15 June 2011

The Old Capital (Kawabata Yasunari)

The grove of cherries inside the main gate to the left of Ninnaji was overflowing with blossoms.

Whenever I see the lovely straight cedars at Kitayama, my spirit feels refreshed.

A small tree stood at the water's edge on the far side; the reflection of its crimson leaves shivered in the flow of the river.

If a novel can be built on haikus, then The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata, translated by J Martin Holman, is one. The sentences have the profound simplicity of the form. The narrative is broken by short paragraphs. The paragraphs usually contain a single sentence or two or three. The descriptions are charged with the beauty of the natural world, its concentrated essence. The sentences unfold in painterly scenes, flowering into the greenery of the forest and red orchard.

The novel's backdrop and setting are delicately described. The viewing of weeping cherry blossoms, the parade of cultural festivals, the weaving of the most exquisite obi - everything is evoked precisely. In sinuous sequence, the details appear with the transcendence of calligraphy.

Chieko, a young woman, was in search of her identity. She was a foundling, left behind by her true parents when still a baby. She grew up comfortably being cared for by a couple who ran a business selling fabric cloths. Her adoptive parents treated her like their own, but her broken connection from her biological parents seemed to weigh on her more and more. It was as if there was something lacking in her, a part of her nature that was also reflected in her seeming disconnect from and yearning for the natural world.

The novelist's theme seems to be the attempt to reconcile human beings to the natural world. There was a broken pathway that the characters are trying to bridge. They were restless, not content with the way things have so far progressed in their lives. If only this hidden something, an ecological connection, is found, then perhaps they will learn their rightful place, their niche, in their surroundings. And this knowledge will free them from their apprehensions.

As substitute for the beauty of the natural world, the fine arts of painting and weaving became significant expressions of it. Here is Chieko's father Takichiro on a painter that he used as inspiration to create a pattern for weaving:

   "He [Paul Klee] is a painter who was in the forefront of the abstract movement. His paintings are gentle, exceptional. You might say they have the quality of the dream, a quality that would speak even to the heart of an old Japanese like me. I studied them over and over until I came up with this pattern. It's unlike any traditional Japanese design. "

Flowers, wood trees, festivals, and fabric were the motifs in the books. They were the sources of inspiration to create works of art. The flowers and the trees were used to come up with the design for weaving an obi. The numerous Japanese festivals described in the book usually involved elements of nature appreciation.

The mountains were neither high nor deep. The trunk of each individual tree was visible even on the tops of the mountains. The cedars were used in the construction of tearooms so the appearance of the groves themselves had the elegant air of the tea ceremony.

The cedar grove evoking the elegance of a tea ceremony was the perfect statement of culture relying on nature. The utility of trees evoking, at the same time, the function of form and the form of function.

The old capital is Kyoto, after the designation of Tokyo as the new. The foundation of its art, crafts, and trades was the natural surroundings. Its old patterns had the vitality found in nature. Nowadays, though, the old men perceived that the increasing materialism and capitalism are affecting the quality of the artworks.

   "My eye just isn't accustomed to them [flowers]. I wouldn't like an obi or kimono cloth in a tulip pattern, but if a great artist were to create such a painting, even tulips could become a work with an eternal life," Takichiro said, looking aside. "Some of the ancient designs were like that. Some of them are older than this capital city itself. No one can create anything like that anymore. They can do no more than copy them.... Aren't there even trees here, still living, that are older than the capital?"

Like Tanizaki Jun'ichiro, Kawabata seemed to eulogize the fading past. The ushering in of modernity signaled the encroachment of Western views, the increasing reliance on mechanization and mass production. They seemed not to bode well for the fate of pure art.

The old capital seemed to represent a last stand for the "old", while the new was stealthily modifying the traditions and values built on ancient nature and art. Open lands were converted into industrial zones. Houses were giving in to construction of inns. While in the mountains, in a tree plantation ("surrounded by the straight cedar trunks of uniform size") the place of man in nature was put into question, perhaps the central question raised by the novel.

"These [man-made trees] are about forty years old. They'll be cut and made into columns or the like. Left alone, they would probably grow for a thousand years ... wide and tall. I think about that occasionally. I like virgin forests the best, but in this village it's as though we're growing flowers for cutting."
"Were there no such thing as man, there would be nothing like Kyoto either. It would all be natural woods and fields of grasses. This land would belong to the deer and wild boar, wouldn't it? Why did man come into this world? It's frightening ... mankind."

What is the place of men and women in that natural canvas? The supremacy of nature is fleeting when it is us who eventually manipulate it at our own bidding. Takichiro turned to Western painters like Klee who were inspired by orientalism in order to come up with a flower pattern for his daughter's obi. He sought harmony and yet Hideo, a young master weaver, saw through the artifice of the design and dismissed it as lacking in "harmony". Hideo recognized that, ultimately, an artistic design for an obi can mimic the color of the flowers, yet it can never capture the true beauty of nature.

One after the other, the Kyoto festivals were described in the novel in detail, a seemingly endless profusion of ceremonies. The Gion festival, the bamboo cutting ceremony at Kurama Temple, the Daimonji fire-lighting festival, the Festival of the Ages. In these moments the novel seemed to transform into a cultural guide to festivals.

By interspersing these cultural events with nature viewings, the novelist seemed to contrast the activities of man in unbuilt nature and in his built environment. Rainer Maria Rilke, in the first of his Duino Elegies, seemed to have voiced the same perpetual listlessness of the novel's characters, as they move in the world interpreted for them:

... Ah, whom can we ever turn to
in our need? Not angels, not humans,
and already the knowing animals are aware
that we are not really at home in
our interpreted world. Perhaps there remains for us
some tree on a hillside, which every day we can take
into our vision; there remains for us yesterday's street
and the loyalty of a habit so much at ease
when it stayed with us that it moved in and never left.

The cedars and willows are always at home in the natural world. In contrast, the fine art of painting, the wearing of colorful obis, and the festivals - all are mere "interpretations" of nature, all subject to human appreciation. They exist as a culmination of inspiration, having been shaped after the likeness of trees and flowers.

Kawabata said in his Nobel Prize speech that his goal is to seek man's harmony in nature. In The Old Capital, the novelist manipulated nature and conducted a "natural experiment" to observe a person discovering her natural (biological) identity. The novelist set up questing identities, selves, and cultures in their natural surroundings and from there sought to define their feelings for it.

Chieko preferred camphor trees over mountain cedar trees presumably because the former are natural forest trees while the latter are man-made plantations. It cannot be denied that the gulf between landscape and man widens whenever land use decisions led to alteration and modification of nature.

To repair a broken connection is a difficult thing. Because the forest trees possess some great power, a "weird power", that holds sway over the characters, they have the capacity to strike them to the core, to restore them to their selves, who were born naked in the face of the elements. From a delicate sequence of sentences and passages as slender as cherry branches, Kawabata produced a beautiful work of ecological realism. One that questioned the rootedness of man in the natural environment and in this, our interpreted world.


  1. This sounds lovely. This is how I often think of the Japanese aesthetic.

  2. I read The Old Capital Twice-on the second reading I counted the images of nature-flowers, gardens, trees-there were close to 800 references in a not very long novel-it is as if the garden takes on the shape of a formal garden with the intrusion of the new commercialized world dominated by American culture at its worse as the forces that will destroy the garden-

    I enjoyed your very perceptive post a lot-I think there is more a hint of irony in Tanizaki's view of Old Japan than that of some of the other major authors-it is a dominant theme of the post WWII Japanese Novel

  3. Wonderful review - or should I say thesis ;) This sounds a little different to the Kawabata I've read so far, but the themes sound very interesting. Definitely one I plan to get around to soon :)

  4. E.L. Fay, it is probably quintessential Japanese. And the oriental loveliness still holds some surprise.

  5. Mel, THAT many?! It's impressive how Kawabata put all these natural details without overwhelming the story. The comparison of the novel to a garden is just wonderful. The dominant theme you mention something I hope to explore more in other authors.


  6. Tony, a hypothesis, maybe. :p
    Your observation that this is a bit different from his other books is interesting. It makes for an author of varied interests. This novel alone is multi-layered and invites reflection.

  7. reading about this Kawabata novel, I am reminded of the underlying tension about the destruction of the Cherry Orchard in Chekhov's play.

  8. Karlo, an interesting comparison. And it's one of my favorite plays!

  9. Kawabata Yasunari is an author whose works I want to work through, so this is one for the list thanks.

  10. Gary, I'll be reading more of him myself. His backlist is interesting.