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Background Facts about ‘At Kinosaki’

Shiga Naoya wrote “At Kinosaki” (Kinosaki ni te – ) in 1917, when he was 34 years old. The story is based on his real experience in the autumn of 1913, when he was recovering at the hot springs of Kinosaki, from an accident which nearly took his life. Shiga was walking with a friend toward Shibaura one evening along beside the train track of the Yamanote Line when the train hit him from behind. The incident is recorded in Shiga’s diary, and was believed to be the material on which an unfinished work called “Inochi” () written by Shiga in 1914 was based.

All the incidents that take place in the novel did actually happen in the same period of time of three weeks. “At Kinosaki” is considered to be a fine example of Shiga Naoya’s famous style of writing, and an exemplary model of the “I novel” (shi-shosetsu – ) . It is also a work often used as a great example of a novel written in a movement coined as the “Naturalism” movement; which describes writers attempting to take scientific methods of observation and turn it into literature. Shiga Naoya is reported to have said that he never attempted to draw a line between story novels and non-fiction essays.

He described his main function as a writer was to select, set and arrange materials into a story. If we look at the first sentence of the novel “I had been hit by a train on the Tokyo loop line and I went alone to Kinosaki hot spring to convalesce” we can immediately recognize his ‘matter of fact’ style of writing. He so efficiently sets up a story’s entire background in one sentence with nothing but simple fact. Tanizaki Junichiro refers to this as Shiga’s ‘practicality’ (jitsuyo – p), which Tanizaki writes is quite rare in Japanese prose.

One of the features of Shiga’s writing the reader notices very quickly is his short sentences, which is an integral part of this ‘practicality’ The second sentence immediately following this background setting sentence is an equally efficient sentence in introducing the story’s theme of death and the attitude of the narrator towards it. It is another example of Shiga’s ‘to the point’ style. “If I developed tuberculosis of the spine it could be fatal, but the doctor did not think it would”.

We can see in one sentence that despite a professional’s opinion that it was unlikely, Shiga is concerned about his own death, which in his mind has not yet been avoided and still threateningly hangs over him. This makes us understand his interest in death which goes on to be the main factor in what he notices in his three weeks at Kinosaki. Later, in the third paragraph, Shiga explains his melancholy state of mind and his gloomy thoughts that absorbed him at the beginning of his convalescence very directly.

He talks of how he would be lying in his family’s grave, describing his appearance with his face “green and cold and hard” and his wounds “would be as they were that day”. He hastens to add how these thoughts were “Gloomy thoughts, but they held little terror” which clearly conveys his confusion on how he should accept death. This directness is what ‘naturalism’ is all about; turning self-observation and perception into literature, and in the case where the writer has not clearly defined their pronouncements on life clearly themselves, they simply convey their consciousness with as much sincerity as possible.

Francis Mathay, in her book on Shiga Naoya, writes: “The Naturalists rejected all the ideals of a former age and sought to renounce empty lies, eschew all decoration, scrutinize the self, and make earnest confession of what they found”. Having said Shiga’s style is ‘matter of fact’ and ‘to the point’, in no way is his writing simple. Shiga writes clear descriptions of the nature and scenery around him while at the same time focusing in on the object of his thinking with an almost eerie amount of detail.

In the first of such descriptions, we can see an example of this. When describing the road that he often strolled on before dinner in the evenings, he explains how he sometimes looked into the stream under the road: “Sometimes when I looked carefully, I could find a big river crab with hair on its claws, still as stone. ” While introducing the keenness of Shiga’s eyesight and perception (with hair on its claws) it also makes an indirect reference to death (still as stone). This is an example of the Shiga style, which appealed to me as a reader the most.

The narrator’s first encounter with an animal dying is when he wakes up one morning and notices a dead bee on the roof of the entrance below his room window. This death represents a natural death; dying of old age. The graphic detail of the bee and the clever comparison of it with the moving bees around it show how the death makes such an impact on him, and subsequently on us the reader. We begin to see how Shiga relates ‘quietness’ and ‘loneliness’ to death. Earlier in the story he had described his heart as “strangely quiet” when he was thinking the gloomy thoughts of death.

Now we see how the narrator gets a “feeling of utter quietness. Of loneliness” when looking at the dead bee. ‘Quiet’ because the bee does not move, and ‘lonely’ because of the total lack of concern given to it by the other bees “as they crawled busily around it on their way in and out”. It is not hard to see this imagery of ‘quietness’ and ‘loneliness’ representing death when reading the story. Shiga goes on to explain the narrator’s emotional response to seeing the be more explicitly using the words ‘lonely’ and ‘quiet’ again.

In the evening, when all the other wasps had gone inside the nest, it was lonely to see that one little corpse remain outside on the cold roof tiles. But what a quiet feeling it was”. The word ‘quiet’ is used again in the next paragraph to describe how the dead bee was probably “lying quietly” after it had been washed away by the rain. “.. how quiet it must be – before only working and working, no longer moving now. I felt a certain nearness to that quiet. ” A clear sign that seeing the dead bee had changed the narrator follows this with the description of how he wanted to change one of his short stories ‘Han’s Crimes’ .

In true Naturalist style the narrator admits “I was much disturbed that my way of thinking had become so different from that of the hero of a long novel I was writing”. It was still the morning of the day after the rain had washed away the dead bee, when the narrator encounters another death of an animal. This death of a rat is much more cruel and deliberate than the natural death of the bee. This death can be seen to be representing murder; or any death where a third party deliberately robs someone of their life.

The rat had a skewer of some sort thrust through its neck, and was trying to climb a stone wall out of a river, while people threw rocks and laughed at it. It was interesting to notice Shiga’s mentioning the ducks swimming away from the action. Again, as with the bees, Shiga is referring to the loneliness of death, the lack of concern from others. The narrator is a little more disturbed with seeing this incident than seeing the bee die – “I felt lonely and unhappy”. After this second death we can see another change in the narrator’s frame of mind.

The narrator realizes that death does not simply equal ‘quietness’, but that there is often a great suffering before dying that comes with one’s instinct to survive and avoid death – “It was terrible to think that this suffering lay before the quiet I was after”. He skillfully draws a parallel between the rat’s fight to survive and how he behaved after his accident – “Even when I was but half-conscious my mind worked so well on what was the most important that I was surprised at it afterward myself”. He continues to contemplate the confusing opposing relation between his lack of fear of death and his uncontrollable will to fight it.

Finally he calms himself a little by resolving that no matter how much he “would not have been assailed by the intense fear [of death] that he had always imagined”, it could not be helped that he “would have behaved but little differently from the rat”. The narrator’s finally encounter with death is the most disturbing for him, and throws his consciousness into utter confusion again. It is of my belief that this death of the lizard represents any sudden death from accident or tragedy; death which the victim is not at all prepared for.

The narrator accidentally kills a lizard by throwing a rock at it in an attempt to startle it. Shiga makes it clear that there was no intent or malice in the death with quite a long description of how the narrator “no longer disliked water lizards”. There is an almost sickening vivid description of the lizard dying: “The curved tail began quietly to fall back down of its own weight. The toes of the projecting front feet, braced against the slope with knee joints cut, turned under and the lizard fell forward, its strength gone. Its tail lay flat against the rock.

It did not move. It was dead”. The narrator again feels lonely looking at the dead lizard – “I was filled with sadness of the lizard, with a sense of the loneliness of the living creature. ” This is the beginning of the narrator’s realization it is not ‘death’ so much as ‘living’ that is lonely, which is not in such contrast to the sadness of death. He clarifies this more by stating “I was lonely, and presently I started back towardc.. “. This leads on to the narrator’s third and biggest change in his way of thinking towards death.

He succinctly admits the accidental death of the lizard was so nearly the same story as his own accident with the train – “Quite by accident, I had lived. Quite by accident the lizard had died”. However, he could not feel the gratitude he felt would be natural feeling for being on the good end of such luck. Shiga then writes one of the most profound statements of the story: the realization of the narrator that “To be alive and to be dead were not two opposite extremes. There did not seem to be much difference between them”.

As he stumbled back to his inn in the darkness, the narrator seems quite lost with this new enlightenment with only his head leading “deeper and deeper into these fancies”. The final sentence of the work takes us again to the ‘present’ of the story three years later, from where the story began. In this way it closes what can be seen as a frame of the story, while also informing the reader that he did in fact survive the “two or three year” danger period where he might catch tuberculosis, mentioned in the first paragraph. Overall, this story is very touching as it so honestly tries to come to terms with the issue of death in general.

We must remember that these incidents really happened and were witnessed by Shiga himself. However, it is with remarkable style that Shiga relates these three deaths in such a way that they each represent a certain type of death; natural, murderous, and accidental, and then describe so artfully the way he attempts to find a comforting common philosophy to understand them. He clearly describes how his understanding and feeling towards death changes after each incident, but never loses the common thread of ‘quietness’ and ‘loneliness’.

Shiga does not make the hero of the story some supernatural power with all knowledge and all the answers. In true ‘Naturalism’ style, he expresses his own thoughts and experiences through the narrator, and takes us step by step through the narrator’s experiences and corresponding changes in thinking in such a way that we the reader can easily relate to and understand. The narrator’s confusion, coupled with the direct and sincere expression of this confusion is the key point in this ‘closeness’ between the reader and the narrator. It is no wonder that Shiga Naoya is considered by many to be a great stylist and the god of literature.

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