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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Beauty and Sadness

Kawabata Yasunari

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To purchase Beauty and Sadness

Title: Beauty and Sadness
Author: Kawabata Yasunari
Genre: Novel
Written: 1965 (Eng. 1975)
Length: 206 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Beauty and Sadness - US
Beauty and Sadness - UK
Beauty and Sadness - Canada
Tristesse et beauté - France
Schönheit und Trauer - Deutschland
Bellezza e tristezza - Italia
Lo bello y lo triste - España
  • Japanese title: 美しさと哀しみと
  • Translated by Howard S. Hibbett
  • Two films based on Beauty and Sadness have been made: With Beauty and Sadness (1965), directed by Shinoda Masahiro, and the looser adaptation Tristesse et beauté (1985), directed by Joy Fleury and starring Charlotte Rampling

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Our Assessment:

B+ : melancholy exploration of obsession and passion

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 21/2/1975 Anatole Broyard
Time . 24/2/1975 J.S.
TLS . 3/12/1975 Roger Scruton
Die Zeit . 22/7/1988 Anne Frederiksen

  From the Reviews:
  • "Yasunari Kawabata's last novel is a consummately skillful arrangement of space and stillness, a brush drawing of love and vengeance not ultimately convincing, but perhaps ultimately not meant to convince. (...) Without a misstep or a false line, the author ensnares his writer protagonist Oki Toshio in an old love. (...) The final appalling scene is meant to strike a gong, but there is no resonance, no reverberation. The characters and their pain disappear from the mind with the turn of the last page." - J.S., Time

  • "(T)he novel exhibits a remarkable control of the situation which the two characters create between them (...) Starting as usual in the middle of the story, Kawabata works boldly outwards, towards an ambiguous beginning and an equally ambiguous but brilliantly contrived conclusion. He writes with unaffected simplicity, lapsing into sentimentality only when he has occasion to describe the face, neck, breasts or body of an adolescent girl." - Roger Scruton, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Seine Landschafts und Stimmungsbeschreibungen sind plastisch und poetisch zugleich. Kawabata verbindet in Schönheit und Trauer, einem seiner letzten Romane, scharfen Intellekt mit poetischer Zartheit." - Anne Frederiksen, Die Zeit

  • "(T)he most gripping and tightly plotted of all Kawabata's novels (.....) Once again, themes of male narcissism, sex, death, erotic obsession and the vulnerability of female purity are interconnected, and the preoccupation with mutability is acute: even in translation, one is repeatedly moved by the delicacy of the imagery and the understated precision of the limpid prose." - Jason Cowley, New Statesman (21/8/2006)

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Beauty and Sadness begins with fifty-four year old author Oki Toshio traveling to Kyoto over the Christmas-New Year's holidays. The nominal reason for his trip is to hear the tolling of the New Year's Eve bells, a chance to hear in person what he annually listens to on the radio. But there's more to Oki's impulsive decision -- "a defiant wish to see Ueno Otoko again after all these years".
       When Oki was thirty he had fallen in love with the then fifteen year old girl, despite being married and a father. She had also fallen in love with him, but when she got pregnant and their child died at birth the affair came to an end. Being an author, Oki eventually had to memorialize his affair in a book, the very successful A Girl of Sixteen, which "had brought him money and fame":

It was the tragic love story of a very young girl and a man himself still young but with a wife and child: only the beauty of it had been heightened, to the point that it was unmarred by any moral questioning.
       Ah, yes: beauty transcends even morality, apparently. And despite the repeated suffering Oki put his wife through -- first with the affair, then with the book (he even had her type the manuscript) -- he decides this is a good idea .....
       Otoko -- publicly outed as the girl described in the novel back in the day, though she never gave any interviews on the subject, or complained to Oki -- went on to become a successful painter. She agrees to meet Oki when he calls, but takes a certain amount of control: she sends her pupil, Sakami Keiko, to pick him up, and then arranges for some geishas to join them at dinner, so as to avoid being alone with him.
       Keiko, madly in love Otoko, clearly has her own issues -- "You have lots of hates, haven't you ?" Otoko observes -- and the thought of what Oki did and how Otoko suffered stirs up a lot of passion in her. She also has jealousy-issues:
He seemed awfully depraved, but when I called your name it quieted him down immediately. He still loves you, and he has a guilty conscience. It's enough to make me jealous.
       She is out for revenge -- literally lusting for it, somewhat to Otoko's dismay --, and she has some ideas about how to get it.
       Filling in some of the details of the old affair as the story progresses, and describing the various chess games between the characters -- Otoko and Keiko, Oki and his wife, and then Keiko and everyone in Oki's family ... -- makes for an effective escalation of a sense of nemesis. There's an artificiality to it (aside from the absurdity of parts of it), but with so many artists involved that works fairly well.
       Eventually, the Greek tragedy à la Japonaise takes its predictable-inevitable course. The underlying lack of morality, however, is rather disturbing, regardless that Oki is merely cluelessly (and thoughtlessly) amoral. (Keiko, on the other hand, is of a pure and masochistic evil.) Admittedly, however, it is an effective contrast to the otherwise very ritualized world presented here.
       Kawabata's almost serene approach stands in creepy contrast to the life-destroying actions he presents; it also makes the bits of violence all the more jarringly effective. Beauty contrasts not so much with sadness but an abject sorrow, failures of love that maim and destroy. If some of the characters seem to be able to go on after a particularly devastating blow -- Otoko after the death of her child, Oki's wife after the affair -- they still harbor great hurt.
       Given the devastation Kawabata wreaks, Beauty and Sadness arguably does not provide sufficient depth, skimming the surface far too much of the time. But Kawabata has conceived it more like a painting (and paintings figure in the story, as both Otoko and Keiko (who have very different styles) are painters), where much has to be read into an image: reflection is left up to the reader.
       Unsettling and odd, but quite compelling.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2010

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Beauty and Sadness: Reviews: Beauty and Sadness - the movies: Kawabata Yasunari: Other books by Kawabata Yasunari under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成) (1899-1972) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.

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