The Old Capital (revised 2006 translation by J. Martin Holman) is one of Yasunari Kawabata's masterpieces. It is set in Kyoto in the 1950s and introduces the reader to Chieko, the adopted daughter of a traditional Kimono wholesaler. The beautiful young woman has known for some time that her mother and father are not her real parents, but discrepancies in the way they tell the story of her 'kidnapping' make her wonder what really happened.
As Chieko drifts from festival to festival, admiring trees, flowers and hand-crafted kimonos, she begins to think about her future, and three young men begin to come into focus against the crowd of other acquaintances. Soon though it is her past that starts to influence her life, and a chance encounter is to change everything...
The Old Capital is one of the three works cited by the committee when awarding Kawabata the Nobel Prize, and it is easy to see why. It is a beautiful novel, typical of Kawabata's work in the way it subtly explores the steady changes to traditional Japanese life. The story shows how post-war Japan is moving on, leaving certain aspects of its history and tradition behind. Traditional businesses are starting to fade away as imported business techniques take hold, and artisans struggle to find and train successors; the next generation is not always interested in continuing the traditions.
This story is told against the backdrop of the beautiful city of Kyoto, and The Old Capital is full of luscious descriptions of nature. Every temple and festival has its own special flower - the weeping willows bow to the ground, the tall cedars tower over gravel walkways, their branches forming an awe-inspiring canopy above the people walking through the park... Kawabata contrasts the ephemeral nature of the blossoms, and the beauty of young women, with the lasting splendour of the mountains and temples.
Like many Japanese novels, this one is played out against the changing seasons, a story in a year, allowing us to see the city in all its guises - and its many traditional festivals. While this cycle of life may suggest the idea of permanence though, even here change is evident. Some of the festivals are being abandoned for lack of money, or interest, and one of the main festivals is shown to be a fairly recent innovation. Despite the slow pace of change, it is coming, and it is inevitable. As Chieko's father says when he goes to look at a possible new house, seeing the spread of inns in the area:
"The house itself is all right, but this just won't do," Takichiro whispered as he stood at the gate. "I wonder if time will turn all of Kyoto into nothing but inns... "This prediction of possible change in Kyoto is a prescient one, as anyone who has visited Kansai more recently will know...
p.128 (Counterpoint Press, 2006)
Rather than the plot though, the beauty of The Old Capital lies in the way Kawabata sketches the surface of the story, leaving the reader to imagine what lies beneath. The best word to describe the writing is subtle: conversations are laden with deeper meaning which the reader has to unearth; true feelings are concealed beneath the exterior, requiring us to peel back the layers. To understand the book, we need to find what is implied, not explicitly stated. An example of this is a conversation Chieko has with her childhood friend, Shin'ichi:
"Are you completely obedient to your parents?"It's good to see that, at times, the characters can be as confused as the reader ;)
"Even when it comes to something like marriage?"
"Yes. For now I intend to be obedient," Chieko answered without hesitation.
"What about yourself? Don't you have your own feelings?" Shin'ichi asked.
"Having too many seems to cause trouble."
"So you suppress them... you stifle your feelings?"
"No, not that."
"You're speaking nothing but riddles." (p.17)
We are never quite sure what the main impetus of the novel is, whether we are hoping to find out the secret of Chieko's birth or learn who will steal her heart. In the end, of course, it doesn't really matter (which is a good thing as Kawabata is unlikely to tell us...). As with other classic J-Lit works, there is no neat end - the reader must make their own judgement...
...or you can just sit and look at the pretty flowers - your choice ;)