The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

This novel about the last game of a dying Go master was a gift to me by friends. They knew of my longstanding interest in Go and gave me this novel for my birthday. I’ve previously read a couple of Yasunari Kawabata’s short stories in anthologies but I’ve always felt his writing to be at least one shade more oblique than is comfortable. This book, which is apparently more straightforward than a lot of his other novels, is quite difficult to parse as an emotional work. But I still end up contemplating its themes, turning them over in my head as one’s fingers would fiddle a Go stone.

Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go is an example of the shishosetsu, a novel form that hinges upon the fictionalization of real events as experienced by the author. In this particular novel, the author is the newspaper correspondent covering the retirement game of the highly influential Go master Honinbo Shusai and the innovative younger player Otake (a thinly veiled fictionalization of eventual Go legend Minoru Kitani). Kawabata uses the actual game record in his storytelling, a recreation of which you can access here.

The novel opens with the news of Honinbo Shusai’s death. He was the last hereditary heir to the tile of Honinbo, the dominant school of Go for the last 300 years. Shusai did not a name a successor–instead, he bequeathed the name Honinbo to the Japan Go Association. In many ways, Shusai’s death was the end of Go as the genteel preoccupation of the shogun class, a break from the the imperial past. Interspersed with the story of his wake and the people traveling to pay their respects are scenes from the actual game, spanning six grueling months and several cities.

His competitor Otake has as much of his reputation on the line, if not more. He is one half of the two pillars of a new movement within the game called Shin Fuseki. I recognize the inherent nerdiness of calling board game moves “revolutionary,” but believe me when I say that Shin Fuseki changed so much of game theory that it’s now very difficult to apply the opening of games from the last century to current gameplay. Ask me in the comments and I’ll try to elaborate in the wonkiest way I can.

You know that Hemingway exhortation about stories being icebergs where most of the mass is under the surface? Well, the Master of Go is basically an iceberg the size of a continent and the only visible part is one square yard of unadorned reportage. The novel works most overtly as an elegy, a mourning of the past by sensitive and artistic souls who are uncertain of a highly industrialized present. Though the game itself occurred in in 1938, Kawabata (who published it serially in 1951) transforms the story to encompass Japan’s modernization, militarization and eventual loss in World War II. A significant percentage of his narrative is consumed by Shusai’s ambivalence with the new, rigorous rules of Go, ostensible improvements that for him renders the game dehumanized.

Another, more subtle motif in the story is the idea of the game as a pure form, untouched by the outside world. One scene features a visibly angered Otake threatening to forfeit because the length of the game has forced him to be away from his family and school for extended periods, sometimes due to the caprice of the older Honinbo. His fatigue ends up showing in his performance. Another crucial plot point involves the use of the rules to get more thinking time in between sessions. On a more meta level, it also made me examine the idea of a “pure novel” that exists perfectly outside of all intertextuality. Because I found a lot of the themes opaque as I was reading the book, a lot of my subsequent pleasure comes mostly outside of it, from reading about historical context and studying commentary on the actual game. My opinion has also been colored by the knowledge that Shusai himself had been a highly divisive figure throughout his life, a discovery that tempers the idea of him as a figure of bodhisattvan temperance, enduring one last painful game to glorify posterity.

My experience with Kawabata is a circuitous road. As a teenager, I was very fascinated with the author Yukio Mishima, who wrote existentialist and dramatic set pieces that had made him one of the foremost Japanese modernists. In a Mishima biography written by John Nathan, he relates Mishima’s admiration and respect for the older Kawabata, a sensei/kouhai relationship that struck many as ironic given the vast difference of their personalities. Mishima was bold and iconoclastic, while Kawabata was serene and seemingly removed from time. There was one particularly poignant anecdote about Mishima’s conflicted feelings when Kawabata was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968–Mishima (who actually nominated Kawabata to the Swedish academy) knew that the Nobel wouldn’t be awarded to a Japanese author again within his lifetime. Two years later, Mishima would commit suicide through seppuku after participating in an attempted rightist coup.

My years have also tempered my fascination for these two writers, who seemed so preoccupied with the beauty in death and the mourning of a bygone era. For Kawabata in particular, the past is another country, and he is the perpetual exile.

2 thoughts on “The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata

  1. Before I heard of Go, I’ve heard of Baduk first, which I believe is the Korean equivalent. Do you think there’s also existing literature devoted to the connection between the two?

    I’m a total noob about this, but I enjoyed reading your insightful review. Also: It’s great when friends indulge our passions, right? Great gift!

    • Baduk is the exact game as Go! It’s also called Weiqi in Chinese, where it originated. There are subtle differences in scoring, but a lot of it has been standardized since professionals from those three countries have been competing recently for international titles. The teacher that I met through the Philippine Go Association actually came from Korea.

      My entry point into Go is a manga called Hikaru no Go. It still remains as my favorite manga of all time. It made a lot of the concepts easy to grasp for a n00b like me. :D And yes, thoughtful friends are definitely treasures.

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