Yasunari Kawabata

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Yasunari Kawabata (Japan, 1899)

"Yukiguni/ Snow Country", originally a serial (1937) and then published as a book (1948), is a quiet but bleak novella that tests the depths of two souls, both doomed to unhappiness, one from the city and one from the countryside, one liberated from traditions and the other one slave to traditions, one wasting his wealth and the other one wasting her beauty. They are both self-trained amateurs: she learned to play the samisen without a teacher, he became an expert in Western ballet without ever seeing one. Kawabata tells the story in an impressionistic style influenced by both haiku and nature painting. The snow is a (metaphorical) protagonist (cold and static) as are mirrors and insects. Everything there is decaying beauty, and what is not decaying will burn.

It is december, snow season, and Shimamura is on a train bound for Snow Country. A girl, Yoko, is traveling with an older sick man in the same compartment and he can't resist watching them through the reflection in the window, while pretending to stare at the snowy landscape. When they arrive at the destination, a hot-springs resort, Shimamura inquires about the girl who lives with the music teacher, Komako. He learns that Komako was at the station, waiting for the sick man and Yoko: the sick man is Yukio, the son of the music teacher. Komako soon comes to welcome him, dressed in a gheisha costume. Shimamura feels guilty that he has not written to her since they parted, despite their love affair. A flashback tells us that during his previous visit Shimamura, in May, who is an idle married man from the city, comfortably rich thanks to inherited money, had asked for a geisha, and, none being available, had been introduced to this girl, who was then 19, a former geisha in Tokyo who had found a patron there willing to pay her debts and to help her start a business as a dancing teacher. That time he had treated Komako as if he wanted to be only her friend and nothing more. He ordered a geisha but then got rid of her, realizing that he really wanted the other girl, this one, Komako. And Komako came to his room at night, after a group had got her drunk, and she slept with him. But the following day he returned to Tokyo. Now she's an unhappy geisha. She tells him that she has been keeping a diary since she was a teenager, since the time she was a geisha in Tokyo. Komako starts sleeping with him at the inn. Komako invites Shimamura to her room and Shimamura tells her that he knows there is a sick man and a girl named Yoko in the house. He was impressed by how kind and caring Yoko was to the man. It turns out the sick man is only 25 and is dying of tuberculosis. On the way back to the hotel Shimamura stops by a blind masseuse who tells him that Komako was engaged to the son of the music teacher and became a geisha to pay the hospital bills. Komako, however, denied this story: she became a geisha to help the mother of this sick man, the music teacher who was very good to her. Komako is self-taught in the art of the musical instrument samisen: she learned to play it from radio broadcasts rather than from a teacher. Komako plays the samisen for Shimamura, and Shimamura can feel her love in the music. Nonetheless he decides to go back to Tokyo and she agrees. Komako escorts him to the station but Yoko comes screaming that Yukio is dying and wants to see her one last time. Komako, however, refuses to go and waits until Shimamura's train departs. She also tells him that she will never add new pages to her diary and wants to gift him the diary.
Shimamura comes again to visit, this time in the Spring. Komako is angry because she was expecting him earlier. She abandoned her dying benefactor, the music teacher, while she was dying. Now both her and Yukio are buried in the local cemetery. Komako has signed a four-year contract as a geisha. The geishas just had a farewell party for one of the most popular geishas, Kikuyu, who is retiring. One of her patrons bought her a restaurant but she decided instead to marry another patron. Unfortunately that patron betrayed her and now she has no prospects. Shimamura inquires about Yoko and learns that Yoko spends all the time at the cemetery. Komako is busy with her geisha duties, which include attending parties with the guests; and she is still bound to a patron who has been nice to her since she was a teenager; but she is still in love with Shimamura and sneaks out of parties, sometimes drunks, whenever she can. Shimamura, in theory, is writing a book on Western ballet, an art that he has never seen. Yoko, meanwhile, started working in the kitchen of the inn. Komako notices that Shimamura is impressed with the behavior of the girl and provokes him by using Yoko as a messenger. Yoko was a nurse in Tokyo for the music teacher's son but Yoko says that she can never be a nurse again for another man. And, still, she wants to move back to Tokyo, with no other profession in mind, nor a place to stay. Yoko begs Shimamura to takes her with him. She dislikes Komako, who was widely seen as Yukio's fiance, but thinks that Komako has not been lucky in life and needs Shimamura's help. Shimamura, addicted to Komako's visits, can't decide to go back to his wife and children, but, tired of that hot-spring village, decides on a trip to the nearby Chijimi country, where kimonos are still bleached in the snow, as this was done in ancient times. When he gets back to the hot-spring village, he finds a jealous and hysterical Komako who wants to know where he went without her. Just then a fire envelops the cocoon warehouse, and Komako is terrified because she knows that people are watching a movie inside. They see Yoko fall from a balcony, dead, and Komako rushes to hug her dead body.

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