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In the acclaimed 1948 novel "Snow Country," a Japanese landscape rich in natural beauty serves as the setting for a fleeting, melancholy love affair. The novel's opening describes an evening train ride through "the west coast of the main island of Japan"-the "snow country" of the title, where the earth is "white under the night sky."
Throughout his career, author Yasunari Kawabata, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, crafted novels and stories that highlight important Japanese artworks, landmarks, and traditions. His other works included "The Izu Dancer" (1926), which uses the rugged scenery and popular hot springs of Japan's Izu Peninsula as its backdrop, and “Thousand Cranes” (1949-1950) which draws heavily on Japan's longstanding tea ceremonies.
Aboard the train in the opening scene is Shimamura, the reserved and intensely observant man of leisure who serves as the novel's main character. Shimamura is intrigued by two of his fellow passengers-a sick man and a beautiful girl who "acted rather like a married couple"-yet he is also on his way to renew a relationship of his own. On an earlier trip to a snow country hotel, Shimamura had "found himself longing for a companion" and had begun a liaison with an apprentice named Komako.
Kawabata proceeds to depict the sometimes tense, sometimes easygoing interactions between Shimamura and Komako. She drinks heavily and spends more time in Shimamura's quarters, and he learns of a possible love triangle involving Komako, the sick man on the train (who might have been Komako's fiancé), and Yoko, the girl on the train. Shimamura departs on the train wondering whether the sick young man is “breathing his last” and feeling uneasy and melancholy himself.
At the beginning of the second part of the novel, Shimamura is back at Komako's resort. Komako is dealing with a few losses: the sick man has died, and another, older geisha is leaving town in the wake of a scandal. Her heavy drinking continues but she attempts a closer intimacy with Shimamura.
Eventually, Shimamura makes an excursion into the surrounding region. He is interested in getting a closer look at one of the local industries, the weaving of pristine white Chijimi linen. But instead of encountering robust industry, Shimamura makes his way through lonely, snow-clogged towns. He returns to his hotel and to Komako around nightfall-only to find the town thrown into a state of crisis.
Together, the two lovers see “a column of sparks rising in the village below” and rush to the scene of the disaster-a warehouse that was being used as a makeshift movie theater. They arrive, and Shimamura watches as Yoko's body falls from one of the warehouse balconies. In the novel's final scene, Komako carries Yoko (perhaps dead, perhaps unconscious) from the wreckage, while Shimamura is overwhelmed by the beauty of the night sky.
Background and Context
The novel relies heavily on quickly-delivered expressions, suggestive images, and uncertain or undisclosed information. Scholars such as Edward G. Seidensticker and Nina Cornyetz have argued that these features of Kawabata's style are derived from traditional Japanese forms of writing, particularly haiku poetry.
Although Shimamura can be remarkably aloof and self-absorbed, he is also capable of making memorable, passionate and almost artistic observations of the world around him. As he rides the train into the snow country, Shimamura constructs an elaborate optical fantasy out of “mirror-like” window reflections and bits of passing landscape:
"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."
Tragic sequences often involve moments of unexpected beauty. When Shimamura first hears Yoko's voice, he thinks that "it was such a beautiful voice that it struck one as sad." Later, Shimamura's fascination with Yoko takes a few new directions, and Shimamura begins to think about the remarkable young woman in as an anxiety-inducing, perhaps doomed figure. Yoko-at least as Shimamura sees her-is at once an extremely alluring and extremely tragic presence.
There is another coupling of positive and negative ideas that play a prominent role in Snow Country: the idea of "wasted effort." However, this coupling tends to involve not Yoko but Shimamura's other erotic interest, Komako.
We learn that Komako has distinctive hobbies and habits-reading books and writing down the characters, collecting cigarettes-yet these activities never really offer her a way out of the melancholy life of a snow country geisha. Nonetheless, Shimamura realizes that these diversions at least offer Komako some solace and dignity.
Questions for Study and Discussion
- How important is Kawabata's setting for Snow Country? Is it integral to the story? Or can you imagine Shimamura and his conflicts transplanted to another part of Japan-or to another country or continent altogether?
- Consider how effective Kawabata's writing style is. Does the emphasis on brevity create dense, evocative prose-or result in awkward and unclear passages? Do Kawabata's characters succeed in being simultaneously mysterious and complex-or do they simply seem puzzling and ill-defined?
- Shimamura's personality can inspire some very different responses. Did you feel respect for Shimamura's powers of observation? Contempt for his detached, self-centered way of looking at life? Compassion for his neediness and loneliness? Or was his character too cryptic or complicated to allow a single clear reaction?
- Is "Snow Country" meant to be read as a deeply tragic novel? Try imagining what the future would be like for Shimamura, Komako, and perhaps Yoko. Are all of these characters bound for sadness, or could their lives improve as time goes on?
- "Snow Country" translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Vintage International, 1984).
- Nobel Prize Edition of Snow Country and Thousand Cranes (Alfred A. Knopf, 1969).