I initially read Yasunari Kawabata’s short reportage novel, The Master of Go in 1976 when the first Penguin paperback edition was published. I was blissfully unaware that in 1972, the year the first English translation appeared, Kawabata had taken his own life. But then I was only seventeen and blissfully unaware of many things. I bought it because I had just got the board game Othello and I mistakenly thought that it was a westernised version of Go. There is a vague connection. Othello is actually based on the game Reversi that was invented in 1883 by the Englishman Lewis Waterman. The game is mentioned in an 1895 article in the New York Times: "Reversi is something like Go Bang, and is played with 64 pieces." Gobang however is really Five in a Row which is also played with black and white counters.
Like all the best games, the basic rules to Go are fairly simple. Whereas in Othello you aim to trap a column of one colour between two counters of another colour, in Go the object is to surround your opponent’s counters. Once surrounded, rather than being changed to the opposite colour, the counters are removed. You would think armed with this basic information I would have found the play described in the book easy to follow, especially since there are a number of helpful diagrams. Not so though. Not at all actually.
After I read the book back in 1976 I thought about buying a Go board and learning the game but you couldn’t just walk into John Menzies back then and buy a cheap set. No. The only one I managed to locate – in a tiny independent bookshop in East Kilbride, if I remember correctly – was far too expensive to consider. And somehow, even when I was flush, I’ve never got round to getting one or hinting that I’d like one. And these days I have no time for games. Which is a shame. That said, they stress me out. I’m afraid I’m not one of those people who plays a game to have fun; I play to win. And winning is a trade off, I find.
When I first read the book, the same copy that I recently reread, I skipped the introduction which was written by the translator Edward G Seidensticker. In not reading that I missed some important clues that would have deepened my understanding of why Kawabata decided to go back to his original newspaper articles and work them up into a novel.
I’ve always clung onto the opinion that any work of art should stand or fall on its own merits. If you need to know the history behind the work to understand it then the writer or artist hasn’t done a very good job. That view is, I have to concede, a little narrow-minded. Take Guernica, for example, the black and white painting by Picasso. Really to appreciate the painting you do need to know at least a little about what motivated Picasso to paint it in the first place.
Guernica was initially exhibited in July 1937 at the Spanish Pavilion at the Paris International Exposition. About a year later, on 26th June 1938 a couple of Japanese gentlemen would sit down to play a board game with black and white lozenge-shaped stones that would last about six months. What could the connection possibly be?
Go, like chess, is a war game. And the life-or-death battle that would begin on that day would certainly be an epic one. It was to be the Master’s last challenge match. In fact, one reason it took so long was the need to factor in breaks so that the sick old man could rest, although in the end the prolonged stress probably did more harm to both competitors. A year earlier – I guess that would be about the same time as the Paris Exposition – a contest was begun to find his challenger so there was already a lot of anticipation for the match.
The book opens with the following simple paragraph:
On the next page the master files a neutral point, the 237th play of the match, and it’s all over; the Master has been beaten by five points by Otaké of the Seventh Rank. The proper words of thanks are offered, tea is served and the combatants leave without passing comment. Just over a year later the Master passes away.
That’s it. Game over. We know who wins. We know who dies. Really, what’s the point reading on? For much the same reason as one might watch Ron Howard’s film Apollo 13 or even The Greatest Story Ever Told. Knowing the end isn’t the worst thing that can happen to a reader.
The reason for reading is that this is a study in character, the character of the Master, his opponent, the narrator (a reporter for the Mainichi newspaper chain) and even the nature of the game itself. An actual understanding of the finer points of play really isn’t the disadvantage one might expect. More importantly it is a study of the character of the Japanese at a pivotal point in their history. Within three years they have attacked Pearl Harbour and the outcome of that is well-known
This is a fictionalised account, however, begun after the Japanese had entered World War II and completed after the war was won. It was first published in serial form in a newspaper in 1951. In Japanese the work is known as a shōsetsu; Kawabata calls it a “faithful chronicle novel” but there are some significant changes. The main one is the description of the Master, Honinbo Shūsai. The Master, married but childless, is portrayed as a sickly, wizened man weighing less than five stone who exudes the stoic repose that we conventionally associate with the Japanese, however, in the introduction Seidensticker reveals that the real-life model for this character "gave an impression of deviousness and even of a certain foxlike slyness", exhibiting "little of the nobility with which Mr Kawabata has endowed him". Clearly the Master of the book is an idealised composite Master standing for all twenty-five Masters of the Honimbō school of Go. Childlike in build, the Master is also presented, away from the match, as childlike in nature. While the Master is a poignant character he is also a pathetic character; he has no family and away for the board all he wants to do is fill his time playing games, any game, from billiards to chess to mahjong. There is also something of the spoiled child about him and he frequently goes out of his way to circumvent the petty rules (in his mind at least) that have been imposed upon him.
His opponent is Kitani Minoru, although Kawabata changes his name to Otaké in the book. He is thirty-nine, by no means a young whippersnapper, and despite their differences he clearly reveres the Master. Whereas the Master is probably best described as an intuitive player, Otaké is very cerebral in his approach; he plays from the head and not the heart. The Master is clearly a sick man and many concessions are made throughout the six months of the game to ensure he can keep up and yet his opponent also has a number of health considerations including a dicky bladder. At the start of one session no sooner has his sealed play been opened than he has to excuse himself. He wants badly to beat the Master but it is incredibly important to him that he does so according to the prescribed rules; to do otherwise would do him dishonour.
The novel can be read on many levels but in whatever way it’s a contest, between old and young, love and power, traditional and modern, art and science, the past and the future, life and death. If the Master is to continue ‘living’ then a part of him will need to ‘die’, indeed in playing the match he makes so many concessions to the new that it looks like he is already well down that path.
I should clarify that last paragraph. When you think of the Japanese, what words come to mind? Etiquette? Decorum? That sort of thing. I think of a people who have rules for everything and who are obsessed with getting things exactly right. My wife suggested ‘reserved’ and that carries the connotation of formality. Strange that I had to sit and look at this screen for a good few minutes before ‘honour’ came to my mind. I tend to associate that more with Klingons these days and yet honour is a significant element in the makeup of the Japanese. It is evident throughout the entire novel.
I had expected the Master to be the one preoccupied with rules and the younger player to be kicking against the traces and yet it is the other way around. The Master regards Go as his art. Yes, there are … let’s not use the word ‘rules’ … there are ways to go about things, but these are matters of propriety.
Before I illustrate this I need to explain something about how a game is played over such a long period of time that a player can take three hours to place their stone. At the end of play the last move of the day is sealed. This was the first game to adopt the sealed play system, meaning that the last move of a session was written down, unknown to anyone except the player who was due to play last, and only revealed at the beginning of the next play session. The reasoning is obvious, to stop the other player having the advantage of days to consider his next move.
The plays down to White 120 came in quick succession. The standard pattern would have had the Master falling quickly back with White 120, but he chose a firm block even though the result was an unstable triangular formation. The air was tense, for a showdown was at hand. If he had given ground it would have been to concede a point or two, and he could not make even so small a concession in so tight a match. He took just one minute for a play that could mean the fine difference between victory and defeat, and for Otaké it was like cold steel.
Black (Otaké) then takes 1 hour 44 minutes to seal the move what would become the 121st move of the game. The thirteenth session is the over.
When the fourteenth session begins with the opening of the envelope as the judge Yawata leans over the board, the chart in his hand, he struggles to locate where Black 121 (Black 2 in the diagram below) should go. ‘Ah!’ he says at length, ‘I expected it to be near the centre’. This move proves to be the decisive one, the one that changes the flow of the game. Now, I’ve looked at the charts provided in the book and I’ve read about the kō situation and I still don’t get why this move was so earth shattering.
But it was. Otaké has played by the rules. The move is legitimate and yet it has been debated over for years since. After the end of the fourteenth session Kawabata (or at least his reporter persona Uragami) finds himself having lunch with an angry Master:
‘The match is over. Mr Otaké ruined it with that sealed play. It was like smearing ink over the picture we had painted. The minute I saw it I felt like forfeiting the match. Like telling them it was the last straw. I really thought I should forfeit. But I hesitated, and that was that.
‘He makes a play like that, and why?’ growled the Master. ‘Because he means to use two days to think things over. It’s dishonest.’
The way Kawabata tries to explain this us by using a musical analogy:
That play of black upon white, white upon black, has the intent and takes the form of creative art. It has in it a flow of the spirit and a harmony as of music. Everything is lost when suddenly a false note is struck, or one party in a duet suddenly launches forth on an eccentric flight on his own. A masterpiece of a game can be ruined by insensitivity to the feelings of an adversary.
Otaké only wants to win but although the move has been criticised once the true facts are known (and Kawabata omits these) it seems that this is just the kind of trick that the Master would have pulled himself and his outrage really smacks of hypocrisy. In the old days the stronger player had the right to suspend play for the day as long as it was his turn; Shūsai used to take full advantage of this, suspending play whenever he faced a tough decision so that he could analyse the position during the recess with his pupils.
This is a novel through. We have to remember that the Master of the novel is not the real Shūsai. This has to be borne in mind. He is a symbol of a Japan that disappeared in World War II. Many of Kawabata's works are concerned with the decline of traditional Japanese cultural icons. Snow Country treats the decline of the institution of the geisha, Thousand Cranes, the decline of the tea ceremony, and The Master of Go the decline of the traditional system of Go.
The author wrote "From the way of Go, the beauty of Japan and the Orient had fled. Everything had become science and regulation." Players worried about points, not elegance or dignity. This is particularly evident in a scene in the book where the journalist is on a train and has the opportunity to play a very keen American amateur. After commenting on his opponent’s poor play Kawabata sums it all up in one short sentence: “The spirit of Go was missing.” In Go Basics, by Peter Shotwell, the author makes this observation:
Go deals with illusive shapes and patterns of groups that are built up with stones placed on the board, so Go players routinely say that good play involved the "balance" and "harmony" of its elements.
If it’s hard for us to understand why so many eyes were on this match all you need to think about another match. In 1972 a chess match took place in Reykjavík, Iceland, at the height of the Cold War, and consequently was seen as symbolic of the political confrontation between the two superpowers. It was between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, the reigning world champion, who lost the match by 12½-8½.
You might wonder why I would recommend this quiet little book, a book full of old men in a foreign country. I think as I get older, and get sicker and sicker with nostalgia for the past, I find I can relate more and more to Kawabata, although I have no intentions of topping myself yet. The past has to die. It gets sick and has to die. It dies one bit at a time but eventually it has to. And it doesn’t have to go because the future heralds something better, but simply because everything has its time. I’m not saying we should forget about the past. No, it’s right and proper to visit its grave every now and then and remember it. But that’s all.
Kawabata was born June 11, 1899. His writing echoes ancient Japanese forms in prose influenced by post-World War I French literary currents such as Dadaism and Expressionism. His best-known novel is Snow Country (1948), the story of a forlorn geisha. His other major works (published together in 1952) are A Thousand Cranes and The Sound of the Mountain. The sense of loneliness and preoccupation with death that permeates much of Kawabata's mature writing possibly derives from the loneliness of his childhood (he was orphaned early and lost all near relatives while still in his youth). When Kawabata accepted the Nobel Prize in 1968, he said that in his work he tried to beautify death and to seek harmony among man, nature, and emptiness. He committed suicide, shortly after his friend, Yukio Mishima, on April 16, 1972.
This is an expanded version of the review that originally appeared on the Canongate website.