The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

The Sound of the Mountain (山の音) is my book for Japanese Literature Challenge 5 at Dolce Bellezza, the only one this time and posting it before the Challenge ends this month. It is the first book I finished in 2012, at 1 a.m. January 1st. Truth is, I wanted to finish it by the end of last year, but couldn’t. I’ve been reading it for weeks in December. It’s a book that I had to read ever so slowly.

Yasunari Kawabata (川端 康成, 14 June 1899 – 16 April 1972) is the first of two Japanese Nobel laureates in literature, receiving the honor in 1968 (Kenzaburo Oe in 1994). So far I’ve only read two of Kawabata’s books, Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain. But from this limited experience, I’ve found that reading Kawabata is like watching an Ozu film. The camera is set low and mostly stationary to depict quiet expressions and gestures. Viewers are engaged by the nuanced dialogues as the director explores in depth thematic materials rather than presents plot-driven sequences. Both masters deal with intimate relationships, their characterization sensitive , their imagery poetic.

Ogata Shingo is in his early sixties, beginning to show signs of old age. Ever introspective and sensitive, he can almost hear the beckoning of death as sound that comes from the mountain to the rear of his house in Kamakura. As he lies in bed at night, beside his oblivious, snoring wife Yasuko, he can distinctly hear that sound:

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth… The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching.

At most, Shingo feels a duty towards his wife Yasuko. His heart though is drawn to two women, one is his wife Yasuko’s older sister who passed away from an illness some time ago. Yet Shingo still cherishes memories of her. The other is his son Shuichi’s wife, his own daughter-in-law Kikuko, who lives in his house. Nurturing a crush on two women who are not his wife has troubled Shingo deeply.

But the guilt he wrestles with is only a part of the distress he faces so late in life. Shingo has to face the marital problems of both his son Shuichi’s and his daughter Fusako’s.  Shuichi, who lives with his wife Kikuko in the house of his parents, has been seeing another woman, Kinu. And Shingo’s daughter Fusako has recently returned to her parent’s home with her two young children after her husband has deserted them.  Despite their being adults now, Shingo feels responsible for the failure of his children’s marriage.

In a restrained bickering between father and son, Shingo is put on the spot:

I’ve been thinking a little,” muttered Shuichi. “About Father’s life.”
“About my life?”
“Oh, nothing very definite. But if I had to summarize my speculations, I suppose they would go something like this: has Father been a success or a failure?

…..

But whether or not a parent is a success would seem to have something to do with whether or not his children’s marriages are successful. There I haven’t done too well.

As I was reading this book, I thought of Ozu’s films. Like Ozu, Kawabata is bold to expose the breakdown of the traditional family and the threat to paternal authority in post WWII Japan. He depicts the shift from a parent-child emphasis to one between husband and wife. He is honest in revealing the common cracks of unfaithfulness which can destroy marriages. In the book, he openly describes the strain and alienation between generations and within a marriage.

Besides relationships, Shingo has to battle with something more inherent and spiritual. His son Shuichi neglects his wife Kikuko and often goes to his mistress, Kinu, who later becomes pregnant. Shingo not only takes upon himself to deal with Kinu, but is drawn into something even more difficult to confront, for in Shuichi, he sees himself:

Shingo was astonished at his son’s spiritual paralysis and decay, but it seemed to him that he was caught in the same filthy slough. Dark terror swept over him.

Shingo is a man afflicted on severals fronts, guilt, responsibility, spiritual decay. Author Kawabata instills relief for his protagonist as well as his readers by means of Nature.

Gingko Tree in Japan

Shingo is superbly in tune with the natural world, and in turn, nature is a mirror from which he sees himself clearly. The temperamental sky reflects his moods; the typhoon, his inner turmoil; stalks of bamboo broken off by the storm parallel the broken family relationships he lives with; the noise of locust wings spells restlessness; and yet the unseasonable buds on the great gingko tree splashes hope in a troubled time:

The gingko has a sort of strength that the cherry doesn’t,” he said. “I’ve been thinking the ones that live long are different from the others. It must take a great deal of strength for an old tree like that to put out leaves in the fall.

And thus comes the turning point in Shuichi and Kikuko’s marriage, though fragile, still a glimmer of hope, while Fasuko’s marriage comes to an abrupt end like an overnight storm. As for Shingo, we wish him well, like the unseasonable buds on the great gingko tree.

The Sound of the Mountain requires slow reading and quiet contemplation. Like a good film, I know I will go back to it as time goes by.

**

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker, published by Vintage International, NY., 1996, 276 pages.

Note: ‘gingko’ in this book is spelt differently from our common spelling nowadays ‘ginkgo’

Ginkgo Tree photo from Wikimedia Commons

***

Other related posts on Japanese Literature and Films:

Reading Snow Country in Snow Country

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Oe

Yasujiro Ozu and the Art of Aloneness 

Notes on the Synthesis of Film, Art… Life?

Published by

Arti

If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

16 thoughts on “The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata”

  1. I read my first Kawabata novel last year – Beauty and Sadness. Your gorgeous review made me think of it a great deal, as many of the preoccupations I recall in it – the difficulty of having wives and mistresses, the feeling of having failed children, the intense communion with nature – were very present in the narrative. Did you find the other Kawabata novels you’ve read to follow this pattern – or were they different? I do remember enjoying this – or rather, appreciating the elegance of the prose and the sensitivity of the perspective.

    .
    litlove,

    Snow Country is about similar style, but more from the woman’s POV. It’s equally poetic, with many symbolism from nature. If you like, you can click here to my review. I think the next Kawabata I’d like to read is Beauty and Sadness as well as A Thousand Cranes. Have you written a review post on Beauty and Sadness?

    Arti

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  2. I read about this one last year and added it to my TBR. It sounds BEAUTIFUL. Exactly like something I’d enjoy.

    .
    Jillian,

    You’ll find Kawabata’s writing fascinating, albeit reading through translation. Hope you like it.

    Arti

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  3. I really enjoyed reading your review! I have not read Kawabata but after your thoughts on this book, I see that I am going to have to or risk missing a beautiful book.

    .
    Stefanie,

    Thanks and do try it, I think you’ll enjoy it.

    Arti

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  4. A question has been nagging at my mind – not a question for you to answer, but a question for me to explore. All my life I’ve had difficulty with math and science – from arithmetic flashcards to nearly failing biology to being truly a doofus when it comes even such simple things as the metric system. On the other hand, I read early, had no trouble spelling, and loved taking reading comprehension tests or diagnostic tests like the Miller’s analogies.

    After reading your review, I’m wondering again if there are some minds that are more receptive to Eastern modes of thought and expression than others. I have such trouble even with reviews of Japanese authors – not just yours, everyone’s! I can’t even describe what the problem is – except to say that I can’t seem to get interested.

    I think, since this is my year to begin reading regularly, I need to pick up one of these Japanese novels and flog my way through it. It may be simple unfamiliarity that’s the problem. We’ll see. I went back through your reviews, and think perhaps “Snow Country” is the one to try. What do you think?

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    1. Linda,

      I think reading Japanese literature is like eating sushi, it’s an acquired taste. I love sushi, but I don’t wish to eat it at every meal. I’d like to have variety too. Like a huge smorgasbord… there are so many choices that of course one would choose those items that one loves. I’d say, select books that you desire to taste and don’t worry about the rest. So many books out there, you’re not going to catch up anyway, might as well please yourself.

      Even just for Japanese literature, there’s a myriad of selections. I for one like the traditional and classic ones. That’s why I chose Kawabata. But my experience is limited indeed. However, if you’re to choose between Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain, I suggest the latter, for it’s a more modern setting and deals with issues a reader can readily relate to, ageing, relationships, loyalty, freedom… esp. for the woman. I’d say: Choose what you think you’d enjoy and eat to your heart’s content. 🙂

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      1. Oh, much better to follow your recommendation. You know me pretty well and you know Japanese literature very well, so I’d be foolish not to travel the path you suggest!

        .
        Not ‘very well’ about Japanese literature, just interested every now and then to have some variety in the diet. 😉

        A.

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  5. Lovely review Arti … and I do love the Gingko tree … it’s such a magnificent tree and I think symbolises longevity in Japan (if I remember correctly) which works well for the book and its concerns doesn’t it. My other comments are pretty basic because I read it in January 2007. I enjoyed Shingo’s contemplation on ageing – it has a lovely meditative tone. I liked the metaphoric aspects (besides the gingko) – such as the cherry tree being allowed to spread, and its looking sick at the end of the novel; the caring for the mongrel stray dog. I liked the sense of hope – ‘they might make a new start. Human beings are capable of such things’. I also liked, as I recollect, the fact that the ending was a little enigmatic.

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    1. Whisperinggums,

      Oh thank you so much for sharing your observations! Yes, there are so many apt metaphors in the book that I’m sure to miss in a post. In additional to your supplements, but an important point is Kikuko’s questioning of whether she has freedom at all. Ironically, she seems to be restricted, resigned, and has to give up what’s precious, while the mistress Kinu actively chooses what she wants… not to give away spoilers, you know what I refer to. Thanks again for sharing your view!

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  6. You’ve been busy writing and I’m behind again! This one sounds fascinating. I have to struggle with books by Japanese writers. But when I read them, I am always transported back to Japan and the places I visited when I was there. We stayed with friends so it wasn’t your typical “see the big cities and stay in Western hotels” tour.

    I did love the quote about the ginko. I have a ginko in my yard and at one time had a cherry, which came down in a bad wind storm. The ginko, its trunk smaller, stayed tall. I thought it was luck of the draw. Maybe not.

    .
    Jeanie,

    That must be an authentic trip you had. I’ve been to Japan but only to tourist destinations I’m afraid. And, I’d love to see pictures of your gingko tree. I didn’t know we have gingko in N. A.

    I don’t feel reading Japanese lit. is anything more different than other culture’s which we have to be mediated through translations. Of course, we’ll miss some nuances and ‘insider’ content, for sure, but we can still glean what we can get. And yes, it’s interesting to see the different styles and emphasis.

    Arti

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  7. Dear Arti, I feel like I’d have to go away for a few days to read this book. Someplace quiet. Where I could be “in the place” that the book is set. I know full well I need to break away from my favored Western European and American lit. Like Shoreares and Jeanie both mention, I too, have not read (or should I say “stuck with” any Japanese fiction. I have Murakami’s NORWEIGAN WOOD and started it nearly 2 years ago.) The point being, I need to push my own envelope. I have, on the other hand, been intrigued by manga (particularly the series called Emma).
    So, once again you inspire….and I love the scope of your review. Seriously.

    PS Still trying hoping to get to see THE ARTIST this weekend, based on your recommendation!!!!!!

    .
    oh,

    You know, I just like to taste different items on the smorgasbord. And for some reasons, I’m not really into contemporary Japanese lit. So to be honest, I haven’t read any Murakami. I love Ishiguro, but don’t consider his works ‘Japanese’. And for Norwegian Wood, I just saw the trailer for its film adaptation yesterday in the theatre.

    And from the two Reading Challenges I’ve committed to for 2012, I’ll be selecting a lot of ‘Western’ food. 😉

    As for The Artist, yes, do watch it in the theatre instead of on TV at home. It’s the experience that’s unique.

    Arti

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  8. Arti, this sounds intense and wonderful and a book I will look out for after reading your review. I had heard of Snow Country but not this one. It sounds similar on in many ways to Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World which I have just finished and appreciated very much. I see you have read it too? I liked your sushi comment to Linda above, I’m the same – I like the small amount of Japanese literature I’ve read and plan to read more but I’m more than happy to spread it out and take plenty of time between courses…

    .
    Tracey,

    Yes, it’s been a while since I read Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World. It’s similar in setting, but different issues are dealt with here. If you’ve enjoyed An Artist, I’m sure you’ll like this one. Mind you, Kawabata belongs to the past generation of Japanese society. You might be interested to see how they differ.

    Arti

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  9. This is a really wonderfully in-depth review of this book. It looks like it touched you pretty deeply and resulted in a lot of introspection. Those books are great, though I can only take so many in close range to each other before I start REALLY contemplating my place in the universe.

    .
    Aarti,

    One doesn’t have to take it so seriously though… You can still skim through it and just appreciate the imagery and poetry. There are so many facets that you can enjoy whatever that’s more relevant to you. Thanks for stopping by and leaving your comment!

    Arti

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  10. “It’s a book that I had to read ever so slowly” followed by “The Sound of the Mountain requires slow reading and quiet contemplation. Like a good film, I know I will go back to it as time goes by.” I think those two lines are the epitome of why I love Japanese literature so much. That, and the fact that they do seem to be more closely tuned to nature than those of us in America. The Japanese seem to find meaning in everything, and I respect their culture so much.

    I’m wondering if I’ve read anything by Kawabata…after checking my files, the answer is no. But I do own The First Snow on Mount Fuji, which makes me glad I at least possess a work of his after reading your beautiful review. You really wrote a lovely review, Arti. Just lovely.

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    1. Bellezza,

      Thanks for hosting the JLC all these years. It’s because of these reading events that I began to explore Japanese literature. And my interest is only limited to the more ‘classic’ ones. I admit for some reasons, I’m not drawn to contemporary Japanese lit as these older ones. And mind you, since I haven’t read much contemporary Japanese novels, I’m not sure all the poetic imagery, the meditative mood, and being in tune with nature… all the transcendent contemplations are characteristics of the ‘old school’ that belong to the past generation? From my observation of contemporary Japanese society, I can sense some major differences. Would you agree?

      Like

  11. This is a writer I want to read more of, after thoroughly enjoying Master Of Go & this is on my list of books to be read soon.

    .
    Parrish,

    Do let me know what you think of these other ones. Have you written a review on Master of Go?

    Arti

    Like

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