(Novel) Snow Country by: Yasunari Kawabata
(Reaction) Chasing Beauty in Snow Country by: Camille Tay Silos
The beauty that Shimamura seeks is summed up perfectly by Sir Francis Bacon, "There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion." Shimamura's perception of beauty not only lies in the realm of strangeness but borders on the absurd even. To want something that will never be theirs despite how much they yearn for it, and further falling in love with it due to this quality, is like a persecution of some sort. Undeniably though for Shimamura this is the one thing that can be on the level of true beauty.
Beauty for Shimamura, lies in the unreal or otherworldliness of an item, phenomenon or person. This is clearly seen when he is on the train to the Snow Country or Yukiguni and he could see Yoko's reflection despite the fact that neither of them were seated in front of each other, but a seat and side apart. He stared at her despite it being a rude gesture because for him, Yoko's "...face seemed to be out in the flow of the evening mountains". He continued watching her and when the eye of Yoko and the light from outside the glass merged into one, he was further taken in by the image. The image in itself, due to its being intangible, is what made it even more beautiful to him.
Shimamura's interest in unreality is further seen in his fascination for the western ballet. He had never seen an actual ballet performance before and simply read about the topic from countless books. However, for him, reading about the topic was not research. Rather, it was "...free, uncontrolled fantasy". He even goes to say that it was like "...being in love with someone he had never seen".
That his perception of beauty is coupled with the idea of a mystery never being fully uncovered, but a mystery that allows him to catch a glimpse of it once in a while, is something that he experiences when visiting the Snow Country. Compared to his life in Tokyo, visiting the rural area, Komako and Yoko, gives him a feeling of somewhat living in a fantasy or some sort, a perfect place where everything can be appreciated but never touched or possessed fully.
This is further emphasized in the way Shimamura is taken in by the presence of the Milky Way despite the fact that at the exact same time there was a fire in the cocoon-warehouse. This distraction from something that is very chaotic to something very beautiful and unattainable gives the reader an idea of what Shimamura prioritizes. Every how many blocks, he stops and stares at the sky, Komako also stops in her rushing and comments, "The Milky Way? Beautiful, isn't it? But it's not like this every night. It's not usually so clear", as if she has all the time in the world to stare at the sky and not have to worry about anything else.
What's captivating about this part of the novel is that the two allow themselves to drown in the beauty of the Milky Way, then resurface to the reality that there is a fire. This submerging and surfacing happens more than once, as if they had both tasted something so wonderful and have become addicted to it but know better than to have themselves drown fully in it. Finally, when Komako held Yoko in her arms and Shimamura was pushed to one side, it would seem that for the very first time, instead of him having the power to distance himself from the things he considered beautiful, the image of the Milky Way consumed him whole.
In the end, the idea of beauty for Shimamura is like the thin, silky trails of a lit cigarette - beautiful and temporary, impossible to grasp but capable of being appreciated while it lasts. This concept of beauty may not actually be all that foreign to us. In some way, everyone keeps within himself or herself something that they think is beautiful but is temporary. May they be feelings (lust, love, adoration), or plants (trees, roses, cheery blossoms) or people, they are what a majority of people consider beautiful; but they too are what people cannot fully own nor force to remain the same.
I had just returned from Japan when "Yukiguni / Snow Country" was reintroduced to me and my fellow peers by our Literature professor (I had read part of Yukiguni in one of my classes in Japan and bought the novel for keepsake purposes). I thought that since I had an idea as to how eccentric some Japanese individuals can get regarding their views on beauty, death, life and the like, that reading the story in English would be an extension of what I had learned while in Japan.
It turns out, however, that while I was enamored with the images of beauty presented by the author in my class in Japan, in the Philippines, I saw another version of that beauty - a misunderstood beauty. I say misunderstood because, culturally, Japan and the Philippines see beauty, death and life differently, and that is what intrigues me the most when reading stories - the change in perspective.
I found it strange how the character was taken in at times (too much, at times) by the images of beauty that reality begins to fade away yet understood that, in Japan, there are times when a salary man walking down the road would just suddenly stop and stare at the falling cherry blossom petals. I loved, however, how Kawabata painted the different images of beauty his main character encountered with delicate words, as if fearing that using the wrong word would destroy the image. All in all, Yukiguni tickles the reader's mind and perception of beauty and reality and that, for me, makes it a great read.