Guest Contributor: Yoshi Inoue on ‘Snow Country’

'Ero guro' in action...

Ero-guro – an abbreviated version of ‘erotic-grotesque’, denoting a fetish for the absurd and the extreme – was a sub-cultural fad during the early 1930s in urban Japan.

To some observers it was liberating and egalitarian, allowing women as well as men to express their sexuality and to pursue pleasure.

To others, however, it epitomised a distinctly ‘modern’ preoccupation with the self and with shallow goals.

Many Japanese writers of the late Taisho and early Showa periods rejected the Western conception of ‘modernity’ for precisely this reason: they saw it as inextricably linked with decadence and materialism.

One of the greatest novelists of this period, Kawabata Yasunari, believed that Japan had so far failed to develop a truly Japanese modernity. As a result, the much-hailed ‘progress’ brought to Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868 was really a kind of intrusion of an alien culture – and a damaging discontinuity with Japan’s past.

The model for Kawabata's 'Komako'

Kawabata’s novel, Snow Country, serialised during 1935-7 in five different journals and then published in 1947, set out to explore some of the problems raised by this ambiguous turn in Japan’s recent history. It followed the journey of a dilettante, ‘Shimamura’, who at regular intervals left his family back in Tokyo to pursue a love-affair with a beautiful provincial geisha, Komako.

The opening line of Snow Country has been hailed as one of the most illustrious sentences in modern Japanese literature: “the train came out of the long tunnel, into the snow country.”

This long train tunnel, connecting two distinct, opposed worlds that coexisted within the Japan of this era, provides the symbol for the dislocation felt, consciously or subconsciously, by so many among the Japanese urban population who encountered ‘modernity’.

Shimamura’s encounter with the almost mystical qualities of rural Japan upon his arrival in the snow country suggests to readers that he’s on a spiritual quest of sorts, to find and experience for himself the ‘true’ meaning of Japanese beauty.

Yet he’s clearly an outsider. He exists in the void, too uncomfortable to make a place for himself in the present, but too conscious of the fact that there is no longer a past to return to.

Shirakawago - part of Japan's 'snow country' and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Even though Shimamura is captivated by the beauty all around him, rather than being actively engaged there is a sense of detachment about his conduct: when he’s gradually forced to make a decision about his uncertain relationship with Komako he’s reluctant to take on any kind of responsibility and he avoids getting emotionally involved.

Sadly, in Shimamura’s eyes, Komako never becomes more than a feature of the natural landscape.

Through Shimamura’s reticence we feel Kawabata posing a single, big question: what does it mean to be Japanese? His answer is, in part, a cultural commentary – his nostalgic portrayal of the irretrievable beauty of the past works as a savage critique of moral and aesthetic degeneration (it would have been natural for urban readers in his day to compare the delicate beauty of Komako and the elegance of rural Japan with garish city streets populated by sexy show-girls and their clientele).

Yasunari Kawabata (1899 - 1972)

But more than just a critique, Snow Country is Kawabata’s endeavour to preserve the ‘essence’ of Japan – that which he believed made Japan perpetually distinct.

As for Shimamura, through his reticence and detachment is Kawabata applauding a kind of nihilistic resignation in life, or encouraging an existential engagement with it?

That, I believe, is left to readers themselves to decide.

 

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6 Comments

  • Katie Phair
    May 4, 2012 - 8:06 pm | Permalink

    Yoshi, this review is fantastic. I really, really enjoyed it. However, you know I always like to ask more questions! :)

    I think it’s a sign of Kawabata’s skill that the sense of ‘nihilistic resignation’ really lingered with me after I read it. It’s very challenging because it is so subtle, yet deeply and oddly engaging. He is definitely a master of his craft.

    However, I find it interesting that you said very little about Komako, because I think she’s the most interesting character in the entire text. She seems needy and naive, but ultimately I feel she understands the fragility of existence to a degree Shimamura will never do. She is not merely ‘delicate’, but passionate and involved, and I think any critique of ‘Snow Country’ would vastly benefit from trying to understand her role more fully. Her growing alcoholism fascinates me, and I’m curious as to what you feel this is representative of? Moreover, why do you think most reviews fail to offer any form of opinion of the two female characters (other than how Shimamura feels about them)?

    Yet, to critique MY assessment somewhat, I think the real brilliance of Kawabata is that he forces you to project onto the characters. I found it difficult to read Shimamura’s passivity and actively sought out anything to counteract it…so I guess I sought the ‘existential engagement’ whilst feeling burdened by the ‘nihilistic resignation’. ‘Snow Country’, to me, is a study in and a tool for introspection that probes our sense of self mercilessly and, in its harrowing climax, leaves us feeling utterly vulnerable.

    • Yoshi Inoue
      May 8, 2012 - 9:41 am | Permalink

      Hi Katie, thanks for your comment. I agree, Komako is a fascinating character. Having said that, to me, ‘Snow Country’ remains Shimamura’s private travelogue in which Komako only emerges as a feature of the natural landscape – a result of Shimamura’s attempt to understand himself. The way Komako is portrayed is how Shimamura sees (or possibly wishes to see) his own existence: “a wasted effort”. You seem rather frustrated by his passivity but how do you think ‘he’ feels?

  • Chris
    May 9, 2012 - 1:47 am | Permalink

    Great review, Yoshi, thanks very much. I’m reading Aldous Huxley’s ‘Island’ again at the moment, and in comparison with Kawabata’s writing it feels relentlessly pushy and hectoring in its idealism. I share Katie’s appreciation of a writer like Kawabata who instead opens up room to wonder – both in the way he writes and in the imagery he works with, giving us plenty of white space…

  • Katie Phair
    May 9, 2012 - 8:14 pm | Permalink

    Exactly Chris (I find Huxley can be very instructive, which veers from inspirational to infuriating, depending on my mood!)

    Yoshi, I completely agree with you in the presentation of Komako as a feature of the landscape, but I think in some ways Kawabata steps outside of Shimamura every so often to proffer a challenge to Shimamura’s perspective; for me, at least, Komako is the most obvious example of that.

    I’m always slightly frustrated by passivity about existence and, thus, I think I struggle to empathise fully with him. In that respect, the readers response to Shimamura will almost certainly be dictated by their own circumstances/beliefs/perspective? Perhaps you find the tale is ‘his’ because you can relate so strongly to him? Perhaps because I find his antipathy difficult to accept I transfer my investment in the text to Komako? Really, as Chris said, there is so much room to wonder and that’s why I find Kawabata so endlessly fascinating.

    • Yoshi Inoue
      May 10, 2012 - 9:53 am | Permalink

      I believe so… you have a very good point!

    • Yoshi Inoue
      May 10, 2012 - 9:53 am | Permalink

      I believe so… you have a very good point!

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