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

The train came out of the long tunnel in the land of snows. The land was white under the night sky.

The opening lines of Yasunari Kawabata’s 1935 novel “Snow Country” are among the most famous in Japanese literature. Today, 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 story of an urban Tokyoite’s ill-fated relationship with a rural geisha was filmed on location in Fukushima Prefecture and stars Issei Takahashi as the protagonist Shimamura.

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

“The book itself is full of beautiful images, but also a lot of gaps and empty spaces,” he said. “That kind of storytelling is pretty rare for TV these days. I imagine it will elicit a lot of different feelings from our audience.

The adaptation is part of a larger reassessment of Kawabata’s life and work on the half-century anniversary of his death. The Nobel laureate has drawn constant attention in 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 that 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 further reveal a figure who remained aloof from public view throughout his life.

For the curators, the exhibition is a chance “to see the real Kawabata through his search for connections with others”.

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

A draft that would be the origin of “Fire” by Yasunari Kawabata | KYODO

Earlier this year, the team discovered a note hinting at an alternate ending for “Snow Country.” Another discovery revealed a draft from the early 1920s by the writer that is 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 – was reprinted due to popular demand just seven days after its early release. april.

The publication of the novel, a semi-autobiographical account of the protagonist’s erotic encounter with a schoolmate, won praise from contemporary playwright Hiroyuki Ono for its glimpse into ‘the soul of an orphan who still walks with us today’. today”.

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

The Nobel Committee for Literature, in making Kawabata the first-ever winner of the Japanese Literary Prize in 1968, cited the author’s “narrative mastery” and his ability to “express the essence of the Japanese spirit”.

Scholar of contemporary Japanese literature Sachiyo Taniguchi wrote that the selectors “turned to Japanese literature after deciding to correct the imbalance favoring Western writers” and that “Kawabata’s prize did not come only for his literature , but was also an expression of the international recognition of Japanese literature.”

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

Often referred to as Kawabata’s most popular and well-known work in Japan, it was his first story translated into English. The subject of many screen adaptations, the story also inspired the nickname Odoriko (dancer) given to trains leaving Tokyo for Izu.

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

In 1934 he moved to Kamakura, home to a vibrant pre-war literary scene. It was there that he began work on “Snow Country”, widely regarded as his masterpiece.

Yasunari Kawabata, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, at work at home in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture |  THE KAWABATA YASUNARI FOUNDATION / VIA KYODO
Yasunari Kawabata, Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968, at work at home in Kamakura, Kanagawa Prefecture | THE KAWABATA YASUNARI FOUNDATION / VIA KYODO

Deeply affected by the war, Kawabata’s post-war work became increasingly nostalgic for a Japan that was now rapidly stepping back into the past. In his career-ending novel “A 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 his 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 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature ahead of his good friend Yukio Mishima, whom the committee deemed too young to win the prize.

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

For Fusako Innami, a scholar from Durham University, the influence of Kawabata remains evident in many artists of various mediums, both in Japan and abroad.

Abroad, Innami notes, it is possible to draw parallels between Kawabata’s work and the 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 speaks to a wider international audience,” Innami said, explaining that her work can be read as sekai bungaku (world literature), although it depicts Japanese icons such as hot springs and geishas.

It’s this global appeal achieved through Japanese settings and themes that continues to generate tremendous interest in Kawabata. The anniversary focus on his life and work helps provide new perspectives and insight into a figure who remains a true great in world literature.

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