The Dancing Girl of Izu by Yasunari Kawabata (Japanese Literature Challenge 13)

On the road, a traveling companion; and in the world, kindness.

~an old Japanese saying

I first heard of this short story from Masa, our travel guide, when I was visiting the Izu Peninsula in Japan two years ago. He asked if I had ever read it, as it was one of his favorites, but I told him I had not.

Just now I have finished this lovely, gentle story by Yasunari Kawabata. It tells of a twenty year old student from Tokyo as he briefly follows itinerant entertainers who perform for people in tea houses. He has noticed the beauty of the dancing girl and cannot bring himself to leave her, or her family, until he runs out of money to travel and must return to Tokyo.

There is no consummation of their relationship; there is not even an embrace, let alone a kiss. But, her hair brushes his shoulder as they play a game with stones called “Five-in-a-row.” She asks him to read her “The Story of The Lord of Mito.“

I picked up the book, with a certain expectation in my heart. Just as I hoped, the dancing girl scooted over beside me. Once I began reading, she brought her face close enough to touch my shoulder, her expression serious. Her eyes sparkled as she gazed at my forehead without blinking. It seemed to be her habit when she was being read to.

She asks him to take her to a silent movie when they come to town, but when he does, her mother forbids her to go.

They have nothing between them but a strong connection, a great affection particularly on his part. He finds something within the traveling group, within the dancing girl herself, which provides some comfort to his spirit. It isn’t until the end of the story that we find out why.

Twenty years old, I had embarked on this trip to Izu heavy with resentment that my personality had been permanently warped by my orphan’s complex and that I would never be able to overcome a stifling melancholy. So I was inexpressibly grateful to find that I looked like a nice person as the world defines the word.

I read this beautiful, melancholic short story (first published in 1926) for free by downloading it from Internet Archive, which proves to be a wonderful resource for borrowing literature. It is perfect for the Japanese Literature Challenge 13, and the first short story I’ve read for the Deal Me In Challenge.

The Sound of The Mountain

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Do mountains make a sound? I’m a Midwestern girl, and I know more about plains than I do about mountains. But when I consider Shingo telling us his story, I can see the allusion to the mountain he fancies he hears making a deep, low rumble.

A mountain is implacable. It doesn’t move, unless bits of it crumble away, or it combusts from within as a volcano. And Shingo seems very passive to me.

His daughter-in-law, Kikuko, who lives with him and his wife, is passive, too. She waits quietly for her husband to come home at night, drunken, and leaving his mistress behind. She serves her father-in-law with apparently effortless kindness. She watches her sister-in-law’s children with care and grace. It is no wonder that Shingo seems more attached to her than to anyone else in his home.

His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. p. 37

Kikuko, although a daughter-in-law, seems irresistibly attractive to Shingo. It could be because she is beautiful, or kind, or abandoned emotionally by her husband. But she serves her father-in-law tea every morning, and brings him gifts from her childhood home, and in every way ingratiates herself to him. Maybe she is relieved to find affection of any kind, since her husband is so caught up with his mistress.

This is a quiet sort of book, deceptively simple. It bears heavy themes, however, about a family whose members are ashamed of one another, themes of longing, disloyalty, and subsequent embarrassment.

When Shingo’s son makes his wife pregnant, she has an abortion because she cannot seem to bear being pregnant while her husband has another woman. When his mistress also becomes pregnant, and intends to keep the illegitimate child, Shingo is horrified, and angry for the way his son has treated Kikuko.

But what can he do? He is 62 years old, an old man in his own eyes, who is past the capability of having a young lover of his own, past the capability of easily remembering things, and wholly incapable of changing his life or anyone else’s life in his family. Happiness is elusive to him. Happiness seems to elude them all.

In a way I have come to expect from Japanese novels, there is no resolution at the last page. We come into his life in the middle of his 60’s, we leave many years later, not seeing anything change in Shingo’s family. We are left with the impression that life will carry on as it always has for them: troubled, ineffective, ungrounded.

I think the most distressing quote I came upon was one little line on the bottom of page 235. “He had contributed to no one’s happiness.” That’s all. If I was reading quickly, I may have missed it. But I think that’s the point of the whole novel, and for me that is the worst thing that can be said when looking back over one’s life.

I read this book for Tony’s January in Japan, as well as my own deplorably neglected Japanese Literature Challenge 8. Find other reviews here, here, and one from several years ago, here.

The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata

     

“The old capital was known as the place in Japan where many of the innovations from the West were first adopted. This trait was evident among many of the people of Kyoto as well.

But perhaps there is still something of the old capital in a city that would keep the streetcar running so long. Naturally, the streetcar itself was small; one’s knees almost touched those of the passenger sitting opposite.

Now that the street car was to be dismantled, however it seemed that everyone hated to part with it.” (p. 103)

Cited as one of the three novels specifically mentioned when Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, The Old Capital is a lovely, atmospheric, deeply moving book. It seems to examine many dualities: between twin sisters, old traditions and new, successful businesses and struggling ones.

Chieko has been adopted by two parents who love her immensely. She has grown to be a sweet and beautiful girl, one whose countenance makes any one who gazes upon her sigh. Completely by accident, she comes across her twin sister one day, who works in the mountains. They instantly form a bond of love and understanding.

Chieko had caught wind of the neighbors’ whispers and realized that she was a foundling, but she had forced herself not to wonder about what sort of parents had abandoned her. no amount of wondering could have helped her understand. Besides, Takichiro and Shige’s love for her had been so warm that she saw no need to pursue her origins. (p. 93)

The background of the story contains her parents; her father is a kimono designer. They struggle financially. They also struggle with a sense of guilt, for who is to say that Chieko has been adopted or kidnapped? It is never quite clear, and perhaps ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What we become is more important than from where we’ve come.

I found this novel to be melancholy, but beautiful. Much like I feel when I’m sitting in the pine forest on a gray winter day. There is much to think about. But there is even more to absorb simply by being still and letting the flakes fall where they may.