Japan’s first Nobel literature laureate a towering figure 50 years after death

The train came out of the long tunnel into the snow country. The land lay white under the night sky.

The opening lines of Yasunari Kawabata’s 1935 novel “Snow Country” are among the most famous in Japanese literature. Now, to mark the 50th anniversary of the writer and Nobel laureate’s death on April 16, 1972, NHK is set to air a new adaptation of the novel.

The tale of an urban Tokyoite’s ill-fated relationship with a rural geisha was shot onsite in Fukushima Prefecture and features Issei Takahashi in the role of protagonist Shimamura.

In a recent interview with the TV Guide online magazine, Takahashi – who starred in the hit 2020 movie “Wife of a Spy,” which won that year’s best director award at the Venice International Film Festival – commented on the degree of faithfulness between the script and Kawabata’s original.

“The book itself is full of beautiful images, but also a lot of gaps and empty space,” he said. “That kind of storytelling is quite rare for television these days. I imagine it will raise a lot of different feelings in our audience. ”

The adaptation is part of a wider reappraisal of Kawabata’s life and work on the half-century anniversary of his death. The Nobel laureate has attracted consistent attention over the five decades since he shocked the literary world by taking his own life, and the current spotlight on the writer is a sign of this continuing trend.

Until June 11, Tokyo’s Museum of Modern Literature will host a Kawabata-themed exhibition titled “A person who loved, and was loved.” The collection focuses on private correspondence and personal notes that reveal more of a figure who remained distant from the public throughout his lifetime.

For the curators, the exhibition is a chance “to see the true Kawabata through his pursuit of connections with others.”

The process of assembling the exhibition revealed a number of gems previously unearthed by researchers.

A draft believed to be the origin story for Yasunari Kawabata’s “Fire” | KYODO

Earlier this year, the team discovered a memo hinting at an alternative ending for “Snow Country.” Another discovery revealed a draft from the writer’s early 20s believed to be the origin story for the later published work “Fire.”

Elsewhere, publisher Shinchosha revealed that the recent standalone publication of Kawabata’s “The Boy” – a novel previously only available as part of his collected works – had been reprinted due to popular demand only seven days after its early April release.

Publication of the novel, a semi-autobiographical account of the protagonist’s erotic encounter with a classmate, received praise by contemporary playwright Hiroyuki Ono for its insight into the “soul of an orphan still walking with us today.”

Losing his entire family at an early age and eventually dying by his own hand, Kawabata’s solemn, sparse prose style, reminiscent of haiku poetry, painted beautiful and often haunting images of the time and place in which he lived.

The Nobel literature committee, on making Kawabata Japan’s first ever literary prize winner in 1968, cited the author’s “narrative mastery” and an ability to “express the essence of the Japanese mind.”

Contemporary Japanese literature scholar Sachiyo Taniguchi has written that the selectors “turned to Japanese literature as the result of deciding to correct the imbalance favoring Western writers” and that Kawabata’s award came not only for his literature but was also an expression of international recognition of Japanese literature. ”

Born in Osaka in 1899, Kawabata moved to Tokyo in 1917 to study, eventually graduating with a degree in Japanese literature from Tokyo University. He first gained national attention as a writer in 1926 with publication of the short story “The Dancing Girl of Izu.”

Often named as Kawabata’s most popular and well-known work in Japan, it was his first story translated into English. Subject of numerous on-screen adaptations, the story also inspired the Odoriko (dancing girl) nickname given to trains headed out from Tokyo toward Izu.

Kawabata’s literary fame grew throughout the late 1920s. In 1929, he began serializing what would become “The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa,” a narrative drawing on his own experiences living among the working classes of downtown Tokyo’s notorious prewar entertainment district.

In 1934, he moved to Kamakura, home to a vibrant prewar literary scene. It was there that he began work on “Snow Country,” widely considered to be his masterpiece.

Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968, at work in his home in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture |  THE KAWABATA YASUNARI FOUNDATION / VIA KYODO
Yasunari Kawabata, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature in 1968, at work in his home in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture | THE KAWABATA YASUNARI FOUNDATION / VIA KYODO

Deeply affected by the war, Kawabata’s postwar work became increasingly nostalgic for a Japan that was now fast receding into the past. In his late-career novel “Thousand Cranes” (1949), the male protagonist – newly intrigued by the tea ceremony – finds himself entangled in an increasingly complicated relationship with his deceased father’s former mistress and her daughter.

In 1961, he was awarded the Imperial Order of Culture, Japan’s highest cultural honor. He then won the race to become Japan’s first Nobel laureate in literature ahead of his good friend Yukio Mishima, who the committee deemed too young to win the prize.

The writer’s troubled final years were dogged by illness – he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease shortly before his death – and recurring nightmares featuring Mishima, who himself had taken his own life in 1970.

For Durham University scholar Fusako Innami, Kawabata’s influence remains evident in numerous artists in various mediums, both inside and outside Japan.

Overseas, Innami notes, it’s possible to draw parallels between the work of Kawabata and Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez, who refers specifically to Kawabata in his novel “Memories of My Melancholy Whores” (2004).

“Some of the themes and the way Kawabata conveys them speak to wider international audiences,” Innami said, explaining that his work can be read as sekai bungaku (world literature), despite it depicting Japanese icons such as hot springs and geisha.

It is this global appeal achieved through Japanese settings and themes that continues to generate considerable interest in Kawabata. The anniversary focus on his life and work is helping to provide new perspectives and insight into a figure who remains a genuine great of world literature.

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