Writing Echoes

Delijah's Writing Blog

Book Commentary: Koto (古都)

Note: Be warned beforehand that I am going to give away parts of the plot in this post. So don’t read this if you plan to read the novel ^^. tl;dr: SPOILER WARNING

Koto, which refers to Japan’s Old Capital, Kyoto, (The Old Capital is the official English title and as you can see Kyoto is the Spanish translation) is a novel by Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成) published in Japan in 1962, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968.

This book comes from my deceased grandmother’s bookshelf, and the only explanation I have of her having such a book is it belonging to a Nobel Prize collection or something. The Spanish version was translated from the German one in 1969, and is full of cultural notes (some of which are very cute, especially a *gasp* explanation of the fact that not all Japanese are Christians. Consider European cultures in 1969, that might have been shocking for many indeed). The book had been lying around for ages, unread, tempting me to steal it whenever I passed by, so I finally gave it a chance.

Koto tells the story of Sata Chieko, the twenty-year-old daughter of a kimono seller in Kyoto. She knows is adopted, because her parents ‘stole her from under the sakura (cherry trees)’ or because ‘she was abandoned in front of the shop’. This is a cause of concern for her, even if her parents love her to death and back. The novel is set in a rather timeless environment in Kyoto. In one of the first scenes we are told that Chieko uses a phone, but it is not until the second half of the movie when we are given an actual time reference – the Americans left Japan the previous year, which pinpoints the story circa 1952-53. Only then we start seeing mentions of cars, trains and buses, although by then we are already set in the atmosphere of the tale-Kyoto. I really loved the way this was done.
P&J Kyoto, 1696
The book timing is paced around the religious festivals in Kyoto, weaving the atmosphere into the kimono choosing – maybe an excuse, but one that works very well to present a setting and making time advance. Chieko has three suitors – Hideo, a traditional weaver, and brothers Ryuusuke and Shinichi. Halfway through the story, however, Chieko discovers that she was not stolen but abandoned, because her real mother had twins. While praying in a temple, she meets another young lady who looks exactly like her – a worker from a nearby village who hopes to find her lost twin sister. The connection is easily made. Chieko’s twin sister’s name is Naeko (I am guessing here that both share the 子 ‘ko’ ending in their names), and through her Chieko learns that both her parents are dead, which reaffirms her identity as the Sata’s daughter.

The girl’s decide to keep their sisterhood a secret, but Naeko is discovered by Hideo, who confuses her with Chieko and promises her an obi. When Chieko reveals the truth to him, she asks him to weave an obi for Naeko too. Later, Hideo will propose to Naeko, and we hear of her doubts – that she is being asked because Hideo believes he can’t get Chieko herself – but we will never know whether she accepts or not.

Love-wise Chieko herself is receptive to Shinichi, the younger brother, and intimidated by Ryuusuke, the older one. It is not completely clear what the brothers’ family does, but seems to be fabric distribution. Ryuusuke is concerned that Chieko’s family is getting ripped off by the administrator, and he steps in – he is apparently ‘very intimidating’. In the end he replaces said administrator, and his father makes a reference that the boy would be willing to marry into Chieko’s family.

The story ends with Naeko visiting Chieko’s house for the first time and spending the night, then leaving before first light, vanishing through the sleeping Kyoto.

In a Western book I would kind of feel cheated, not knowing what is going to happen for Chieko and Naeko, the ending would not give off a ‘closing’ feeling. However, the essence of Koto is not the story itself, but the picture it paints. Nature and plants are often discussed, both as living creatures and as obi patterns. It is also a struggle between the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ ways – symbolised, of all things, in a discussion of whether a kimono with a tulip design is Japanese or foreigner.

The book carries a leisure pace, there’s barely any action as such, and seems to flow slowly through time. The characters are soft-spoken but strong-willed, and some of them even lovely in their very own helplessness. Some of the characters’ actions are never explained, but must be seen in the context of the timing – you need to look back over the whole thing once you are given a timeframe to realise ‘ah, that’s why’. All in all, I enjoyed reading the book, though I ended up rooting for the only suitor that won’t have any luck.

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2 responses to “Book Commentary: Koto (古都)

  1. Alexis June 13, 2012 at 13:11

    Oh, sounds like a neat book, especially to have found lying around! I find the cover art really interesting, looks much more accurate than a lot of the Western art of Japanese people of the time.

    • Sakaki Delijah June 13, 2012 at 17:19

      I think that as an artsy person you would really enjoy the book and the way it is written a lot. It is like it paints a picture with the flowers and plants and fabrics and it is really beautiful images.

      Unfortunately I can’t find anything online about the artist who worked the cover though D: