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?