I do, you will come to know those works eventually anyway.
The Nobel Prize novels:
Snow Country – Arguably his best novel, Kawabata tells the story of a love that can never be realized. A dilettante from the city comes to visit his lover, a geisha in the hot springs of the snow country. This is an incredibly sophisticated novel, beautiful in its execution of a poetic prose style and even more ornate in capturing the ever present Western and Japanese influences that interplay throughout the novel. This can easily be the starting point for any Kawabata initiate.
Thousand Cranes – A weaker novel of the three Nobel novels, but it is still vintage Kawabata. Here, Kawabata takes the tea ceremony and juxtaposes that against a series of melancholic and tragic relationships and unfulfilled romances. The tea ceremony itself serves as a broad theme for the entire novel, contrasting the elegance and luxury of the ceremony against the slow decay of the lives at stake.
The Old Capital – This story tells of a relationship between two young women, hailing from different backgrounds but tied together by fate. As usual, Kawabata’s excellence is grounded in his ability to employ simple symbols to great effect. Kawabata gracefully describes the gorgeous city of the old capital set against modernity, utilizing symbols such as the kimono to represent ailing Japanese traditions that are pressed against this coming age. It is once again a stellar novel.
The Later Novels:
The Sound of the Mountain – This is probably the longest of any Kawabata novel I’ve read, and features probably the oldest character alongside The Master of Go. Shingo, the head of the Ogata family, quietly observes the world around as he ages and decays. Despite his best efforts, it is the sad story of a man who slowly loses his ability to change the world around him. Kawabata does an excellent job of comparing and contrasting the naturalistic elements of his work against the more business and industrial lifestyle of some his characters. It is not my favorite Kawabata novel, but it is still written with the same poetic brilliance.
Beauty and Sadness – I still need to reread this novel. Were it not for this novel, I would argue that Kawabata never wrote a novel that did not exceed my expectations. It is one of Kawabata’s latest novels, and deals with a romance and a series of dangerous relationships between a man and a lover from his past. These play into Kawabata’s messages of the transitions between traditional values and modern Japan, but for me, there was something missing in Beauty and Sadness that echoed with much greater intensity in all of his other novels.
The Master of Go – Master of Go is absolutely phenomenal. Kawabata considered it his best novel, and it was also the most different. It featured a more journalistic structure, mostly because Kawabata was a journalist and had chronicled the game that he was writing about. Still, it is brilliantly written, featuring Kawabata’s vintage poetic prose that is complemented by a fantastically exciting play by play of an extensive and dramatic game of Go. The game itself is highly symbolic and its exciting development and climax parallels Kawabata’s profound emotions of the post-war era. With strong themes of an old guard swaying against a new and vibrant young generation and an ending that is as melancholic as it is riveting, The Master of Go is, to me, Kawabata’s finest novel. It is an emotionally draining experience, a work of high aesthetics that can only be matched by the highest caliber of literature.