Thursday, April 15, 2021

Hiroshige, Bashō, Kawabata - some Japanese books - "Not the slightest chance."

Dolce Bellezza’s Japanese Literature Month celebrated its fourteenth year recently.  I read three books for it, but never wrote them up, likely because I have nothing to say about them.  Well, let’s clear the deck and just look at them.

That beautiful Hiroshige art book contains a big 1997 London Royal Academy of the Arts exhibit, 142 prints, mostly but not entirely landscapes.  The text, by Matthi Forrer, is translated from the Dutch (by Peter Mason), but still, this book counts as Japanese; sure it does.  One of the supplementary essays is Japanese.

The marvelous light and snow and mist effects are the highlight.  The strip of color along the top of the print, like an atmospheric effect, was an innovation of Hiroshige’s, in collaboration with his printer.  

But I will have to read another book about Hiroshige someday, one that focuses on his work doing covers and illustrations or novels.  Above we see the covers of Strange Tales of Nighttime Cherry Trees under the Eastern Moon (1836), “a three-volume novel of the gokān type” (30).  What do you think goes on in the novel?  Someday I will find out.

For all of Hiroshige’s landscapes, he rarely crosses the route taken by Matsuo Bashō in his hybrid poetry collection / travel book titled, by Donald Keene, The Narrow Road to Oku (1702).  Bashō visits the sites of his favorite poems, composing his own poems in response.  The book is as pure a love letter to poetry as I know. 

The Pine of Takekuma is truly a startling sight…  Many years ago, when a nobleman who had come down from the capital to serve as Governor of Mutsu, he cut down the Pine of Takekuma and used the wood for stakes supporting the bridge over the Natori River.  That may be why Nōin wrote in his poem, “No trace is left now of the pine.” (67)

But the pine has been replanted, so Bashō is looking at a tree which has replaced a tree that he knows from a poem about its absence.  And he includes two new poems about the tree, one by a friend given to Bashō when he began his journey, and one newly composed:

This is all so Japanese.  Every poem of Bashō’s is set aside from the prose text and accompanied with an illustration by Miyata Masayuki; this is as much an art book as poetry or travel or whatever it is.  An unusual book.

Yasunari Kawabata’s 1952 novel Thousand Cranes seems to me to be most useful for similar cultural reasons.  The older of the handful of characters are tea ceremony hobbyists, as was Kikuji’s late father.  A little soap opera – will Kikuji marry – takes place amongst the tea things, with lots of examination of antique pottery.  I felt I learned more about the place of the tea ceremony in Japanese culture from this exchange than from the entirety of Okakura’s The Book of Tea:

“You’ll be lonely by yourself.  Suppose you bring a few friends from the office.” [The speaker is one of the mistresses, trying to get Kikuji to marry.]

“Very unlikely.  Not one of them is interested in tea.” [Kikuji]

“All the better.  They won’t expect too much, and the preparations have been very inadequate.  We can all relax.”

“Not the slightest chance.”  Kikuji flung the words into the telephone.  (42, tr. Edward Seidensticker)

Kawabata’s readers often go on and on and on about his subtlety, the tiny gestures full of complex meaning, but at least in this book, plainly written and full of dialogue, he does not seem any more subtle than any number of significant writers.  He does achieve some interesting poetic effects, as when one of the characters commits suicide:

Kikuji sat by the telephone with his eyes closed.

He saw the evening sun as he had seen it after the night with Mrs. Ota: the evening sun through the train windows, behind the grove of the Hommonji Temple.

The red sun seemed about to flow down over the branches.

The grove stood dark against it.

The sun flowing over the branches sank into his tired eyes, and he closed them.

The white cranes from the Inamura girl’s kerchief flew across the evening sun, which was still in his eyes.  (65-6)

I wonder, in passages like this, which Bashō poem is Kawabata thinking of, which Hiroshige image is he evoking?


  1. Lovely images.

    I need to read more Kawabata.

    I know what they're doing under the cherry trees: they're giving each other Covid. Fortunately here in Toronto, through the wisdom of our elders, we've fenced off all the cherry trees to prevent that...

  2. I hope to read the rest of Kawabata's major works someday. His burst of creativity in the early 1950s might be interesting to study.

    Hiroshige has a killer image of fenced in cherry trees. It is from the point of view of the trees, watching the tourists!

  3. Oh wait, they're plum trees, I'm an idiot.

  4. I have the Hiroshige art books my father bought for my daughter at my house for the last few years, as she's living in an apartment too small for all her books. They bonded over prints in Chicago and then at a smaller exhibit at SEMO in Cape Girardeau, and he bought the books so they could pore over the prints at their leisure. Now I can.

  5. The Japanese print room at the Art Institute is among my favorite places in Chicago.

    Wonderful to have these books.

  6. I've had Thousand Cranes on the shelf for years. I should probably read it soonish.

    One thing I've always liked about Kawabata is that while he's writing his if-Henry-James-were-Japanese stories about small psychological shifts that ruin people, he's also writing about how art can be deeply integral to the lives of people without making them any better as people. Which is to say, I think, that Kawabata finds art to be important, but he often presents his reader with a shallow dilettante. The art stuff seems equally important in the book. I know so little about Japanese culture that I don't really understand what Kawabata's doing, but I see him doing it.

  7. Right. The Japanese are generally more conscious than Americans about the aesthetics of - everything, it sometimes seems - but that does not mean each person cares about each element of everything.

    In the National Museum, I remember seeing a case with a deep, buzzing crowd, and one particular man working his way through the crowd - what could be in this case? Finally he made it, and it is his expression that I clearly remember, his disappointment. "Oh, it's just another pot," is how I read it.