It sure is difficult to focus on books when you’re eagerly watching Patrick Fitzgerald’s every move, but here are a few notes on Kawabata’s quirky take on old age. Neither as grim as Soseki nor as perverse as Tanizaki, The Sound of the Mountain is about an old man named Shingo, distant from his wife (who he married only after her sister, his first wife, died), with grouchy divorced daughter and a louse of a son who’s cheating on his wife Kikuko, to whom Shingo feels closest.
Shingo’s interventions accomplish little over the course of the book. His son doesn’t especially reform, and mostly he’s just left agape at the sadness that everyone seems to be going through: abortions, infidelity, abusive husbands, war widows, and so on. Shingo himself doesn’t have it so bad, but his failing memory and the uselessness he perceives in his aging self produce dreams and a desire to bond with young women. If this were a Tanizaki novel, his involvement with these women would turn to unrequited lust that would drive him crazy (see: The Key, Diary of a Mad Old Man, etc.), but here he’s never overcome with much at all. If anything, he identifies with the plight of his son’s wife, as she seems to occupy the closest position to his, one lacking all authority. When he eventually confronts his son, his son is dismissive and seems unaffected by Shingo’s words.
The family situation may be superficially reminiscent of Ozu’s Tokyo Story, but Kawabata is more subversive and less complacent. Where Ozu showed the elder parents in the eyes of their children as troublesome and disconnected, Shingo is made more aware of his surroundings by his increasing inability to be involved with them (a Proustian theme). The decadence of the younger generation is not, as is de rigeur, connected to a loss of parental authority (due to the war or other reasons) or a culture in decline. Shingo and his son work in the same job. The ending effects a resolution, but it is not one in which Shingo is included. The son gives up his mistress through no action of Shingo’s, and the family communicates more than it has in the entire book, yet Shingo is mostly silent and has, if anything, acquiesced to his declining fate.
The ultimate effect is something like watching a soap opera through the eyes of someone who has become unhealthily involved in the lives of the characters. Shingo fades throughout the book; his interactions with others, particularly the young women, promise more than they deliver. I wouldn’t call the book elegaic, because it’s too particular and detailed for that. But nor is it hopeless; it’s just that by the end the main character has ceased to be the subject of the plot.