The Old Capital

Yasunari Kawabata

translated from the Japanese by J. Martin Holman
Counterpoint 2006 [1962]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2014
The protagonist of The Old Capital is Chieko, whose parents run a small kimono wholesale business in Kyoto. A foundling, she knows nothing about her birth family until a chance encounter with her twin sister; in the background loom decisions about her possible marriage. Meanwhile her father starts incorporating ideas from Western art into his kimono and obi patterns, while he spends time in seclusion in a temple but also indulges in nostalgic visits to a geisha tea house.

The other, eponymous protagonist is Kyoto itself, or more precisely aspects of its old core, its festivals and rituals, its craft traditions and aesthetics, and its urban and peri-urban landscapes and locations — and the changes those and it face as post-war Japan modernises. This is presented as much through dialogue as through description, and superficially irrelevant details of places and plants and clothing items are actually central to understanding the emotions and interactions of the characters. The result is almost a study in how broader cultural changes are constituted by local and individual changes.

Kawabata's gently handled story and subtle use of metaphor go with the subject material to make The Old Capital a very Japanese novel, though one accessible to outsiders unfamiliar with its setting.

January 2014

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%T The Old Capital
%A Kawabata, Yasunari
%M Japanese
%F Holman, J. Martin
%I Counterpoint
%D 2006 [1962]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9781593760328
%P 182pp