A Weeping Tree of His Own: Yasunari Kawabata’s Dandelions

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On a Sunday afternoon in April of 1972, Yasunari Kawabata, Japan’s first and, at the time, only Nobel Laureate in Literature, went out to a nearby apartment building where he rented an office and committed suicide. He was found, hours later, when a maid smelled gas coming from the door and called the police. News of Kawabata’s death shocked not just the Japanese literary circles, but also the entire world, with an article appearing in the bottom corner of the front page of the New York Times. Despite being Japan’s preeminent literary voice, Kawabata left no note or explanation for taking his own life, yet forty-five years later, his last and unfinished novel, Dandelions, has been published by New Directions, as translated by Michael Emmerich.

Dandelions takes its title from the manuscript’s first word and line—describing the dandelions that flower along the banks of the Ikuta River, a small town that’s home to the Ikuta Clinic, a psychiatric hospital. Ineko’s mother and Ineko’s boyfriend, Kuno, have come to commit Ineko, who has started to suffer from a strange and rare ailment, “somagnosia,” or “body blindness.” Despite being at the heart of the story, Ineko is largely absent from the novel, which follows a roving and wide-ranging conversation between Kuno and Ineko’s mother as they wrestle with Ineko’s illness and its causes.

“Somagnosia,” though fictional, is frighteningly believable: a sudden affliction where the victim is inexplicably unable to see the body of another person. The illness is so bizarre that the doctor, Ineko’s mother, and Kuno all struggle to rationalize how this might be happening to Ineko. As Kuno says,

That’s the sort of sickness somagnosia seems to be, right? An effort not to see a part of yourself, of a loved one, of life. A blindness that stems [from] some deep wound.

Blindness as a concept is central to Kawabata’s novel, where every character is blind to something. In Kawabata’s Japan, the disconnect between people—that pure inability to know another’s spirit in the way you know your own—becomes crippling. Kawabata, who deeply explored this unassailable distance in his work, seemed to feel it keenly, too, in his old age. Despite all the talking and processing between Ineko’s mother and Kuno, words ultimately fall short. There’s something contradictory in this, to write a novel about a fictional illness only to portray that illness as ultimately inaccessible to the reader, who in the end, is just as blind to Ineko’s suffering as anyone else.

Throughout Dandelions, Kawabata returns again and again to a peculiar piece of Japanese calligraphy, which a patient, Old Nishiyama is writing repeatedly in a bout of compulsive neurosis: To enter the Buddha world is easy; to enter the world of demons is difficult. At first, it’s a baffling bit of proverbial philosophy, and almost reads backwards—shouldn’t the world of the Buddha, enlightenment, and all that be the difficult one to enter? Kawabata was, on some level, obsessed with this piece of calligraphy from the 15th century Zen monk and cultural trickster-hero, Ikkyu, particularly in the duality of its meanings—even Ineko’s mother and Kuno take to arguing about the significance of the phrase, and why even Old Nishiyama took to writing it so compulsively. In his Nobel Prize lecture in 1968, four years before his death, Kawabata refers to Ikkyu’s saying and its inscrutable nature:

The fact that for an artist, seeking truth, good, and beauty, the fear and petition even as a prayer in those words about the world of the devil—the fact that should be there apparent on the surface, hidden behind, perhaps speaks with the inevitability of fate. There can be no world of the Buddha without the world of the devil. And the world of the devil iIt is not for the weak of heart.

At first reading, the proverb seems to be a moral statement, one about the judgment and prudence of one’s actions, right at home with something like Jesus’s saying of the camel and the eye of the needle. Yet, as Kawabata suggested himself, when looked at as conjecture on interdependence between the demonic and the Buddha, Ikkyu’s saying takes an unexpected turn into empathy: it is easier to be empathetic to the world of the Buddha. It is much harder to be so with the wicked, to enter to world of demons.

Ikkyu himself perhaps had a defiantly first-hand account of this. As an atypical Zen monk, he was fond of drinking, gluttony, and philandering—he was acquainted with the “world of demons” in a way his contemporaries found heinous. In the setting of a psychiatric hospital, as in Dandelions, Old Nishiyama’s calligraphic practice becomes a tragic incantation among the patients struggling with their demons, where “Madness is more idiosyncratic than sanity; no single cure suits all patients.” While everything might appear cogent and well on the surface, a sea of turmoil and anguish lingers unseen just beneath.

At the Ikuta Clinic, the doctors have a strange ritual for the patients: everyday, the patients are allowed to ring the bell in the town’s temple. The doctors claim some unspecified therapeutic value in this, but they also put forward a peculiar belief: some of the young doctors at the clinic think that one can intuit something about the ringer from just the sound of the bell. To Ineko’s mother and Kuno, the first ring of the bell is “[f]orlorn but not unsettled.” To them, “[n]othing in the sound suggested that the person striking it was deranged.” Believing that there might be some signal in the literal noise of the bell becomes an act of faith on its own, where some characters, like Kuno, become convinced of it:

The sound of the bell speaks the emotions of the patient who strikes it. There’s only one bell hanging in the temple but the sound alters with each person who strikes it.

Still, this sound takes on shape depending on the listener—when Ineko’s mother and Kuno wander about the small town after dropping off Ineko, they strain to listen for the bell’s tolls. Sometimes they are convinced it is her ringing the bell; other times they are uncertain.

The ringing of the bell persists as a powerful reminder throughout the story—these sick and ailing patients who are, nevertheless, sending out clear and innocent-seeming rings. On the outside, the chimes might sound okay, but, even as a reader, you can never be sure who is ringing the bell or how. As Kuno confesses his regret over leaving Ineko behind, he refutes Ineko’s mother’s claim of Ineko’s stoicism at being interned at the clinic, and he insists that, “The tears were there, streaming from the back of her eyes into her heart.”

Eventually, as Ineko’s mother and Kuno wander throughout the town and run themselves ragged in their circular conversations, they come to an apparent cause of Ineko’s illness: the sudden and “accidental” death of her father, Kizaki Mayasuki. Kizaki, an officer during the Second World War, a full-leg amputee and expert horseman, became so distraught immediately after Japan’s surrender that he traveled high into the mountains to take his own life, something Ineko’s mother considered irresponsible for an officer to do. Yet before taking his own life, Kizaki turned away and returned to his family, becoming a riding instructor until, one day, he was riding along the seaside with his daughter. As Ineko recalls it:

By the time she screamed and closed her eyes, her father and his horse were plummeting from that high cliff into the ocean. Her father was clinging with both arms to his horse’s neck. The horse writhed, pumping its feet in the air. The cliff’s wall was sheer but rough, studded with boulders and midway down a giant shelf of rock jutted out in the air. Ineko couldn’t hear the crash of the bodies hitting the rock, of course, but she felt it—the pain blasting into her body as man and horse were separated.

At times, Ineko’s mother and Kuno are certain that Kizaki’s death and that Ineko’s traumatic exposure to it are the root of her affliction, but at other times they are dismissive that the two could possibly be linked. Despite all their musings about Kizaki and the reality of mental illness, Kuno and Ineko’s mother are unable to give voice to a question that lingers right at the edges of the novel: was Kizaki’s death an accident at all? How could an expert rider have such an anomalous fall? Could Kizaki have, unexpectedly and without any notice, taken his own life? Were they too busy listening to him “ringing the bell” of his mental well-being without peering in to see who might be wielding the hammer on the inside?

During his Nobel Lecture, Kawabata referenced a phrase from the suicide note of the Japanese writer Akutagawa Ryunosuke: “But nature is beautiful because it comes to my eyes in their last extremity.” Only at the very end of one’s life might the world seem its sharpest, most elegant, and most fleeting—is that, then, how we might understand Kizaki’s “accidental” death? And in that, Kawabata’s own suicide, too? Even the Zen monk Ikkyu contemplated suicide. Later on in his lecture, Kawabata addresses the idea directly: “‘However alienated one may be from the world, suicide is not a form of enlightenment.’ I neither admire nor am in sympathy with suicide.” How, then, might Kawabata have seen his own end?

In the years before his death, Kawabata’s protégé, Yukio Mishima, committed traditional suicide, seppuku, after failing to lead a nationalistic, right wing revolt against the government. Kawabata had been in poor health, suffering from an enflamed gallbladder and so dependent on sleeping pills that he had been hospitalized for toxicosis. Throughout it all, he continued to ring his bell to those around him, until the evening of April 16, 1972, where he was found in his work apartment, the room filled with gas from the oven. In death, Yasunari Kawabata did not leave a note, only an unfinished novel, Dandelions.

The publication of Dandelions is itself somewhat mysterious—the novel is published without any introduction or translator’s note that might explain the circumstances of the book’s writing and its cryptic state as an unfinished text. (Did Kawabata have more story to tell, or did he did he only have to do some minimal editing?) How did New Directions come to publish a translation of the novel now, forty-six years after the author’s death? Instead, the slim volume is presented almost like a found text, with minimal front matter, diving right into the story of Ineko and her family, putting an onus of research and background knowledge onto any curious reader, with potentially few clear answers available. And yet, we still have the story.

While leaving the psychiatric clinic, Ineko’s mother notices a tree that appears to be weeping, one that “had scars all along its trunk… The cracked bark has grown so thick, like the shell of an old turtle covered with moss, that it would take a great deal of strength and persistence to make cuts so deep. It looked to me as if some of the lunatics had carved their names…” to which Kuno replies, “Sometimes people just want to leave a mark to prove to themselves that they were there at that moment, wherever they are—be it an asylum or someplace else.” The haunting and portentive weeping tree comes into focus again a few pages later, when Kuno seems to understand why Ineko’s mother had mentioned the tree in the first place: “The tree is Ineko, isn’t it? The tree that looked like it was weeping.” Perhaps the novel, like Ineko, has become like the solitary weeping tree, gashed by the difficulties of the world and its inhospitable people around her, the thick scars that those closest have made on her as a way of saying, “I am here, I am alive, too.” Perhaps Yasunari Kawabata had become a weeping tree of his own.

Broida’s work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post, The Economist, The Virginia Quarterly Review, The Los Angeles Times, and The Times Literary Supplement, among others. He is currently in Portugal through the US Fulbright Program. Read more of his work at mikebroida.com. More from this author →