The Darker Side of Kawabata

One of the names that automatically come to mind when Japanese literature is discussed is Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成). Along with fellow writer Yokomitsu Riichi, he founded the journal Bungei jidai (The Artistic Age). It was a medium for the Neosensualist group, a new movement in modern Japanese literature. It was also in this journal that Kawabata published his first work, the semiautobiographical short story Izu no odoriko (The Izu Dancer) in 1926. While he followed it up with a score of distinguished works, it was not until the completion of Yukiguni (Snow Country)- initially published in 1937 but was completed in 1948) that he secured his stranglehold as one of Japanese literature’s most illustrious writers. From that point on, there was no looking back.

There was no way but up for Kawabata. In 1968, he earned the distinction of being Japan’s first Nobel Prize in Literature winner, with the Swedish Committee citing him “for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind”. This only cemented his legacy as one of Japan’s best writers, if not the world’s. He was known for his earlier works but his later works were also lauded by the committee. One of his later works was Mizuumi (みづうみ) which was originally published in 1954. It was made available to the English-speaking audience in 1974, with a translation by Reiko Tsukimura.

At the heart of the novel is Gimpei Momoi. At the start of the story, he was thirty-four years old. The novel opened with Gimpei arriving in Karuizawa, a popular mountain resort town near Nagano, Japan. Gimpei lived alone in a rented upstairs room. The opening pages of the novel oscillated between the present and the past, with his memories seizing him. In the present, he was receiving a massage from a coldly uninterested and focused but lovely young masseuse while contemplating the circumstances that brought him to Karuizawa and to the massage parlor. Gimpei was also a fugitive running away from an ambiguous crime that we never get to learn about.

“When I hear your voice, everything elese disappears. I know it sounds a bit farfetched, but a voice can’t be chased or caught, can it? I suppose it’s like the flow of time or life, No, it needn’t be. You can use your lovely voice whenever you want, but when you choose to be silent as you are now, nobody can make you produce it. Of course you can be made to speak out suddenly in surprise or anger or grief, but you’re free to choose whether or not to talk in you natural voice.”

~ Yasunari Kawabata, The Lake

In a shift that would characterize the rest of the story, Gimpei found himself in the possession of a purse that was either thrown at him or struck at him – Gimpei was unsure – by a woman he was following. The purse contained a staggering amount of money, two hundred thousand yen to be exact. From a passbook, the owner of the purse was identified as Miyako Mizuki. However, it was not Gimpei’s intention to steal the purse. Rather, he was following Miyako because he “had only been lured on her by storage appeal.” Intending to return the purse, he kept it but, despite the passage of time, he neither heard nor read any news about a missing or stolen purse.

Miyako however, was not the first girl that he stalked. That unfortunate distinction belonged to Hisako Tamaki, a high school student who also happened to be one of Gimpei’s pupils. He started following her under the pretense of having his athlete’s foot be cured by her father. He then convinced her, in what the contemporary deemed as grooming, to start a torrid affair with him. They had clandestine meetings in an abandoned lot. But as time has proven, no secret remains a secret forever. It didn’t take long before the illicit relationship was uncovered and once it did, it caused Gimpei his job. This, however, did not preclude him from following more young women, women who have “charmed him”.

The slender novel had a simple plot. Rather, the focus was on Gimpei, with Kawabata taking the readers on a rollercoaster ride into his mind. He provided an intimate peek into Gimpei’s profile but never from the first-person point of view. However, he was neither the hero nor the anti-hero. We read the profile of a man who was obsessed with beautiful young women. He pursued them because these women keep crossing his path and the overwhelming urge was too much, leaving him no recourse but to give in to his yearning. While his admiration for beauty cannot be doubted, his actions He was essentially a voyeur. The musing on longing and yearning was straightforward and uncompromising; Kawabata was not asking the readers to feel sympathy for the characters.

In this obsession, we see a pursuit of beauty, and, by extension, of perfection that was beyond his grasp. There was a quality of beauty that he revered, one that he considered ethereal. This form of beauty was untouchable, hence, it can only be observed and appreciated from a distance, behind the grass, trees, walls, and the veneer of indifference. This ethereal beauty was the antithesis of the ugly realities that continue to grip Gimpei. He was a lonely man who cannot seem to find a suitable partner but once he does, he was quick to reject it. Ugliness also took on a physical shape, with the deformed feet of the main character its subtlest and highest manifestation. An awkward conversation he struck with his masseuse culminated with a discussion on his severe athlete’s foot.

“He knew it was only a vision, yet whenever he saw that vast and deep expanse of motionless water lit suddenly by the night sky, he felt crushed by the awful mystery of nature, the agony of time. It was as if he himself had been struck by lightning and everything around him had burst with light.”

~ Yasunari Kawabata, The Lake

Gimpei’s journey all began when he was younger. He grew up on the shore of the titular lake, a lake by his mother’s village: “The lake lay in a shroud of mist, and all beyond the ice near the shore looked infinitely remote.” It was on the lake that he felt the first pangs of love. The young girl who aroused these emotions was his cousin Yayoi, two years older than him, and was his first playmate: “As a boy, it had been his greatest joy to walk with Yayoi along the shore of the lake, watching their reflection linked in the water beside them.” Teenage years, however, changed Yayoi’s perspective; she became more conscious of her surroundings. What ensued was a cycle of rejection. Gimpei’s proclivity for striking the strangest of conversations inevitably leads to constant rejection. But rejection doesn’t only come from these young women he admired but also from other corners of society, including his family, his friends, and even random strangers

The main character’s story of obsession was interrupted by the story of Miyako Mizuki. Twenty-five years of age, she was a kept woman and the lover of a seventy-year-old man named Arita: “The Two hundred thousand yen was Miyako’s compensation for the loss of her youth.” The age gap between the youthful Miyako and the senile Arita was another contrast that subtly pervaded the story. In her story, Kawabata subtly underscored the losses Japan incurred because of the war. Miyako’s family used to be affluent but the war changed that and, as a result, she had to resort to being a kept woman in order to support her mother and younger brother. In a series of coincidences, we learn that Gimpei was a ghost-writer who wrote speeches for Arita. Gimpei would also eventually find himself stalking Machie, the girlfriend of Mizuno, Miyako’s younger brother. However, these coincidences did little to move the story forward.

Images and scenes keep popping out, sometimes without any preamble. Gimpei’s response to the proximity of young women who attracted him were hallucinatory images that also leave him perplexed: “It was possible that Gimpei had followed Hisako in an unconscious way, as though drunk or sleepwalking, lured on by her charms.” At times, the stories and the characters merge in Gimpei’s mind. This also resulted in episodic storytelling, a deviation from Kawabata’s typical linear storytelling. The meandering story, at times, produced an ephemeral impact. There were also rich imageries that evoked subtler forms of beauty, such as fireflies and the titular lake. With the apparent lack of form that pervaded the novel, The Lake is one of Kawabata’s more modernist stories.

Time was also a construct, with the story shifting from present to past, fully anchored on the randomness of the main character’s memory and mind. This, however, does not mean that Kawabata’s quality of prose has digressed. His writing was one of the novel’s finer facets. It was minimalist but it had so much soul that drives the readers into the character’s complex mind. This was complemented by the richly layered character’s backstories. The backstories were masterfully crafted, amplifying the book’s exploration of the darker sides of a person’s psyche. In a way, The Lake takes the form of a character study, reminiscent of Kawabata’s other works, such as Nemureru Bijo (眠れる美女, The House of Sleeping Beauties, 1961) which dealt with the yearning for youth.

“You know, there are lots of wind ducks on the frozen moat before it gets warm and the boats are put out. I remember once wondering which felt colder – the ducks on the ice or the ducks on the water. I heard that they come down here in the day to escape the duckhunting, and in the evening fly back to their mountains and lakes.”

~ Yasunari Kawabata, The Lake

The Lake was a rumination on beauty brought to life with the exploration of the darker side of our psyche. The deceptively slender novel captured the story of an obsession and also a yearning. It is about the pursuit of unattainable beauty and perfection, essentially a form of escape from distorted realities. But even beauty and perfection don’t last forever; they are fleeting. Ultimately, we learn to cope with the ugly realities that envelope us. All of the novel’s fine elements were capably woven together by Kawabata’s masterful storytelling. As Kawabata has demonstrated in his prolific career, he was never daunted by the prospect of digging into the human spirit. The Lake may be imperfect but even in its imperfection, beauty lingered.

Ratings

52%

Characters (30%) – 16%
Plot (30%) – 
13%
Writing (25%) – 
17%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
6%

Yasunari Kawabata has earned my admiration. It all started with Snow Country, which was, coincidentally, the very same book that elevated him to acclaim. I also loved Thousand Cranes, a story about a wedding arrangement and a tea ceremony. Thousand Cranes was also the last Kawabata novel that I read; I read it back in 2017. Thankfully, I was able to obtain a copy of The Lake in early 2021, and, recognizing the time that has elapsed since my last Kawabata novel, I made The Lake part of my annual venture into Japanese Literature. If there is something about Kawabata’s work is that they often tend to be slender. The Lake was no exception. It usually works to his advantage but not this time around. Gimpei was a strange character and the subject was, in true Kawabata fashion, equally discomfiting. I felt that the sketch of Gimpei’s psychological profile was lacking. It was engaging at times but it easily isn’t one of my favorite Kawabata novels. To Kawabata’s credit, his writing and his storytelling were stellar as always. Despite my disappointment with The Lake, I can’t wait to read more of his works; I have completed five so far.

Book Specs

Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Translator (from Japanese): Reiko Tsukimura
Publisher: Kodansha International Ltd.
Publishing Date: 1974
Number of Pages: 160
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

The Lake s the history of an obsession. It traces a man’s sad pursuit of an unattainable perfection, a beauty out of reach, admired from a distance, unconsummated. Homeless, a fugitive from an ambiguous crime, his is an incurable longing that drives him to shadow nameless women in the street and hide in ditches as they pass above him, beautiful and aloof. For their beauty is not of this world, but of a dream – the voice of a girl he meets in a Turkish bath is “an angel’s,” the figures of two students he follows seem “to glide over the green grass that hid their knees.” Reality is the durable ugliness that is his constant companion and is symbolized in the grotesque deformity of the hero’s feet. And it is the irreconcilable nature of these worlds that explains the strangely dehumanized, shadowy quality of the eroticism that pervades this novel.

In a sense, The Lake is a formless novel, a “happening,” making it one of the most modern of all Kawabata’s works. Just as the hero’s interest might be caught by some passing stranger, so the course of the novel swerves abruptly from present to past, memory shades into hallucination, dreams break suddenly into daylight. It is an extraordinary performance of free association, made all the more astonishing for the skill with which these fragments are resolved within the completed tapestry.”

About the Author

To know more about the recipient of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature award Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成), click here.