The Sound of the Mountain – Yasunari Kawabata

review by Gabriel

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata

The Sound of the Mountain is depressing for all the right reasons.  It captures the longing, loneliness and disappointment of aging using characters that are so real you might expect to run into them in the street (at which point you’d probably want to give them a hug).  It’s depressing because it’s confronting – it makes you reflect on your life, where it’s going, and how far that might be from your dreams.

The light of his life is his daughter-in-law, Kumiko, who is everything his daughter is not – beautiful, filial and sweet natured. Shingo feels both pity and guilt for his son’s callous treatment of her, and the two grow close in their loneliness, until it becomes clear that their feelings for each other may be more than just parent-child.

Their relationship does not turn into forbidden affair.  There is nothing explicit about The Sound of the Mountain.  Instead, as the novel progresses Kawabata raises the stakes in each of the plot lines bringing the tensions closer and closer to the surface.  Similarly, the conclusion is not explosive, but is instead as sad and quite as the falling of cherry blossoms.

Kawabata does not believe in catharsis.  He likened his writing style to haikus – vignettes that invoke deep emotion, usually longing or sadness, and stir questions rather than provide answers.  While there is a plot weaving the novel together, The Sound of the Mountain is really a series of scenes of quite gardens and creaking houses and empty streets.  The author’s focus is more on creating a deep impression than advancing the story.

Perhaps it is this approach that allows him to create some of the most realistic characters I’ve encountered in a novel.  His creations are complete with hidden desires and inconsistencies, and you can tell that each of them considers themselves the heroes (or victims) or their own stories, no matter how despicably they may act.  They are all deeply flawed, but are made sympathetic by their yearning, vulnerability and tenderness.

Some may find The Sound of the Mountain slow, with its domestic setting and mundane events.  But at under 200 pages, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and it’s an excellent work by a master author with an unusual approach.  By leaving so much in his work implied and unresolved, Kawabata captures the reader’s attention and shows them the tragedy of an everyday life.


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