Kawabata AnnotationMarch 19, 2007
Okay, this was way more difficult than it should be… It was actually a pain in the butt to write and I don’t know how I feel about the writing. I think there are some interesting ideas in it though…
In Yasunari Kawabata’s House of the Sleeping Beauties the author creates a mysterious and liminal space where the main character Eguchi relives elements of his past romantic life through the sleeping women who inhabit the house. In this story the characters of the sleeping women have virtually no personal story besides the incidental attributes that the main character projects onto them based on things like “working hands”, the appearance of a witch, or milky smooth skin. The women have virtually no history in House of the Sleeping Beauties. They are portrayed more as inert puppets or stagnant reflecting pools for the main character to gaze into while reminiscing on his past exploits.
They are empty vessels for the main character to project his desires, fantasies, and memories onto. The Eguchi character and the old men represent opposite attributes in this story. The women are youthful, virginal, and pure. Eguchi is old and refers to himself as close to death. For these two entities to share a common metaphorical space these opposites must be reconciled. For this to occur the sleeping beauties are drugged in the brothel to a point that almost resembles death. Through this process Eguchi is given a metaphorical space to voyeuristically experience the youth and purity of the women on his terms. He is an old man close to death who experiences youth through the youthful women who are artificially brought closer to death.
At night Eguchi deliberates on the women’s appearance as he lays with them and draws connections to women he has known in the past. The first woman he spends the night with is young and he imagines that her skin smells faintly like sour milk. This association reminds him of a geisha he was involved with years before and how she became enraged when he visited her with the smell of milk still on him after holding his child (24).
Eguchi sees these women as reflections back on his life. They are empty vessels that he fills with his projections and memories of youth. In relation these drugged women are absent and free of will or conscience. In several places Kawabata makes reference to these women being like Buddhas. On first laying down with the sleeping woman Eguchi comments:
“He held his hand motionless. If she were to awaken upon such a slight motion, then the mystery of the place, which old Kiga, the man who had introduced him to it, had described as “like sleeping with a secret Buddha,” would be gone” (22).
Later when he lies with the second woman his thoughts are once again drawn towards comparisons to a Buddha. With these drugged sleeping women he notes their disengagement with the world and compares it to enlightenment. These women are in an artificially induced peace with the world and are unconcerned with anything that could be done to them. They are uninterested in his desires or intentions and he draws conclusions between these sleeping women and stories of prostitutes as Buddhas.
“He almost thought that, as in old legends, she was the incarnation of a Buddha. Were there not old stories in which prostitutes and courtesans were Buddhas incarnate?” (68)
There is a certain symmetry in the way Kawabata structured the relationship between Eguchi and the sleeping virgins. Eguchi comments that the “purity of the girl was like the ugliness of the old men” (43). The symbol of the elderly man is at odds with that of the virginal sleeping woman. Only when the woman is brought closer to death through the induced sleep can they be reconciled and share this same metaphorical space. On this Eguchi commented that maybe “youth is awful for an old man” (86), but then noted the draw towards this opposite that he felt.
“There could be for an old man worn to the point of death no time of greater oblivion than when he lay enveloped in the skin of a young girl” (47).
Through this process they can be said to share attributes of the other. The woman experienced symbolic death through the induced sleep and the elderly man experienced youth through his memories he projected onto the non-present girl. Through this the symbolic symmetry of the story is heightened.
After all this I was left wondering more about who these sleeping women were in their daily lives. Were their characters always kept in a perpetual state of suspended animation? What were their stories? One of my recurring thoughts was whether they even knew what was going on to their bodies as they slept away in a heavily induced sleep. What conditions in their lives would have led them to take a position at the house of sleeping beauties? How had they come to this point in their lives? One more sinister thought I had was based on the modern urban legends around organ harvesting where a person is drugged and wakes up later in a tub of ice missing a kidney. While the characters in Kawabata’s book don’t live in a world with this type of reality, I was left wondering if these characters truly knew the circumstances they were in, or would they wake up feeling groggy the next day and be none the wiser? These women were being kept in a state of non-being so that the old men of the story can live their lives vicariously through them as they slumber.
These sinister undercurrents to the story were highlighted by the way Kawabata ended the narrative. On the last night of the story Eguchi is paired up with two sleeping beauties. During the night one is too warm and Eguchi in a disoriented stupor from taking his sleeping pill turns off the woman’s electric blanket (something he was warned against). In the morning he wakes up panicked to find the one woman dead. He is calmly reassured by the woman who runs the establishment that everything will be okay and that he should not worry. “Don’t be alarmed. We won’t cause you any trouble. We won’t tell your name,” the proprietor calms him.
Everything is business as usual and there will be no repercussions in his life. The woman gives Eguchi two more sleeping pills and encourages him to sleep in. It is through the symmetry of the story that this old man will leave the house unscathed while the young virginal woman is carted out as a corpse metaphorically taking on the old man’s burden.