Snow Country

Title: Snow Country
Japanese Title: 雪国 (Yukiguni)
Author: Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成)
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
Publication Year: 1956 (America); 1947 (Japan)
Publisher: Vintage International
Pages: 175

Snow Country won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, a year which serves as a convenient temporal marker for the changing perception of Japan in the collective consciousness of the Western world. The postwar American occupation of Japan had ended fifteen years prior, and many of the American G.I. officers returned home from the country with the knowledge and motivation to create Japanese Studies departments in American universities like Columbia and Harvard. With their classes and translations came a new respect for the Japan of the twentieth century among academic circles. Meanwhile, Japan itself had risen from the ashes of wartime devastation and had begun to enter an era of double-digit GNP growth. The city of Tokyo had hosted the Summer Olympics in 1964; and, with the ultra-modern Tokyo Dome stadium and high speed bullet train between Tokyo and Kyoto, Japan was able to prove itself the technological and economic equal of any country in the world. The Nobel Committee thus awarded its literary prize to Kawabata for reasons that were partially political, as they would to many candidates over the following four decades. As with these other laureates, however, Kawabata did not win the world’s foremost award for literary distinction for political reasons alone.

According to academic lore, Kawabata’s candidacy was largely a result of Edward Seidensticker’s translation of Snow Country. Snow Country is an aesthetically magnificent book, and Seidensticker was able to do justice to Kawabata’s subtle and poetically resonant prose with his English translation. We are of course lucky that Seidensticker’s translation is so masterful; but, even if it had been merely adequate, the relatively early introduction of a translation into English would still have gained Kawabata a prominent position in the field of international literature. American and European prose writers and poets had cultivated a love affair with haiku and the Japanese aesthetic principals often associated with Zen Buddhism, and Snow Country delivered such “Japanese” sensibilities by the bucket load. In many contemporary reviews of the novel, Kawabata’s prose is repeatedly praised as being delicate and “haiku-like.”

As a prominent member of a literary group called the “New Sensationalist School” (新感覚派), Kawabata was interested in representing the various sensory stimuli of modern life in his writing. Earlier in his career, this interest lead to novels such as The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa, a loosely-structured work that pulls together various bits of urban ephemera, such as newspaper articles, playbills, advertising posters, and overheard conversations. In Snow Country, however, Kawabata turns his keen gaze on a small mountain village in the “snow country” of Niigata prefecture, a region on the west side of the Japan Alps that is referred to as such due to its heavy winter precipitation. Along with luxuriant snowfall, the words “snow country” conjure up images of ski vacations, deliciously warm hot springs, high-quality saké brewed with snowmelt runoff waters, and small, traditional inns catering to all of the fall and winter tourists. To men of a certain generation, the snow country is also associated with the geisha who service these tourists. Unlike the artistically skilled geisha of urban areas such as Kyoto, these “hot springs geisha” are known for using their minimal training in music and dance as a cover for more intimate performances.

Snow Country is about a man named Shimamura who travels to the snow country to meet a hot springs geisha named Komako. The novel begins during Shimamura’s second trip to Niigata as his train emerges from a mountain tunnel into the open air:

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

This is one of the most famous opening passages in Japanese literature. In the original language, when Shimamura’s train emerges from the long tunnel, he crosses a kokkyō (国境), or a border between countries, and, as he does so, “the bottom of the night becomes white” (yoru no soko ga shiroku natta). It is such terse and powerful descriptions that American critics have described as “haiku-like,” thus connecting Kawabata with premodern poets such as Bashō and Issa.

As I mentioned earlier, however, Kawabata’s New Sensationalist School was interested in describing the sensations of the modern era – thus the emphasis on “New.” Premodern poetry was no longer enough to describe the modern landscape, even in a place like the snow country. The New Sensationalists thus incorporated the methods of photography and cinematography into their writing. For example, while Shimamura is still on the train going deeper into the snow country, he watches the image of a woman reflected on the surface of his window.

In the depths of the mirror the evening landscape moved by, the mirror and the reflected figures like motion pictures superimposed one on the other. The figures and the background were unrelated, and yet the figures, transparent and intangible, and the background, dim in the gathering darkness, melted together into a sort of symbolic world not of this world. Particularly when a light out in the mountains shone in the center of the girl’s face, Shimamura felt his chest rise at the inexpressible beauty of it.

Not only is Kawabata referencing movies directly both in his description of the scene and in his play on light and mirrors and unreal images, but he’s also obliquely referencing the modern state of being overwhelmed with sensory input. On another level, by having Shimamura watch himself watching the reflection of a woman instead of directly addressing her, Kawabata hints at the fractured nature of the modern self, which, despite having finally developed a modern ego, is now mediated through various technologies. It would take some time to fully unpack this passage, but what I am trying to get at is that, instead of thinking of Kawabata as the successor to some mystical Zen poetic tradition, it’s useful to understand the author as looking through the modern lens of a camera, both in his still frames and in his tracking shots.

If a haiku is supposed to capture the “thusness” of a single moment, for instance, Kawabata instead uses his descriptive passages in the way that a movie director might use an establishing shot, namely, to suggest things about his characters that can’t otherwise be established in the absence of devices like narratorial exposition. In showing the reader an image of the house where the geisha Komako lives, Kawabata is essentially showing us Komako herself:

To the right was a small field, and to the left persimmon trees stood along the wall that marked off the neighboring plot. There seemed to be a flower garden in front of the house, and red carp were swimming in the little lotus pond. The ice had been broken away and lay piled along the bank. The house was old and decayed, like the pitted trunk of a persimmon. There were patches of snow on the roof, the rafters of which sagged to draw a wavy line at the eaves.

What the reader is supposed to understand from this description, especially as it is combined with Komako’s behavior and dialog, is that, although Komako tries to be bright and cheerful, there is something about her that is wasted and neglected as a hot springs geisha out in the rural snow country. Such a passage might indeed be “haiku-like” – but, then again, it is also intensely cinematic.

In Snow Country, Kawabata is writing about “traditional” Japan using “traditional” nature imagery, but he is also fully aware of the modern world and its literary devices, which include notions of dramatic structure, character psychology, and withholding information from the reader in order to force her to draw her own connections. It goes without saying that Kawabata was familiar with the canon of premodern Buddhist poetry, but he was equally familiar with the great novels of English, French, and Russian literature, as well as the cinematic auteurs of the early twentieth century.

It is also interesting to note that the majority of Snow Country was serialized between 1937 and 1941, a period of time in which writers, artists, and other intellectuals were indiscriminately jailed if they expressed even a hint of dissatisfaction with the fascist regime. By writing about geisha in the snow country, Kawabata could escape the attention of government censors. Yet, by not writing about the war – not a single mention of the Japanese state and its military action appears in the novel – Kawabata is, in a sense, resisting it by turning his back on it. Furthermore, when Japan does appear by association in the novel, it is not a healthy country. Shimamura, the modern dilettante who writes essays about Western ballet (which he has never actually seen), possess both wealth and power but refuses to do anything useful with it. Komako, an intelligent and essentially kind-hearted young woman with a glimmer of undeveloped talent, is pushed from male patron to male patron while rotting away in the heart of “traditional” Japan. Although Snow Country is unarguably an extraordinarily beautiful novel, its themes of waste and the contrast between hardship and indolence can be seen as a veiled commentary on the state of the nation during the opening years of the Pacific War, which director Toyoda Shirō subtly yet unmistakably drew out in his 1957 film version of the novel.

I think Snow Country is a fascinating novel. To dismiss it as a vaguely misogynistic, somehow Zen-like pastiche of auto-Orientalizing imagery is to do it a disservice. After all, Kawabata won the Nobel Prize for a reason. Snow Country is a pleasure to read, and it’s a pleasure to think about and discuss, which is probably the reason it’s assigned so often in “world literature” classes. As with all modern and contemporary Japanese literature, however, I have to insist that Snow Country be read as “literature” before it is read as “Japanese.”

From Impressionism to Anime

From Impressionism to Anime

Title: From Impressionism to Anime: Japan as Fantasy and Fan Cult in the Mind of the West
Author: Susan Napier
Publication Year: 2007
Publisher: Palgrave
Pages: 243

Let me start off by listing the obvious flaws of this book. First of all, the cover. It’s terrible. Whose idiot idea was it to take a crappy photo of crappy cosplay, run it through the “Impressionism” filter in Photoshop, and then put it on the cover of a book? According to the back cover, this monstrosity is the work of “Scribe Inc.” Shame on you, Scribe Inc., and shame on you, Palgrave, for letting them get away with it! Second of all, in a book primarily concerned with visual culture, there are surprisingly few illustrations. To be precise, there are ten, and only four of them are in color. This I am going to blame on the author, whose 2005 work Anime from Akira to Howl’s Moving Castle is also surprisingly under-illustrated (while other Palgrave scholarly publications have no shortage of well placed, high-quality greyscale images). Napier has no excuse for this, especially since the cosplay culture she details so lovingly is all about getting pictures of itself published. Third, Napier’s scope is very broad, but her treatment of her many topics is, perhaps unsurprisingly, shallow. I did not find this to be the case with Anime (despite many critical accusations to the contrary), but I’m disappointed with what I found to be the lack of sustained intellectual rigor in Impressionism.

Now that that’s out of the way, let me be something of a fangirl for a second and say that I love all of Napier’s work, Impressionism included. Napier always manages to choose the most fascinating things to write about, and she always does an excellent job of explaining why her chosen subject matter is interesting and important. Her analysis is apt, penetrating, and lucid, and her work does not suffer from any of the structural weakness found in a great deal of recent academic work – you always know what she’s trying to say, and her way of saying it is both logical and artistic. Although her theoretical background is rock solid (her bibliographies are a bit intimidating), she doesn’t blithely toss around big names and critical jargon. Also, you can tell that, even though she occasionally betrays a bit of light-hearted sarcasm, she has nothing but respect for the topics of her studies.

This attitude of respect is very important for a work like Impressionism, which deals with some strange and, depending on one’s perspective, almost contemptible subject matter. The book is divided into eight chapters (not including the Introduction and Conclusion). The first four chapters each take up a different aspect of the West’s fascination with Japan during the last two centuries. The first chapter covers turn-of-the-century Impressionists like Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, who revolutionized the fine arts with a little inspiration from Japan, or at least the “Japan” of their imaginations. The second chapter goes into famous inter-war Japan enthusiasts such as Lafcadio Hearn, Arthur Waley, and Frank Lloyd Wright. The third chapter follows the antics of post-war American writers like Jack Kerouac, Gary Snyder, Michel Crichton, and William Gibson, and the fourth chapter is all about how Western men perceive and interact with Japanese women in works like Madame Butterfly and Memoirs of a Geisha. The last four chapters, which I consider to be the true raison d’être of this book, deal with American anime fandom and all its various manifestations, from anime conventions to cosplay to slash fan fiction. Through all of this, Napier attempts to uncover the source of the West’s long fascination with Japan, all the while making astute references to the global political and economic climates during which this fascination has become manifest.

The first four chapters, while interesting, are, as I said earlier, somewhat shallow. Each topic that Napier covers in these chapters has been written about extensively by other scholars, a fact which she openly acknowledges. Her originality here lies in the fact that she documents what she sees as a trend, although she is cautious about saying that the various moments in the history of what I am going to call “Japan fandom” are directly related. The main point of interest for readers is the work that Napier has done on post-1980 American anime fandom, which is the culmination of many years of interviews and surveys. Mainly speaking through the voices of the fans she has contacted, Napier attempts to explain the appeal of contemporary Japanese popular culture to Americans, often in contrast to American popular culture. Although she offers no strong conclusion, the variety of insights Napier offers are invaluable.

My one real criticism of this study is that, although Napier hints at exposing the power relations underlying fan culture, she never really follows through. In other words, she is mainly concerned with the relation of fans to the world outside fandom (what she calls “the Muggle world”) and doesn’t delve into the hierarchies of power within the in-group of fandom itself. For example, I would have found an analysis of the term “weeaboo” (an American who loves anime so much that he or she wants to become Japanese) to be a pertinent addition to her discussion. Instead, Napier makes American anime fandom seem like something of a utopia; although she mentions the darker side of fandom by quoting scholars who bring up the concept of “fan pathology,” she never directly acknowledges that such a thing might actually exist in her own object of study.

Otherwise, I found From Impressionism to Anime to be a very satisfying read. It’s an excellent cultural study and could double as a perfect introduction to modern and contemporary Japanese history for someone considering pursuing the subject as an undergraduate – or simply as an intelligent, interested individual. Don’t let the cover fool you. This is actually a book you want to read!

Outlet

outlet

Title: Outlet
Japanese Title: コンセント
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口ランディ)
Translator: Glynne Walley
Publication Year: 2003 (America); 2000 (Japan)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 269

First of all, I would like to say that Vertical does not publish crap. If you pick up one of their books, you can rest assured that your money has been well spent. Second, I do not review crap. This is a public forum, and I don’t want any authors or translators sending me nasty e-mails. Also, if the book I’m reading turns out to be crap, I tend to put it down and go do something else with my time. Graduate students are very busy and important, you see.

That being said, Outlet is pretty crappy. I was on an airplane and stupidly didn’t bring anything with me that wasn’t an academic text, besides Outlet, so I ended up reading the novel from cover to cover. Thankfully, my effort was rewarded, as the novel isn’t consistently crappy, and its crappiness is good-hearted and quite amusing. At one point, I had to quickly excuse myself to go to the bathroom so that I could laugh out loud for sixty seconds or so. In the end, I have to say that I recommend this book, perhaps because of its very crappiness. Also, the translation is excellent.

The blurb on the front flap of the book states, “A brisk, bristling story of survivor’s guilt, treacherous sex, and unexpected redemption, Outlet opens the door to a spiritual dimension that is both new and age-old.” Well, I can’t agree with most of that, but at least they got the “sex” part right. There is a lot of sex in this novel. If there is a male character in the book, the protagonist has sex with him. The majority of this sex is a hot, dirty, leaning over the sink in a public restroom, fingers up the anus type of sex, and it goes on for pages. This sex is too smutty to be erotic, and, in all honesty, it made me giggle, flip to the author photograph on the back flap, and giggle some more. Oh, Randy.

Don’t let the sex distract you from the plot, however. Outlet’s protagonist, Yuki Asakura, works as a freelance writer and editor for a business magazine and follows the stock market (and has lots of sex) in her free time. When her brother is found dead in his apartment, however, her life takes a turn for the weird, as she keeps seeing the phantom of her dead brother (with whom she had lots of sex maybe) and smelling the death smell of his apartment at inopportune moments. In order to cure herself of this malady, she goes to her old psychology department advisor from college (with whom she had lots of sex) in order to receive counseling (so that she can continue to have lots of sex). On campus, she runs into an old acquaintance, who introduces her to the concept of shamanism and to her psychiatrist husband (with whom the protagonist has lots of sex). In the end, Yuki learns that she is not crazy but rather a type of shamaness who can tune into the vibrations of the universe and heal people (by – get this – having lots of sex with them). Spoiler alert: an “outlet” is something you plug something else into.

If we can ignore the sex scenes for a moment, this novel has some extremely interesting and informative passages on psychology, neurology, Japanese funerals, shamanism, and what happens to an apartment after someone has died in it. In fact, I think this novel is worth reading for its description of the Okinawan yuta (spirit mediums) alone. Although Taguchi’s thesis that schizophrenic people and hikikomori are merely shamans and shamanesses who have not yet learned to control their powers is somewhat silly, it’s an interesting proposition. Especially if you’re into “Eastern mysticism” like Zen or Daoism – or pot brownies; it really doesn’t matter here.

In any case, Outlet is a trashy yet intellectually engrossing novel, and it has a bright and shiny cover featuring a naked Asian woman. It’s good reading for a plane ride and can double as a good conversation starter if left on your coffee table. I will chalk this book up to another solid editorial decision at Vertical. They have not failed me yet.