Kawabata’s The Old Capital


In awarding Kawabata Yasunarí the 1968 Nobel Prize for Literature, singled out three of his novels: Snow Country, Thousand Cranes, and Koto [Kyoto, the capital city before Tokyo and prime repository of traditional Japanese aestheticism]. Despite that mention, the thin (164 pages in English translation) the last of these novel, serialized in 1961, published as a book in Japanese I 1962, did not make it into English until 1987, translated by J. Martin Holman.


Donald Keene, the dean of American Japanese studies and an admirer of Kawabata’s fiction, devoted a whole chapter to Kawabata in his magisterial Dawn to the West: Japanese Literature in the Modern Age, was untypically blunt and dismissive, writing that Koto did not deserve the praise of the Nobel panel and asserting that its “appeal is chiefly for the tourist, whether Japanese who yearn for a Japan unaffetted by the blight of Americanization. Kawabata was moved to write The Old Capital by his fear that the traditional way of life would soon disappear, an apprehension he shared with most tourists” (p. 837).

I found the de facto travelogue of the foliage in the dense succession of festivals celebrated in the old capital weariness-inducing and barely made it to the central plot, finding Sada Takichiro, the aging merchant of a declining kimono wholesaler and frustrated designer of kimonos not bought by anyone an uninteresting character.


One of Hiroshige’s “fifty-three stages of Tokaido” woodblock printsfrom the 19th century

I’d say that the protagonist is his dutiful daughter, Chieko, a foundling registered as the daughter of the Sadas (Shige is the hard-working wife who accepts her husband’s straying, whether with geishas or monastic retreat). She expresses herself willing to marry whomever her father chooses for her, which seems to be a brash weaver, Hideo to whom Takichiro takes a design influenced by some of Paul Klee’s work from a book that Chieko gave him (a western, if not American, influence in a book otherwise celebrating traditional Japanese aesthetics).

The book gets more interesting when Hideo expresses his opinion that the design indicates morbidity. And Chieko, who is confused about whether as a baby she was stolen (her mother’s tale) or found (her father’s) is startled by having her resemblance to a working-class girl pointed out.

This turns out to be her twin sister, Naeko, now an orphan. (Twins were believed to be inauspicious, but neither one has any idea how the choice of which one to keep, which one to abandon was reached.)

Initially stunned, Chieko becomes very interested in her twin sister and finding out about her natal family. Partly smarting from the initial coolness, Naeko resists establishing any relationship with Chieko and Chieko’s adoptive parents (though they are willing to take in this second daughter). Both girls make — of acquiesce to — previously unexpected matches.

Both girls are the kind of self-sacrificing daughters played by Hara Sesuko and Takamine Hideko in postwar Ozu and Naruse movies about the rapid social change in Japan initially forced by the conquering Americans (who are only mentioned in The Old Capital for building houses in the Kyoto Botanical Garden and not allowing Japanese into the site).

Also like many Ozu movies with not much in the way of plot, the ending is rather open-ended, though the futures of the characters seem to be settled as snowflakes gently fall on the sleeping city. (Koto was filmed in 1963 by Nakamura Nobu, and in  1980 by Ichikawa Kon; the first was Oscar-nominated in the best foreign-language film category; I have seen neither, alas.)

©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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