Book Review: The Old Capital by Yasunari Kawabata (1962)

Release: 1962
Release: 1962

This Autumn I had the great opportunity to head on down to Kyoto and take in some of the colors. This was my third trip to Kyoto and everyone warned me that it would be crowded (this warning always comes with a trip to Kyoto). Supposedly Autumn is the best season in Kyoto as it isn’t too hot, or wet, or cold and the Autumn colors are everywhere. The only problem is that Autumn comes a bit late to most of Japan and the leaves don’t really change colors till the end of November. No matter, I had the time off so I figured it would be a good opportunity to head on down and check out the old capital. In preparation for my trip, I felt inspired to read some Japanese literature that takes place in Kyoto, so I picked up Kawabata’s The Old Capital. I recently read Kawabata‘s The Master Of Go and I was quite eager to pick up another book by the Nobel Laureate. The Old Capital is often cited as one of the reasons why Kawabata was chosen for the Nobel Prize in Literature, so I figured what book would be a better companion when taking in some Japanese culture.

The Old Capital was vastly improved by my exploration of many of the locations mentioned in the novel. I was staying quite near to the protagonists home and many of the commonly visited temples are featured throughout the novel, the conclusion even falls in the Autumn. The downside is that the novel lacks any real conflict. It focuses a lot on the protagonist Chieko’s adoption and discovery of long lost family, but there never is any struggle or conflict. Her family focuses on a traditional Yukata business and who will inherit the shop and who can they marry Chieko to. All of this is approached with a strange lack of worry. Everything passes just fine and everyone seems to have the attitude of whatever will happen will happen. Throughout my reading I kept looking for something more, some struggle or issue to overcome, but it is hard to care when the characters don’t seem to really care.

The lack of conflict does one positive thing, it makes me focus more on the theming and language. Even though it is a translation, Kawabata’s style can be seen quite clearly. His writing is beautiful and somehow quite casual, much like how someone might observe cherry blossoms. He makes many parallels to the change of seasons and the changes in customs in Japan. Less people seem interested in dry goods or Yukata’s and they are increasingly becoming more of a fancy for festivals. He comments on western stores focusing on strange goods like radios instead of more traditional Japanese wares. Even the flowers are compared to the short life of youth and the change into a less beautiful form for most of the year. The apathy of characters and language makes this comparisons more apparent, but unfortunately it doesn’t make for a great book.

I enjoyed my reading for the most part, but I wish there was more of a story here. I didn’t care about any of the characters and they didn’t seem to care about themselves too much. It is a short book which makes it an easy read, but it never really feels like it gets going. I will continue to read through Kawabata’s bibliography and hopefully some of his other novels will strike my fancy more. The Old Capital seems to be a bit of a homage to Kyoto’s place in modern Japan as connection to the past, but it reads without struggle or conflict. It does little but provide a glimpse into the daily lives of a family in ever changing Japan. If you are intrigued by Japanese culture, this book will likely be enjoyable, but otherwise there is very little there. I’d only give it 3 out of 5 stars.


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