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.
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.
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).
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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