Kawabata Yasunari: Finding Harmonies Between Literature and Traditional Art

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

Where does the idea for a literary work come from? How does this transform through the creative process into 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 Toun Shinsetsu Zu (Snow Sifted Through Frozen Clouds) by Uragami Gyokudō and Juben jūgi zu (Ten Benefits and Ten Pleasures) by Ike no Taiga and Yosa Buson. The two works, now in the collection of the Kawabata Yasunari Foundation, were designated National Treasures after their purchase, indicating his keen eye for aesthetics. Yet art appreciation was not just a hobby for Kawabata. The screen he saw in Kanazawa stimulated his creativity.

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

Cinema and sensuality

When he saw the folding screen, Kawabata was entering a new phase of his literary development, the beginning of which was marked by the completion of his novel. yukiguni (Snow Country) – which was later to be recognized internationally 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” (trans. “The Izu Dancer”) about meeting a student with a troupe of actors. He then imposed himself with the reportage work of 1929-1930 Asakusa Kurenaidan (trans. The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa); the 1931 Suishō gensō (Crystal Fantasies), which used the latest stream of consciousness method; and the 1933 story “Kinjū” (trans. “Of Birds and Beasts”), about a misanthropic man who can only love small birds and animals. After that he started writing snow country.

Shimamura, the snow country protagonist, travels from Tokyo by train, emerging from a tunnel in a hot spring town in the “snow country” of the title. There, he is drawn to the stubborn selflessness of the geisha Komako, while remaining constantly aloof himself. Kawabata skillfully depicts their unsuccessful relationship through expressive techniques such as image association, metaphorical allusions, and free narration fixed to no particular vantage point. Itasaka Gen, who lectured on Japanese literature and culture at Harvard University for many years, noted the innovative way in which Kawabata used a cinematic method to indirectly express both a sensual atmosphere and distance. separating the two through intentional close-up depictions 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 brought his work to a point of perfection.

snow country came together in an unusual way, as it originally appeared as separate short sections in various magazines from 1935. Even after its publication under the title yukiguni in book form in 1937, Kawabata continued writing the story and editing what he had written so 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. Even so, Kawabata made further changes when it was included in his complete works. After he committed suicide in 1972, a handwritten manuscript was found with a condensed rendering of the story. It was really a work in which he invested himself body and soul until his death.

The Kasumi-no-ma room at the Takahan ryokan in Yuzawa, Niigata Prefecture, where Kawabata Yasunari wrote Snow Country.  (© Jiji)
The Kasumi-no-ma room at 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 magazine in 1947 put a temporary end to the work, and one can imagine that Kawabata had reached a major destination in his literary journey. With next year’s definitive edition snow country, it was time to prepare for the release of his complete works. Thus, his encounter with the screen in Kanazawa comes as he consolidates his pre-war work and seeks a new direction.

Autumn inspiration

What kind of screen was it? In a letter to author Shiga Naoya, he writes that he saw Ogata Kōrin 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 go have fun (a white pigment made from crushed seashells) on a gold background.

Kawabata then began work on another of his most famous works, Yama no oto (trans. The sound of the mountain). Like snow countryit first appeared in disparate parts in magazines from 1949 to 1954 before being arranged into a single work.

In the context of a devastated post-war society, The sound of the mountain focuses on Ogata Shingo, a businessman in his 60s, and deals with issues of aging and family. The title comes from the sound he hears from the mountain behind the Ogata house in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture, which he fears is a sign of impending death. In addition to worries about his health, his children’s difficult relationships with their wives are another cause of heartache. As he passes through dark days, Shingo sees the sister-in-law he longed for as a young man in his son’s wife, Kikuko. While his wife’s deceased sister is associated with freshly colored autumn leaves, Kikuko is reminiscent of chrysanthemums (kiku) which are part of its name. The beauty of both is enhanced in an autumn setting.

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

It seems that when Kawabata was writing about the two women Shingo longed for in The sound of the mountain, the folding screen may have given him the idea for Kikuko, as he developed the sister-in-law while thinking of 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 step in Kawabata’s literary journey.

After serializing The sound of the mountain was over, in 1957 Kawabata visited Westminster Abbey in London. In his 1962 Jiman juwa (Ten Stories of Self-Pride) he writes that while listening to the choir sing 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 land made him feel homesick.

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

In Ten stories of self-prideKawabata discusses art historian Kobayashi Taichirō’s theory that the characters in The Tale of Genji are depicted 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 found in the deep layers of the works.

Kawabata’s later novels included the 1954 Mizuumi (trans. Lake), about an inveterate middle-aged stalker, and nemureru jewelry (trans. House of the sleeping beauties; 1960-1961), taking place in an establishment where old men sleep alongside young and beautiful women who have taken sleeping pills. Such works explored the depths of human sexuality and expanded Kawabata’s literary world. In 1968, he was honored as the first Japanese winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

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

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