Book Review: The Master Of Go by Yasunari Kawabata (1954)

Release: 1954
Release: 1954

Yasunari Kawabata considered The Master Of Go to be his finest work, or so wikipedia says. Most of my Japanese students don’t think of it so highly; they give praise to his other works such as Snow Country or The Dancing Girls of Izu. The Master Of Go was my first attempt at reading Kawabata and while I did enjoy the book, I’m glad that this is not considered his best work. Next time, I will look through the Nobel Laureate’s bibliography and select something more praised, but for now I will review this simple novel. The entirety of this work takes place over a single game of Go. Not only is it only one game but it is the last game the famous “invincible master” plays before his death. The whole book is surprisingly interesting and its simple form instills a peaceful feeling that very few books can accomplish.

If you are not familiar with the game Go, it is similar to Othello. Instead of creating a line to flip pieces, one must surround and capture pieces. The game itself is simple to understand but remarkably difficult to master. What makes it harder is the complex Japanese scoring system which even now I don’t understand. Two opposing players put black or white pieces anywhere on the board in attempt to surround their opponents pieces. The different locations and types of plays are also given points in the Japanese system, but understanding this little detail is unimportant in regards to understanding the novel. Before reading I was completely clueless, but a simple download of a Go app on my iphone and the simplicity and difficulty of the game became clear.

The book works as a simple and clear metaphor, contrasting old Japan and the changes occuring in “new” Japan. This contrast is reflected again in the black and white pieces, the players ages and attitudes and even what was transpiring or soon to transpire in the rest of Japan. The Go tournament takes place soon after the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War and before the outbreak of WWII in a time where the mindset of Japan was drastically different to what it would soon become. There was a fundamental change in the Japanese mind at the time, that might be seen as another parallel in the game of Go. They never explicitly talk about war in the novel, but the timing seems convenient as well as the topic of contrasts between old and new Japan. The whole of the game even hinges on one controversial play, that for the older player seems unexpected and disingenuous. They younger player argues that the time was right for this change. For the older player it is against tradition, and for the younger it is a growing necessity. It is an argument that seems to reflect change all over the world, not just Japan. All nations can relate to this conflict between tradition and advancement.

After finishing The Master Of Go I didn’t find it clinging to my mind the way I had hoped, but I still found the entire experience a pleasant one. The book is strangely beautiful and simple. Reading Kawabata’s words was somehow soothing and peaceful instilling images of peaceful Japanese gardens and tea rooms (where much of the game takes place). There were a few moments where the main character expresses something implicit in the Japanese character that makes them superior at Go, which were particularly irritating. For the most part the book is an interesting view of Japanese culture and the internal conflicts that seem to be perpetually raging. I would recommend picking it up if you have an interest in Japanese culture or literature. In my opinion it sits at about 4 out of 5 stars.

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