Tag Archives: Kawabata

“Mr. Thank You”


I have seen very few pre-WWII movies, and had seen none that had not been directed by Ozu Yasujiro (1903-63). Ozu admired the lyricism of his agemate Shimizu Hiroshi (1903-66), who made movies from the mid-1920s until 1959 (at least 263 movies, many of them now lost). None of them were available on DVD until Criterion released an Eclipse (unrestored with no bonus features) set, Travels with Hiroshi Shimizu, including the silent “Japanese Girls at the Harbor” (1933) and two set in mountain spas: “The Masseurs and a Woman” (1938) and “Ornamental Hairpin” (1941). It seems that Shimizu was almost as focused on young women sold into prostitution as was Mizoguchi Kenji (1898-1956).

The main plot stimulus in “Arrigatô-san” (Mr. Thank You, 1936) is a seventeen-year old (Tsukiji Mayumi) from some remote location on the Izu peninsula being taken by her mother to Tokyo, what the genial bus-driver remarks is a one-way trip (not only for those sold into prostitution but those who go to work in factories).

Mr-Thank-You_42_original (1).jpg

Mr. Thank You (Ushara Ken, who went on to star in “The Yotsuda Phantom” and six other Kinoshita movies between 1943 and 1954) is not tall, though his boots are, reaching almost to his knees. He has thick eyebrows, prominent cheekbones, a dazzling smile and is extremely chirpy. He got his name from thanking everyone who moves aside for the bus after he honks its loud horn. In the first part of the movie, we see people and assorted unmotorized vehicles move out of the bus’ path. Through most of it, however, we see the human obstacles in the road before and after the bus passes and there is nothing for which to thank them.

Mr. Thank You also carries messages and picks up recordings for young women living in the mountains. I think that most American viewers will not realize that the woman who works on road gangs to whom the driver talks (promising to tend her father’s grave) is Korean, so that his kind treatment of her is especially marked.

In addition to the 17-year-old who frequently cries in the back of the bus and her sad mother, there is a very modern (“fallen”) woman (Kuwano Michiko) in the front seat who flirts with the driver and squabbles with the man across the aisle from her, a salesman with an extravagant mustache who is in a hurry to catch a train at the end of the bus ride (the script, based on a story by Kawbata Yasunari, who would become the first Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for literature, vacillates between whether the bus is going to Tokyo or to a train line from which passengers may go to Tokyo; no terminus is shown within the movie).



I was more interested in the scenery, including within that the dress and means of transport of the rural people of pre-WWII Japan than in the plot, but the look at the friendly bus driver and the disparate passengers on his bus is genial. Such optimism is uncommon in the Japanese movies I’ve seen, with the exceptions of the Ozu ones centered on children. The camera was definitely not fixed in “Arrigatô-san” (during the 1930s, there was more camera movement in Ozu movies, too), which was filmed on location and in which most everyone is in motion during most of the movie. There are an unusual number of cuts between images for a mid-1930s movie (from anywhere).

I think a viewer has to be interested in what rural Japan and Japanese looked like, ca. 1936, to enjoy this road movie though the jaunty soundtrack helps (though group singing of the passengers does not contribute to my enjoyment).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray


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

The pretty good, the somewhat dubious, and the very dubious Nobel Prizes for Literature

Having spent the week here writing about fiction written by Ôe Kenzaburo has solidified my skepticism that he deserved a Nobel Prize for literature. I think that the first Japanese to receive the honor. Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), was a plausible candidate for the honor in 1968, though were it my choice of a Japanese writer alive during the 1960s I would have chosen Tanizaki Junichiro (who had died before the 1968 award went to Kawabata) or Mishima Yukio. In contrast, I don’t have a stronger contender among Japanese writers, ca. 2018 (not having read the Japanese-German Tawada Yoko). The Japanese writer recurrently mentioned more recently as a possible candidate, Murakami Haruki (1949-) had published some books that received international attention (A Wild Sheep Chase, Norwegian Wood) but did not have a large body of work.

From the Japanese contenders, I went to look at the list of all the winners. I have split the ones I have read enough of to have an opinion into three classes (each listed in the chronological order of their award):

Choices I consider plausible or better (inclusion in this category is far from being an endorsement of all of their work, however!)

Rudyard Kipling

Selma Lagerlöf

Rabindranath Tagore

Knut Hamsum

W.B. Yeats

George Bernard Shaw

Thomas Mann

Sinclair Lewis

Ivan Bunin

Luigi Pirandello

Eugene O’Neill

Roger Martin du Gard

Herman Hesse

André Gide

T. S. Eliot

William Faulkner

Pär Lagerkvist

Ernest Hemingway

Halldór Laxness

Juan Ramôn Jiménez

Albert Camus

Boris Pasternak

Ivo Anrdic

John Steinbeck

Jean-Paul Sartre

Miguel Asturias

Kawabata Yasunari

Pablo Neruda

Heinrich Böll

Patrick White

Eugenio Montale

Isaac Bashevis Singer

Czelaw Milosz

Elias Canetti

Gabriel García Marquez

Joseph Brodsky

Naguib Mahfouz

Octavio Paz

Seamus Heaney

J. M. Coetzee

Harold Pinter

Mario Vargas Llosa

Alice Munro

Svetlana Alexievich

Bob Dylan


Choices about which I am at least somewhat skeptical

Henry Skieniewicz

Maurice Materlinck

Romain Rolland

Anatole France

Henri Bergson

John Galsworthy

Bertrand Russell

François Mauriac

Winston Churchill

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Samuel Beckett

Saul Bellow

Claude Simon

Wole Soyinka

Nadine Gordimer

Toni Morrison

Ôe Kenzaburo

José Saramago

Günter Grass

Gao Xingjian

V.S. Naipaul

Orhan Pamuk

Doris Lessing

J.M.G. Le Ciézio

Kazou Ishiguro


Bad choices

Pearl Buck

Mikhail Sholokhov

William Golding

Dario Fo

Imre Kertész

Herta Müller

Mo Yan

Patrick Modiano

There are an additional 38 winner about whom I know too little to have formed an opinion of their worth.

By my (generous) reckoning, the Swedish Academy is batting .635 (or .420 if the denominator includes winners from whom I’ve read nothing), but only .333 in the last ten years (not scoring a Swedish poet I’ve never read)

Some of the failures (sins of omission rather than commission) include Anton Chekhov, Mark Twain, Henry James, William James, Edith Wharton, Leo Tolstoy, August Strinberg, Henrik Ibsen, Émile Zola, Natsume Sōseki, Rainer Marie Rilke, Thomas Hardy, Joseph Conrad, Virginian Woolf, Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Arthur Schnitzler, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Italo Svevo, Bertholt Brecht, E.M. Forster, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Anna Akhmatova, Jorge Luis Borges, Vladimir Nabokov, R. K. Narayan, Marguerite Yourcenar, Primo Levi, Pramoedya Ananta Toer,Michel Tournier, Chinua Achebe, and Peter Matthiessen.

My prime still-living candidate is Michael Ondatjee, followed by Yu Hua (pictured left to right below). I’d be fine with Louise Erdrich and/or Tom Stoppard and/or Peter Cameron winning—after them. If Murakami wins, he’ll go into my second bundle of winners.


With Beauty and Sadness/Sorrow

beauty (1).jpg

Based on the 1964 novel Beauty and Sadness (Utsukushisa to Kanashimi to) by Kawabata Yasnuari (who would win the Nobel Prize for literature in 1968), Shinoda Masashiro’s 1965 movie adaptation, released in English as “With Beauty and Sorrow”, as well as “With Beauty and Sadness”) lacks the visual flair and the mystery of Shinoda’s “Pale Flower” from the year before. It is very talky and quite predictable.

Keiko (then-22-year-old Kaga Mariko, who had played the thrill-seeking gambler of “Pale Flower”), the beauty of the title, is a man-hating protégé of the now –famous painter Otoko (Yachigusa Kaoru [Samurai Trilogy]). Twenty-four years earlier, the 31-year-old cold-blooded writer Ôki Toshio (Yamamura Sô), who was married and had a son, impregnated the sixteen-year-old Otoko. The baby died soon after birth and Otoko was confined to a psychiatric hospital for six months.

 with-beauty-and-sadness (1).jpg

Ôki wrote a very thinly fictionalized account of his affair with Otoko. Keiko lives in Kyoto with Otoko and vows to take revenge on Ôki. I can’t imagine a viewer doubting that she will, hard as Otoko tries to stop her. Keiko easily seduces Ôki (planning to bear a child to give to Otoko), an,d with only slightly more effort, seduces his son, the graduate student Taichiro (Yamamoto Kei), who fails to heed the warnings of his mother (Sugimura Haruko) that Keiko is a dangerous witch (demon).

The shots were carefully composed (often notably symmetrical) by Kosugi Masao, who also shot “Pale Flower,” etc., but the only ones I particularly like take place in cemeteries. The Takemitsu soundtrack is typically foreboding (and not jazzy like the one he provided for “Pale Flower”, i.e., it sounds like Takemitsu as the music for “Pale Flower” did not).

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Late Kawabata: “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” and “One Arm”


I can understand the reluctance of the Swedish Academy to give a Nobel Prize for literature to Mishima Yukio, who was only 43 when it gave the first prize to a Japanese writer. Though he had published more than 40 works of fiction, they surely thought they could get back to him later and did not realize he would be dead in another two years.

They had missed giving the prize to Tanizaki Jun’ichiro before his death in 1965, and gave the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1968 to Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), longtime president of PEN Japan (and like Mishima, a Japanese writer with many contacts with western writers). All three strike me as authors of quite kinky fiction and personal obsessions, though the specifics of the obsessions differed among them.


Kawabata and Mishima (pictured together above) seem to have thought a lot about the ravages of aging. Mishima decided not to experience them. Kawabata was already writing about misanthropic old men in his 1933 story “Kinjû” (Of birds and beasts). Though Kawabata does not seem to have been as antisocial as the unnamed protagonist of the story, like him, Kawabata had many house pets, dogs and caged birds. The misanthropic protagonist had decided that “he did not like people. Husbands and wives, parents and children, brothers and sisters: the bonds were not easily cut even with the most unsatisfactory of people” He is pretty cavalier about the deaths of his pets, too, losing interest in newly acquired ones fairly quickly.

Nihilist though he is, the protagonist had dropped out of a love suicide pact earlier. As with other Kawabata fiction, the story ceases rather than ends. He wrote it one night before a deadline and did not return to attempt to craft an ending.

In a (plot-spoiling) introduction by Kawabata’s protégé, Mishima Yukio praised the ending (that might be considered open) of the novella Nemureru Bijo (The House of the Sleeping Beauties, first serialized in 1960-61). The age of its protagonist, Eguchi, is repeated noticeably often: 67 (seven more than Kawabata’s at the time). He begins visiting a special kind of bordello where impotent old men are relieved of performance anxieties and disappointments by going to sleep with drugged naked virgins.

Eguchi is “still a man,” though thinks that going to permanent sleep with a beautiful, naked virgin would be a good way to go. This fantasy (within a fantasy) is partly dispelled when another client does die on site and is carted away unceremoniously.

Neither Kawabata nor Eguchi not the proprietress seems to have given any thought to the clients having tongues and fingers… Well, the proprietress believes the referral system screens out those who might not be “gentlemen” who would take advantage of the sleeping beauties beyond the prescribed limits. Eguchi reflects that “for an old man who was no longer a man, to keep company with a girl who had been put to sleep was ‘not a human relationship.’” Not “a living doll” or a “living toy,” but for an old man she “could be life itself,” unconscious of itself and of who was spending the night being warmed by her youthful heat and able to enjoy gazing on beauty without being seen or judged… or known.

Aside from my subversive thoughts about policing what the clients do, I find the setup extremely creepy (I don’t share Tanizaki’s foot fetishism, either…) What I like about the novella is the memories and dreams that flood Eguchi on each of the five nights he spends (with different drugged women). The use of stream of consciousness was already present in “Of birds and beasts.” In “The House of the Sleeping Beauties” the memories are of women with whom Eguchi had been intimate. I find the flashbacks in both stories more interesting than the conduct being narrated.

Though I have not read any of it, Kawabata apparently wrote some surrealist fiction between the world wars. “Kataude” (One Arm, 1964) opens with “’I can let you have one of my arms for the night,’ said the girl. She took off her right arm at the should and, with her left hand, laid it on my knee.” The narrator is able to tell form the arm that the woman is a virgin (to put it mildly, Kawabata was hung up on virgin women). He replaces his own arm for a while with it, but when he wakes up is frightened to see his own arm lying there. He is only in his 30s, and the arm can speak (unlike the drugged beauties). The isolation from anything like normal human relationships and embrace of quite abnormal (not just unusual!) relationships of all three male protagonists makes the three fictions fit together, and I guess the setup of “House of Sleeping Beauties” could be considered almost as surrealistic as the substitution of limbs. (Indeed, Eguchi thinks that the elbow of one of the sleeping beauties seemed alive as well as beautiful.) The objectification of women is pervasive in Kawabata (and Tanizaki) fiction, though “House of Sleeping Beauties” takes it to an extreme, even beyond “One Arm” (in which the arm speaks, so has some agency).

“One arm” was the last work that Kawabata finished. Like many a Nobel Prize winner, after the award he gave lectures but did not do any more of the kind of work that won him the prize. One may wonder if Mishima would have continued to churn out fiction and plays had he won the award that he badly wanted. The second (in 1994) Japanese Nobel Prize laureate, Ôe Kenzaburô (1935-), who has psychopathologies of his own to nurse/revisit, has (two novels, along with considerable punditry, however).

– – –

Kawabata’s and Ôe’s Nobel lectures are both online at nobelprize.org. In his, Ôe spoke at length about Kawabata’s, in particular Kawabata’s differentiation between Zen detachment and western nihilism.

I also recently wrote about Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes, the substance of which has already evaporated from my memory, as that of Snow Country has despite having read it twice.

Mishima: “Because a virgin ceases to be a virgin once she is assaulted, impossibility of attainment is a necessary premise for putting virginity beyond agnosticism. And does not impossibility of attainment put eroticism and death at the same point?” As is often the case, I don’t follow Mishima’s logic, and also don’t share his feeling while reading House of being on a submarine using up its oxygen in reading the novella.”


©2016, Stephen O. Murray

Kawabata’s Thousand Cranes


Kawabata Yasunari (1899–1972) was the first (of two, though another one can’t be too many years off) Japanese writer to win a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. I know that I have read his most famous novel, Snow Country (begun in 1934, completed in 1947) twice, though I retain only the vaguest memories of it.

Along with Snow Country and The Old Capital, Sembazuru (Thousand Cranes, 1951) was specifically mentioned in the Nobel Prize citation of Kawabata’s “narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind.” I am dubious about that last phrase, though there is much that is very Japanese, including a particular kind of kinkiness that seems Japanese to me. And the venerable Japanese art of the tea ceremony provides many symbols of the evanescence of human life and the longevity of Taoist culture.

Plus, throughout the region, the (red-crowned) crane is a symbol of longevity. The traditional belief is that the crane lives for a thousand years. A Japanese application of the belief is that making a thousand paper cranes (origami paper-folding) will make a wish come true, the wish often being for a cure for a particular malady.

The only cranes in the book are on the pink scarf of one of the two younger women whom the novel’s passive male protagonist, Mitani Kikuji, might marry. Fumiko is the daughter of the favorite mistress of his dead (for five years) fathers. Chikako, an earlier mistress of his father, one whose birthmark on one breast the child Kikuji saw (a sight that haunted if not traumatized him). As a self-appointed matchmaker supposedly motivated by gratitude to Kikuji’s father). Chikako relentlessly presses Imamura Yukiko.

Kikuji repeatedly rejects the match, though he is attracted to the damsel, who performs the tea ceremony with grace, not knowing she is being examined as a prospective bride. Kikuji is not characterized at all: she is a piece in a sort of board game (chess or go) between Chikako and Mrs. Ota.

Mrs. Ota is about 45 and seduces Kikuji. After her suicide, Kikuji is drawn to her daughter Fumiko, who is selling her mother’s house and looking for a job. Chikako is quite ready to lie to prevent a liaison between Kikuji and Fumiko. Chikako also takes great liberties on the Mitani property, particularly the tea cottage.

Kikuji’s father was an aficionado of the tea ceremony and had collected 300-year-old utensils (bowls, pots, whisks), more than a few from the Ota collection. Fumiko gives Kikuji more as mementoes of her mother.

The novel (I think it would be a récit rather than a roman in French classification) is compressed and sometimes maddeningly indirect (IMHO)—in the grand Japanese tradition dating back to Genji monogatori.

Kikuji’s relationships with his father’s mistresses is not technically incest, but does not strike me as healthy. The eroticism seems to me better done by Tanizaki, whom I think should have received the Nobel Prize in 1968 instead of Kawabata. Both writers were concerned with the corrosive effects modernization and traditional subtle Japanese art.


(receiving the Nobel Prize in 1968)

(top photo Kawabata in 1946)


©2016, Stepben O. Murray