Yasunari Kawabata (1899 – 1972)

Yasunari Kawabata

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata he was the first Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. His works combined the beauty of ancient Japan with modern trends, and his prose mixed realism with surrealist visions. Kawabata’s books have been described as “Melancholic lyrical” and frequently explore the site of the sex in culture and individual lives. Throughout his life, Kawabata wrote several novels and hundreds of one-page stories that he called tanagokoro no shosetsu (掌 の 諸 説, Stories of the palm of the hand), and said that they expressed the essence of his art.

Portrait of Yasunari Kawabata as a young man

Yasunari Kawabata was born into a prosperous family in Osaka, Japan. Her father, Eikichi Kawabata, was a doctor who died of tuberculosis when Yasunari was only 2 years old. He was orphaned after the death of his mother at the age of three, his grandmother when he was seven, and his only sister when he was nine. The deaths of her family members deprived Yasunari of a normal childhood, and she says she learned loneliness and uprooting at an early age. Later in his life, the author described himself as someone “Homeless or family”. Some critics feel that these early traumas permeate through the feeling of loss and regret in his writings.

After losing his grandfather in 1915, Kawabata moved into a high school room. He began studying literature at the Imperial University of Tokyo in 1920, and graduated in 1924. Kawabata and a group of young writers founded the Bungei jidai (New Artistic Age). With this newspaper, they defended a literary movement known as Shinkankaku (Neo-sensualism), which was opposed to the then dominant realistic school. Kawabata was interested in the European Avant-Garde novel, and also wrote the script for the expressionist film. Kuritta Ippeji “ (A page of madness, 1926), by Kinugasa Teinosuke.

Kawabata - Izu's Dancer

Kawabata won critical acclaim with his novel Izu no Odoriko (The Izu Dancer, 1925). The autobiographical work tells of his blind love of youth for a fourteen-year-old ballerina, whose legs stretched “like a young Paulownia tree.” The story ends with their separation. Young women appear in many of Kawabata’s works, such as in Nemureru Bijō (Sleeping Beauty, 1961) and the short novel Tanpopo (Dandelion, published posthumously).

The fragmented novel Asakusa Kurenaidan (The Asakusa Gang, 1929-1930) is located in the Asakusa district in Tokyo, famous for its geisha houses, dancers, bars, prostitutes and theaters. The novel was serialized in the Asahi Shinbun, bringing modern and experimental fiction to a wider audience in Japan. Kawabata married in 1931. During World War II, Kawabata moved to Manchuria, and devoted himself to studying Genji Monogatari (The Story of Genji), a classic of 11th century Japanese literature.

After the war, Kawabata published his most famous novel, Yukiguni (雪 国, The Land of Snow, 1948), the story of a middle-aged esthete, Shimamura, and an aging geisha, Komako. Their sporadic encounters are located in an isolated place; the seaside resorts west of the central mountains, where winters are dark, long, and quiet. Yukiguni it has been filmed several times. Version of Shido toyoda from 1957, where Kishi Keiko appear as Komako and Ryo Ikebe as Shimamura, is considered the best version.

For many, Yama no oto (山 の 音, The Sound of the Mountains, 1954) is considered Kawabata’s best work. The novel illustrates the crisis of a family through episodes that are connected. The protagonist, Shingo, represents traditional Japanese values. She worries about the marital crisis of her two children. Scenes from the daily life of this hero are interwoven with poetic descriptions of nature, dreams and memories. His work earned Kawabata the literary award from the Japanese Academy. Kawabata combined and refined Japanese aesthetics with psychological narrative and eroticism. In his early works of fiction, Kawabata experimented with surreal techniques, but in his later writings, his naturalistic style became more impressionistic.

Yasunari Kawabata portrait

As time went on, Kawabata became a famous writer around the world. In the 1960s, after receiving the Nobel Prize, Kawabata toured the United States, teaching at universities. At the end of the same decade, Kawabata supported conservative political candidates in Japan, and with Yukio mishima and other writers signed a statement condemning the Cultural Revolution in China. Kawabata condemned suicide in his speech during the delivery of his Nobel Prize, perhaps recalling the deaths of several of his writing friends. However, Kawabata had long suffered from poor health, and on April 16, 1972, two years after Yukio Mishima’s suicide, Kawabata he took his own life at his home in Zushi With gas. He did not leave a note.

Other great works by Kawabata are: Zenbasuru (The thousand cranes, 1952), Utsukashisa-to Kanashimi-to (The Beautiful and the Sad, 1965), and Meijin (The Master of Go).