Beauty is not so easily measured

Beauty is not so easily measured

While love is something that can be sensed as being palatable and felt directly within one’s self, beauty is not so easily measured—an aesthetic that is judged by each person according to his or her own likes or dislikes. Kawabata Yasunari’s classic short stories “The Man Who Did Not Smile” and “Immorality” both look at love and beauty and how they are measured, each in a poetic and colorful way.

“The Man Who Did Not Smile” is a 1929 short story, or “palm of the hand story,” as Yasunari called them (Ljukkonen, online), about a film writer and his relationship to beauty via his movie that is being filmed, and via his relationship with his wife and children.  It is a story about beauty and this man’s relationship to beauty, and the psychological relationship he has to the idea of beauty and what is behind the idea of beauty.

Yasunari wrote “The Man Who Did Not Smile” as a first-person account from the film writer’s standpoint.  The man is on location for a film he has written about patients in a mental hospital, and is in the process of discovering a final scene for his film.  He finds it one morning while “gazing out on the Kamo River,” (Yasunari, 1929/1990, p. 128) upon waking, finding himself amid the memories of a previous day and recalling a mask that he had seen in a display window.  It is that image that gives him the idea for his final scene of the movie, “a daydream” (p. 129) filled with masks of smiling faces.

The search for the masks to be used in the film becomes the central drama of the story—and the protagonist’s relationship to those masks once he takes them to his wife and children after the filming of the movie is complete.  The masks are delicate and the actors must handle them carefully.  Yet, there is some power within those masks.  The film writer decides to buy them so they can be handled without fear of them being destroyed, and it is in the power of those masks that the protagonist realizes his own relationship with beauty.

“Well then, I’ll buy them.  I did actually want them.  I daydreamed as if awaiting the future when the world would be in harmony and people would all wear the same gentle face as these masks.  (p. 131)

His children love the masks, but he refuses to wear them.  His wife agrees to put one on, and it is in that moment that he discovers his true relationship to his wife’s beauty.  “The moment she removed the mask, my wife’s face somehow appeared ugly” (p. 131).  It is as though he is seeing her face for the first time—and his own idea of her beauty, or, in this case, the “ugliness of her own countenance” (p. 131).  As his wife lay in the hospital bed, he is faced not only with a new idea of beauty, but his own sense of self—one that might appear as “an ugly demon” (p. 132) to his wife.  He would be exposed to his real self, his true nature.

Psychologist C. G. Jung writes that the mask can be seen as the outer persona we show to the world, the way we want to be seen (Jung, 1929/1983, p. 96).  “The mask is the ad hoc adopted attitude, I have called the persona, which was the name for the masks worn by actors in antiquity” (Jung, 1921/1983, p. 98).  The narrator is forced to confront not only what lies behind his wife’s beauty/ugliness, but also his idea of his own beauty/ugliness.  The “beautiful mask” (p. 132) reveals another question, too:  whether or not the face he sees on his wife could be artificial, too, “just like the mask” (p. 132).  It’s a perplexing question, but one that reveals, like the mask, much about the filmmaker’s relationship to himself and his world.

While the idea of beauty colors Yasunari’s 1963 “palm-of-the-hand” story “Immortality,” the concept of eternal love is the central theme.  In this short story, two lovers have reunited after being apart for at least five decades—but their reunion comes in the afterlife, as they are now each dead.  Yasunari presents a portrait of an eighteen-year-old girl and a man sixty years her senior walking through some woods in a land they’d both known together while alive.  The scene is haunting as the girl is not aware the man has passed on into the afterlife until the end, when, upon that realization, the two “go into the tree and stay” (Yasunari, 1963/2005, p. 326).

The love between the two has been eternal, in a sense—the girl killed herself because of her love for the man when they had to separate, and he wound up spending much of his life on the land overlooking that spot in the ocean where she died. The man has returned to the land where she died to reclaim her.  He wants to be with her forever.  However, he doesn’t know he is dead, and neither does she. Once she realizes he, too, is dead, they are able to reunite into eternity in nature, merging themselves into an old tree where they will live forever.

Like “The Man Who Did Not Smile,” Yasunari uses the idea of beauty and the mask that we wear—Jung’s “persona”—as an aspect of “Immortality.”  The girl tells the old man, Shintaro, that she has lived in the afterlife with the image of him as a young man.  “You are eternally young to me,” (p. 325) she says, even though the man is now old.

If I hadn’t drowned myself and you came to the village now to see me, I’d be an old woman. How disgusting.  I wouldn’t want you to see me like that.  (p. 325)

For the girl, memories are important.  Her spirit carries them as she lives in the afterlife.  Scholar James Hillman says that memories are important for the soul, carrying with them energy that thrives for the departed person.  The girl realizes this, too, in a way:  “If you were to die, there wouldn’t be anyone on earth who would remember me,” she says (p. 325).

The soul, they say, needs models for its mimesis in order to recollect eternal verities and primordial images.  If in its life on earth it does not meet these as mirrors of the soul’s core, mirrors in which the soul can recognize its truths, then its flame will die and its genius wither.  (p. 159)

The girl imagines ugliness representing old age—that ancient mask we all wear once we have passed from the prime years of our life.  Even though the old man is wearing that mask, she doesn’t see it:  she has only her memories carried with her at the time of her death, so she sees him as an eighteen-year-old, also.  For the man, he never experienced his lover as an old woman; thus, her youth is indeed eternal for him.

Yasunari uses few characters in both stories, keeping each “palm-of-the-hand” short and simple.  The narrator in “The Man Who Did Not Smile” is joined by the mask buyer, his wife, and his children in the tale, while it is only Shintaro and his young lover in “Immortality.”  We do not see deeply driven characterization in either story, as Yasunari essentially paints portraits of each actor through their thoughts and actions.  Like a beautiful painting of a sunset or sunrise, we must use our imagination amidst the texture and colors of the painting to grasp its deeper meaning.

Indeed, Yasunari’s beautiful use of words shines in both stories in his colorful imagery.  It is simple:  “An old man and a young girl were walking together,” he writes to begin “Immortality.”  He ends that story almost the same way he begins “The Man Who Did Not Smile”—with the picture of the sky.

The color at evening began to drift onto the small saplings behind the great trees.  The sky beyond turned a faint red where the ocean sounded.  (p. 326).

“The Man Who Did Not Smile,” on the other hand, begins with the image of the sky as well.  “The sky had turned a deep shade; it looked like the surface of a beautiful celadon porcelain piece” (p. 128).  It is a daydream of sorts, a beautiful portrait into which Yasunari takes the reader as he moves through the inner world of the film writer.

Both stories are magical.  It is the “magic of those trees” (p. 325) that captures the imagination of Shintaro and his young lover.  Those trees are part of land his family owned, and he later sold to the men who turned the land into a golfer’s driving range.  The trees are on land overseeing the ocean where the girl jumped to her death.  Trees are sacred and magical in many mythologies.  Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, and many myths use trees as the focus for rebirth (Anderson, 1990, p. 25).  In the same regard, the ocean, too, is a mythical place:  from where gods and goddess reside and in the Greek legend Odysseus sailed before being reuniting with his lover (Anderson, p. 25).

The magic of “The Man Who Did Not Smile” comes in the healing properties of the masks.  It is through the image of the mask that the film writer is able to create an ending for his story—a “beautiful daydream” (p. 128) to conclude the “dark story” (p. 129).  The masks represent his own distrust of himself and the world around him, covering with an artificial beauty the truth that lies behind them.  The masks magically hide what is true and meant to be revealed—whether it is an “ugly demon” (p. 132) or an “ever-smiling gentle face” (p. 132).

What is also interesting about “The Man Who Did Not Smile” is in how the film writer’s screenplay is based on a scene inside a mental hospital.  We learn later that his wife is in a hospital of sorts—and we never learn the exact nature of her illness.  Could it be a mental hospital?  And might her hospitalization also be a reflection of his “gloomy” personality (p. 129)?  He’s afraid of what is hiding behind the masks—so much that his initial reaction to putting on the mask himself is fear.  “The mask is no good.  Art is no good” (p. 132).  Masks and art each reveal the hidden dimensions.  The film writer himself uses his films to balance his own “gloomy” personality.  Yet the shadows of life are revealed through film and art, and are experienced in hospitals.  Each is an aspect of “The Man Who Did Not Smile.”

Yasunari gives much to think about regarding our relationship to each other and ourselves in “The Man Who Did Not Smile,” and to our relationship with the magic of eternal love in “Immortality.”  Both reveal the hidden aspects of our existence on earth, offering us a short look at the feeling of living in a world of melancholy and loneliness amid what we call beauty.  Our own mortality rises from the depths of eternity through these stories, and it is in the hidden beauty of our daily lives that Yasunari’s works can be realized.


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