Sound of the Mountain

The other day, Scott pointed to an article on Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata. I was in need of something to read on the train, so I pulled down my copy of his The Sound of the Mountain (1954), which I had read a few years ago. I had gone through a period of reading some of the classic Japanese novelists (Kawabata, Tanizaki, Soseki) and Kawabata came out as my favorite.

The Sound of the Mountain
is an episodic novel about an older man (in his sixties, still working in an office) and his family. It covers an undetermined amount of time, more than a year, and offers little in the way of classic plot resolution. A number of threads are followed through the book–his son’s affair with a woman, his feelings for his daughter-in-law, his daughter’s marital troubles– but mostly it is a minimalist portrait of an aged man. Certain themes evident here are common to the other work of Kawabata’s I have read: transitory beauty, nature and the seasons, memory, and death. One might say that time itself is the real focal point of the novel. While individual scenes play out at often confused intervals (is it a day later, is it months later?) they often focus on time: seasons changing, recall of memories, how the past affects the present, death and dying, the brief span of happiness or purity or bliss, etc. It is all written in a minimal prose, short sentences, short paragraphs. Kawabata leaves out as much as he says, but the reader can infer much, particularly with the author’s use of repetition to bring attention to certain thoughts or symbols across the length of the novel.

One formal element of the narrative that jumped out at me is the way it jumps across time in very abrupt, undemarcated ways. Early on, Shingo (the protagonist) is considering locusts and the way his granddaughter plays with them. Then he thinks of his daughter, who has left her husband and is now living with the family:

…A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course.
“Isn’t Father nice to Kikuko,” said Fusako.
Kikuko and Shuichi were both at the dinner table.
[a page of conversation at the dinner table and Shingo considering his feelings for Kikuko, the daugher-in-law, and how she brings him relief because his blood kin (son and daughter) did not turn out as he would have wished]
Fusako’s remark, he felt, brushed against his secret.
It had been made at dinner some three or four evenings before. (36-7)

Note how the time shift is abrupt and only noted after the scene has played out (okay, so it’s not so obvious without me actually copying out a lot more text). This kind of wandering eye on time is an excellent representation of Shingo’s thoughts and memory recall. The ordering of time is rather fluid and combines with his frequent considerations of his age and the passage of time, as if, feeling his life coming to its end, time has begun to mean less as individuated moments.

But what really interests me is the abrupt time shifts that offer no immediate markers. This is something that might have use in comics. That disorienting moment where you wonder “Where did this speaker come from? When did they get to the dinner table?” could be replicated in a panel transition similar to McCloud’s scene-to-scene but of a more oblique nature (but less-so than the non-sequitur).

I was also thinking about the classic Japanese nature of Kawabata’s work and how that is so little seen in manga (or at least manga translated into English). The only examples I can think of are the beloved Yokohama Kaidashi Kikou and the minimalism of Nananan’s Blue. So much of what I said above about Kawabata’s novel could easily apply to YKK: the undetermined time frame, nature and the seasons, aging and death, the fleeting moments of change. That’s probably why YKK appealed to me so much. Blue is more relevant for its minimalism and sparsity. I wish I could find more manga in that vein.