The Beauty of Sadness: Kawabata Yasunari

“His narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind” – Nobel Prize’s commendation epitomized the greatness of Kawabata Yasunari (1899-1972), the first Japanese novelist bestowed the distinguished literature award.

A melancholic lyricism echoing ancient Japanese literary tradition infused with European literary aesthetics, Kawabata’s works are permeated with a sense of loneliness and a preoccupation with death. Reminiscent of the fluid composition of renga poetry, his writings capture the free-flowing nature of life, intertwined with beauty, sincerity and sadness.

Sound of the mountain, snow in a country, forest in the old capital… the beauty of landscapes is connected with the emotions of his characters. The long and winding road in Mr Thank You (1936) is reflective of life’s vicissitudes; and the temple bell in With Beauty and Sorrow (1965) awakens suppressed emotions and longing for a love foregone.

Keen perception, deceptive simplicity and the deep melancholy that characterize Kawabata’s masterpieces become inspirations for generations of filmmakers. From the Golden Age to contemporary Japanese cinema, a range of acclaimed directors have created a fascinating filmscape of transcendent beauty and meditation in their adaptations.

In the form of pure love, or love unattainable, lies the ideal of unusual artistry and truth – personified by the legendary actresses. The irresistible charm of Okada Mariko transformed the profound sensuality in Woman of the Lake (1966); and the sublime elegance of Iwashita Shima gave a real-life grace to the Twin Sisters of Kyoto (1963).

Kawabata’s ingrained Japanese aesthetic traditions – tea ceremony, flower arranging, and ultimately the Zen spiritual values – are visualized under exquisite imagery. Through Tanaka Kinuyo’s tears (The Dancing Girl of Izu , 1933), Wakao Ayako’s death (Thousand Cranes , 1969) – and maybe his own suicide – the great writer’s quest for purity of life is finally realized. And reborn in Nirvana

35mm prints of The Dancing Girl of Izu , Mr Thank You, Thousand Cranes (1953), With Beauty and Sorrow, Woman of the Lake and Thousand Cranes (1969) courtesy of the National Film Archive of Japan.

35mm print of Snow Country and 16mm print of Twin Sisters of Kyoto courtesy of The Japan Foundation.