The Sound of the Mountain

The Sound of the MountainAuthor: Yasunari Kawabata
Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679762645
Released: May 1996
Original release: 1954
Awards: National Book Award

Prior to reading The Sound of the Mountain I had only read one other novel by the distinguished Japanese author Yasunari Kawabata—Thousand Cranes, one of the three works to have been cited when Kawabata became the first Japanese recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. I enjoyed Thousand Cranes and have been meaning to read more of Kawabata’s work for quite some time now. Although it probably isn’t his best known work to have been translated, The Sound of the Mountain does have the distinction of being one of Kawabata’s longest novels. The volume was completed in Japan in 1954 after having been serialized for five years. Also in 1954, the novel was adapted as a live-action film directed by Mikio Naruse. The Sound of the Mountain was first translated into English by Edward G. Seidensticker in 1970 for which he won the National Book Award for Translation.

Shingo Ogata is an aging businessman in postwar Japan. His memory has started to fail him, his hair turns whiter as each day passes, many of his friends and acquaintances have already died, and he begins to be plagued by peculiar dreams. There is nothing he can do to halt the steady decline of his mind and health, but what concerns him most is the decline of his family and the unraveling of his children’s marriages. The philandering ways of Shingo’s son Shuichi are an open secret but his son’s wife Kikuko remains devoted to him, although perhaps even more so to Shingo. Shingo’s daughter, too, is having marital problems. The situation may or may not be temporary, but she has left her husband and is currently living in her parent’s home along with her young children. The house is full, the family’s relationships are strained, and Shingo is conflicted over what he should be doing about it all and over his developing feelings for Kikuko.

The Sound of the Mountain is a relatively quiet novel. Shingo has his personal struggles and internal strife, and there is plenty of family drama, but the work largely consists of snippets of the everyday lives of the Ogata household. None of the characters in The Sound of the Mountain are particularly exceptional in any sort of way. Their lives and their troubles, while certainly having a great impact on those around them, are mundane. Kawabata’s characterization of the individual family members is often very subtle and nuanced, as is his portrayal of the intricacies of their interpersonal relationships. As much as The Sound of the Mountain is about Shingo growing older, it’s just as much about the transformation of his family. All things must inevitably come to an end. Shingo knows this, and knows that his life, too, will eventually end, but he still feels guilty about and responsible for the direction his family and his children are heading.

It’s been a few years since I’ve read it, but overall I think I probably prefer Thousand Cranes over The Sound of the Mountain. However, the two novels do share some similarities: a focus on people and how they interact, a sparse writing style laden with symbolism, and so on. In the case of Thousand Cranes it was the Japanese tea ceremony that provided an underlying framework for the narrative while in The Sound of the Mountain it’s Shingo’s dreams and the change of the seasons—the steady progression of time. The Sound of the Mountain has a resigned, melancholic air to it. The novel isn’t particularly uplifting, but in some ways it can be comforting to see a realistic depiction of a family trying to come to terms with the changes both in their lives as individuals and in their relationships to one another. The Sound of the Mountain captures those fleeting moments of joy and of unrest, revealing that in any stage of life people are at least partially defined by those closest to them.

Thousand Cranes

Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Illustrator: Fumi Komatsu

Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679762652
Released: November 1996
Original release: 1952

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novel Thousand Cranes was among the three works cited as part of the award, the other two being Snow Country and The Old Capital. Although until now I have never read anything by Kawabata, I was familiar with his name. Not just because he won a Nobel Prize, but because he was a close friend of Yukio Mishima, who was my introduction to Japanese literature. Like Mishima, Kawabata also took his own life in 1972, albeit in a much less dramatic and much less public fashion. Thousand Cranes was originally published in Japan in 1952. The novel was first translated into English in 1958 by Edward G. Seidensticker and includes chapter illustrations by Fumi Komatsu. Thousand Cranes was selected for the August 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group, making it the first work by Kawabata that I’ve read.

After both his parents die, Kikuji finds himself living alone with only the maid in his family’s large household. Kurimoto, who once briefly had an affair with his father, takes it upon herself to set up nice marriage for Kikuji. In doing so, she invites him to attend a tea ceremony in order to introduce him to the Inamura’s daughter Yukiko. Although he has his reservations, Kikuji agrees to go. While he is there, he not only meets Yukiko, who he is charmed by, but also the widowed Ota and her daughter. This was something that Kurimoto did not intend to happen. Ota was the long-time mistress of Kikuji’s father, making her Kurimoto’s rival. The unexpected meeting between Ota and Kikuji, and their subsequent liaisons, has unanticipated consequence for everyone that is involved.

On its surface, Thousand Cranes is a simple story. But despite how it may first appear, it is highly complicated by human emotions and desire. It may seem reserved, but by paying close attention, the reader will notice a subtle, underlying intensity to the tale. The characters are much the same way—their generally calm and deliberate outward demeanors obscure their turbulent internal passions. They all greatly affect each other by their actions and by their inaction. The presence of Kikuji’s father, even after his death, is nearly overwhelming. This is especially true for Kikuji himself, but even the women he is involved with in one way or another find their lives and individual circumstances closely entangled. None of them can really completely escape the influence of Kikuji’s father. Honestly, it would be hopeless for them to try not to be. It does give rise to some rather unfortunate situations.

Reading Thousand Cranes, Kawabata’s skill as an author was readily apparent to me. It’s not a very long novel, well under two hundred pages, and so every phrase and moment must count. But even though Kawabata is able to achieve this with seeming ease and even though Thousand Cranes is a beautifully rendered piece, the story still seems to end rather abruptly. Some passing familiarity with Japanese tea ceremony will be useful for someone who wants to read Thousand Cranes, but it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy the novel. The influence of the tea ceremony on Thousand Cranes is undeniable. The symbolism found in the tea ceremony is incorporated into Thousand Cranes and is then expanded on. While a reader with a basic understanding of Japanese tea ceremony will probably get more out of the novel, Kawabata brings out the elements particularly important to the story. If Thousand Craned is at all representative of Kawabata’s novels, I suspect I will enjoy his other work.