Yasunari Kawabata’s “Snow Country” is set in a remote hot spring—or onsen—town in central Japan. The landscape is beautiful; in the winter, the entire world is rendered white as everything becomes buried in snow. Yet with this beauty also comes a sense of desolation. Nature slumbers, and life seems to recede from view in the harsh winters.
It is against this backdrop—quite ironically—that the novel’s central romance plays out. The novel is told from the perspective of Shimamura, a wealthy dilettante who has a wife and children in Tokyo. He dabbles in the arts, having studied Japanese dance briefly before turning his attention to ballet, a Western import. He prefers ballet because he cannot actually see it being performed; he only learns about it by reading descriptions and looking at photographs. In Shimamura’s mind, ballet has an “air of unreality,” and his imagination of what ballet looks like can run unfettered. He is one who lives in detachment, preferring his own fantasies to the real world.
In the onsen town, Shimamura meets Komako, who was born in the area and has recently returned from Tokyo. In Tokyo, she worked as a geisha to pay for the hospital bills of the man she used to love. She met a man who promised to settle her debts but then died unexpectedly. Now that she has returned to her hometown, many signs point to her becoming a geisha again. But being an onsen geisha is not at all glamorous; whereas a geisha in Tokyo could receive steady patronage through performing song and dance, onsen geisha are more reliant upon sex work, and are thus looked down upon. Komako and Shimamura are thereby polar opposites in terms of social status. Despite this, however, they are still inextricably drawn to each other. They fall in love after a brief friendship.
“Snow Country” works with great reserve and restraint. There is no high melodrama, no passionate declarations of love. Shimamura goes to see Komako a couple times a year. They meet, they talk, they sleep together, they take walks in the woods. The thought that Shimamura will leave his wife and children does not seem to occur to either of the two. The novel goes so far as to deny access to the interiority of the characters. The novel almost never delves into Shimamura’s thoughts, even if it is told exclusively from his perspective. This, of course, reflects the fact that Shimamura lives the life of a detached aesthete. But this does not mean that he is without feeling—he returns to Komako again and again, after all, and he often takes care of her when she becomes too drunk from attending parties. Near the novel’s end, he thinks repeatedly about what happens at the climax of the novel, in which one misspoken phrase (uttered by him) threatens to tear apart their relationship. Even so, Shimamura is a character who is difficult to approach—he is as cold as the snow country around him.
Komako, on the other hand, appears to be far more alive than Shimamura. Even if she is mistress to a man who sees her only once or twice a year, she harbors no resentment, no jealousy, no shame, no self-pity. She lives her life and loves Shimamura fully. Before the two begin their relationship, Komako declares to Shimamura that she will regret nothing, saying to him: “I won’t have any regrets. I’ll never have any regrets. But I’m not that sort of woman. It can’t last. Didn’t you say so yourself?” She enters the relationship, in other words, knowing that it is doomed. But Shimamura fails to recognize what Komako has done. Instead, he aestheticizes “wasted effort,” thinking that their relationship is like climbing a mountain only to descend it afterwards. He watches, he judges, he appreciates, but he never invests himself in anything—even in Komako, who, despite it all, loves him without problems or pride. But one also senses that he is deeply invested in Komako, even if he isn’t aware of it. This is the novel’s mode—working powerfully to suggest great depths and contradictions of emotion within the characters, all the while presenting only the surface: dialogue, action, setting. This is a play-like novel, and it is all the more poignant for it.