‘Dandelions’ by Yasunari Kawabata (Review)

After looking at the work of one twentieth century master in my last post, today’s review turns to another.  While I’ve read a fair few of Yasunari Kawabata’s best known works in translation, I’ve been a little slack in seeking out his minor offerings, so today I’m looking at a late work, one with an intriguing history.  It’s a short novel dealing with illness, madness and repressed memories – and most of it takes place over the course of a leisurely walk…

Dandelions (translated by Michael Emmerich) has a rather lyrical start, with a young man and an older woman walking along a path towards the rural town of Ikuta.  However:

Only one thing seems out of place in this town: the madhouse.  Though maybe it helps for a madhouse to be in such incongruous surroundings. Perhaps whoever chose to put one here, in this quiet, sleepy, graying town, was a sage.  Not that every disturbed mind can be cured by peaceful surroundings; the mad inhabit their own worlds, detached from reality, and a simple change of scenery doesn’t usually have much of an effect on that.  Staying at the clinic, here in Ikuta,probaly does less for the patients themselves than the town does for the people who bring them.  Madness is more idiosyncratic than sanity; no single cure suits all patients.
p.3 (Penguin Classics, 2019)

The two characters walking along the path, are actually leaving this ‘madhouse’, as Emmerich renders it, having left Ineko Kizaki in the care of the doctors at the asylum.  Ineko’s mother, a middle-aged widow, has decided that her daughter needs specialised care, against the wishes of Kuno, Ineko’s fiancé, and as the two walk away from the asylum, listening to the loud peals of the temple bell rung by the patients, they continue to argue about whether leaving Ineko behind was the right thing to do.

As their discussion continues, we learn more about why Ineko has been committed.  For several years, the young woman has been developing a (made-up) condition called ‘somagnosia’, where certain objects simply vanish from sight, causing her to panic and break down,  That’s all well and good when it’s just a table-tennis ball, but when her husband’s body begins to vanish in the middle of sex, well, that’s another matter entirely.  Her stay in Ikuta is a last attempt to understand her problem, but as the story develops, we learn that this may be an issue stemming from her childhood, and what happened on a certain, fateful day…

Dandelions is a late work, and seemingly unfinished, with the original serialisation abandoned after Kawabata’s Nobel win.  Japanese writing can be opaque at the best of times, and Rinko Kawauchi’s beautiful cover photo of trees emerging though thick fog seems rather apt for a book that is murkier than most.  Sadly, I suspect that the completed work would have shed a little more light on the events and characters described, even if (as I’ll explain later) it’s unlikely that Anglophone readers would have been able to pick up on every nuance.

The majority of what exists of the novel focuses on the conversation between Kuno and Ineko’s mother, and it isn’t long before the reader realises that what seems like an introduction is likely to be the novel, with their discussions of Ineko gradually sketching out a picture of a young woman with mental issues.  We learn of her father’s tragic death, which she witnessed, and the development of her so-called somagnosia, in which the strange phenomenon of a disappearing table-tennis ball gradually expands into something more damaging.  Vexingly, we sense that the more we learn, the clearer Ineko will come into focus, making the truncated nature of the work all the more frustrating.

Just when it seems that the conversation is all we’ll get, there’s a sudden, fairly abrupt, change of pace as Ineko’s mother is reminded of a past event, and the text suddenly switches into a recount of times gone by:

The mother had rested her left hand on Ineko’s shoulder, and then with her right she washed her daughter’s back.  Doing so made her sad.  As she lifted up her daughter’s hair and scrubbed the nape of her neck,some of the shorter hairs at the back picked up a bit of lather.  Ineko’s mother felt the desire to wash her daughter’s hair. (p.68)

What follows is a passage taking us, and Ineko’s mother, back a few years, filling in details about the illness, the effect of her father’s death on Ineko and Kuno’s appearance on the scene.  Thanks to this section, certain elements from earlier in the book, such as a seemingly random conversation about carving names into a tree trunk, can be seen in a new light, and we begin to get a fuller picture of what is going on.

In fact, the further we penetrate into Dandelions, the darker and more complex the work becomes.  There’s an underlying focus on sexuality and sensuality, not only in the way Ineko begins to lose sight of her fiancé when they sleep together, but also in the bathroom scenes shared by mother and daughter, and even, perhaps, in the conversation Ineko’s mother has with Kuno.  When you then consider the death of Ineko’s father and the effect his death has had on her – well, if this was Schnitzler or Zweig, you might be starting to attribute much of this to Freudian influences.

Which all sounds rather intriguing, and the second half of the book definitely has tantalising traces of a certain something, which makes the lack of an ending even more frustrating – something which isn’t helped by the lack of an explanation.  Typically for such a confusing work, when the central section of Ineko’s mother’s memories begins, a note at the bottom of page 69 reads “Please see the translator’s afterword (p.121) regarding some temporal inconsistencies in the pages that follow.”  All well and good, except that this edition *has* no translator’s afterword, instead providing a translation of Kawabata’s Nobel acceptance speech.  I’m not sure if this was included in the US New Directions edition, or whether it’s a leftover from a previous edition (I stumbled across this version in Lorraine Ryūko Fukuwa’s translation while searching online…), but a little insight would certainly have been helpful.

If you’re looking for help, the English-language Wikipedia page is of little use, but the Japanese version is a different story.  Run it through Google Translate and, garbled as the end result is, it provides some intriguing ideas on the nature of the text.  In particular, it mentions parallels with several stories from classical Japanese fiction, including a tale from Yamato Monogatari, in which a virgin commits suicide (and which is set in Ikuta!).  There are also some interesting comments about the proliferance of white objects in the text, symbolising death, which… is nice to know 🙂

Overall, Dandelions is a more difficult novel to get into than Kawabata’s better-known books, but even if I did struggle with it at times, it’s a story that certainly grew on me and is perhaps weightier (and more modern) than some of those works.  Quite apart from the nature of the writing of the book, the story of Ineko’s issues, described in her absence, may have a wider significance.  In Kuno’s words:

“Perhaps madness is itself wrong, from humanity’s perspective, even if you don’t commit a crime of the sort you can see, a crime that hurts another person or society.”
“If so, I guess every humn wrong deserves our pity.  After all, each of us carries inside of us the potential for madness, don’t you think?” (p.50)

And on those comforting words, I think I’ll call it a day – there’s only so far I can go in the name of promoting J-Lit…

8 thoughts on “‘Dandelions’ by Yasunari Kawabata (Review)

  1. LOL. You do a good job at promoting it, though!

    And this sounds intriguing, if frustrating. I’ve coped with unfinished works quite well in the past (Edwin Drood, Sanditon) but I don’t know if I could cope with a work as tantalising as this one…


  2. I’ll be honest: Kawabata and I never really got along. He was the favourite of all the other girls in my group at university, but left me feeling frustrated and slightly icky. (House of the Sleeping Beauties???) Haven’t gone back to him since, wonder if my perceptions would be different now.


    1. Marina Sofia – I haven’t read that one, but to be honest, a lot of twentieth-century J-Lit might put women off as it’s often mysogynistic. Coincidentally, I read a Kawabata story today in which the main character’s frequent affairs are taken rather matter-of-factly… 😉


  3. It’s interesting that you suggest reading the Japanese version (using Google translate). I like to read Japanese books translated into Chinese as I can read the language. But of course it’s not easy to get hold of here in Canada where I live. And you’re so right, the Chinese translation of a Japanese novel can be quite different from an English one. I’d like to compare how they differ… simply fascinating. Thanks for sharing with us this book.


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