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Monday, 1 June 2009

The Master of Go


The Master of Go Penguin Edition Go is more than just a game; it is life and death. - Anonymous


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:

Shūsai, Master of Go, twenty-first in the Honimbō succession, died in Atami, at the Urokoya Inn on the morning of 18 January 1940. He was sixty-seven years old by the Oriental count.

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. Honinbo_Shusai 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.

kitaniminoru 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_yasunari 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.


Ken Armstrong said...

Fascinating. The impression I get is that one would need to know something of the game to appreciate the novel. Would you agree with that?

Jim Murdoch said...

You would think so, wouldn't you, Ken? And I have no doubt that an understanding of the intricacies of the game would help but it would also change the reader's focus. Go players do study the game in this book in detail but I wonder how much of the story is lost on them?

Art Durkee said...

I've read "Snow Country," and Kawabata's collection of shorter stories. I think your assessment of his overall focus on what is being lost is accurate. There's always something nostalgic yet clear-eyed about Kawabata, as gorgeous as his descriptive passages can be.

I've never really gotten into Go. (I was an Othello whiz once in life, though.) It's far more subtle and complex, in many ways, than chess; and would take many years to appreciate. It's been on peripheries of attention, because some Japanese texts on strategy, martial arts, and the samurai include Go among the games of strategy a warrior must know. I've read Musashi and Sun Tzu, and have heard some commentators on those texts mention Go; and chess, for that matter.

But I think you're probably right: do those kinds of readers miss the story for the game?

Jim Murdoch said...

Glad you think I hit the nail on the head, Art. I would read him again but I think I'm too old now for learning new games. I simply don't play them any more. I haven't even dealt a hand of cards in over twelve years.

Ken Armstrong said...

I return to this because I've been a Chess player since I was a very young person and I think I showed some actual promise in my youth. But I had a fatal flaw - I could visualise quite long and complex series of developments but, in doing so, I often missed the blatantly obvious threat right under my nose. I think this is a metaphor for my entire life.

Don't mind me, I think I may be using your blog to scribble notes for a future post. :)

koe whitton-williams said...

Jim - I know this correlation to your review is rather tenuous but I felt somewhat similar in reading 'the name of the rose.' ego operor non narro latin, ego operor non agnosco latin tamen ego etiam utor libri. If you know what I mean. I still enjoyed the book. I enjoyed Eco's ambition in telling that story. I assumed that if it was important that I know all that latin, Eco would have translated it for the likes of me. He didn't so I read the words as if they were (and this is what I found neat about your review) I read the latin words as if they were written on staves of music. There to be enjoyed, if not necessarily understood. I assume that if I knew how to play Go that The Master of Go - which sounds fascinating - would be that much more interesting.

Our local library (I just checked online) has a copy of the book and I've reserved it. I'll check back in once I've read it.

In the meantime. . . spero cras est a bonus dies vobis. (Which looks sort of horrible but according to google translate means. . . I hope tomorrow is a good day for you)

McGuire said...

I've never read any Japanese writers. Not sure I'll read this one but I am intrigued and disturbed by the whole idea of 'ritual suicide' or 'honour suicide'. It is quite a common tradition in parts of Japan and China. I could spend hours thinking (and researching) the whole cultural significance of such practices.

Slicing through your stomach. That's brutal! Couldn't they just take poison and go for eternal sleep? It's the severity of the suicide that begs the question about the sort of psychology of the culture.

Most people in the west are arrogantly entitled to life, indeed, we claim it as a 'right'. How many would feel that suicide was a dignified way out of life? Or that through dishonour they should terminate their existence? Fat chance.


*On another note, I'm almost finished in Italy, to be honest, I'm eagerrly awaiting returning to Glasgow. Though the experience has been worthwhile but at times disappinting.

Jim Murdoch said...

A good point well put. Feel free to scribble in my margins any time you like, Ken.

And, McGuire, I see what you're saying and even though the book may not appeal I think most westerners will struggle with the whole eastern mindset. I remember seeing a documentary many years ago where they address the question: Is there any difference between the eastern and western brains? and the answer, much to my surprise, was, yes. It showed how they had a natural tendency to working as a community rather than individually.

I can only really understand how things work there by thinking in the terms of petty bureaucracy which I have a mindset for. I like order. I like to know what the 'rules' are for any given situation. Even though I can, and do say whenever interviewed, work well as part of a team I am far happier working on my own.

The suicide thing is interesting. Suicide by disembowelment was favoured because it was slow and painful and therefore demonstrated courage, self-control, and strong resolve. It's easy to write that sentence but I'm with you, I find it hard to understand a society like that. It's so alien. It's the kind of thing you could imagine a Klingon doing. Somehow that would be easier to accept because they are aliens. And yet Kronos is really just a world populated by samurai, isn't it?

Jim Murdoch said...

Actually, Koe, that would annoy me. It's why I get annoyed at people like Pound for incorporating foreign phrases in their poems. I can see a reason for doing it but not without providing an English translation as a footnote. Glad I managed to pique your interest enough to order the book. I'll be interested to see what you make of it and my review once we have common ground.

Mariana Soffer said...

Lovely story, txs for sharing. I love kabawata.
I just wanted to tell you a little about this games from the artificial intellligence(AI) point of view. When I was arround 17 I became obsessed with go, I used to play everyday with a friend of mine, this game for me is the most magical one that exists, more than majhong, than chess, or whatever. It is also the most elegant one.
When I got intrested in AI one of the first things I focused on was games. The idea consist in doing a computer program smart enough to play with a human oponent games like tic tac toe, five in line, checkers, and the ones mentioned before. The techniques for doing this programs resulted fascinating from me, basically they are all represented by a tree where the root is the initial position which branches in the second level of the tree that represent all the possible legal board configurations that can be derived from the intial point, then level tree represents all the possible board configurations derived legally from the second level board, and so on, so in this tree you kind of have a panoram of all the possible situation the game might bump into.
For more info send me a mail, and I can send you some more bibliography.
Hope you enjoyed this information.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for that comment, Mariana. I did find quite a bit on the Web about computer Go and why the computers struggle with the game more than they do with chess. It sounds like a fascinating thing to work on. I did a simply noughts and crosses programme many years ago. It got kinda boring when I worked out how to turn every game into a stalemate.

Mariana Soffer said...

Glad you got intrested in. The issue is that for all other board games except go is possible to make a program that plays perfectly, but since go ha so many opciones and thre tree is so big is more intresting, heuristics need to be used, and they are also not enough to win humans. On the downside eventually there are beeing done programs that are winning every single kind of game, so the magic of playing them vanishes.

Randa Azkoul Soubaih said...

I have mixed feelings about Kawabata's writing. I loved Thousand Cranes, hated The Lake and was baffled by>The Master of Go Be that as it may, I don't think the latter holds interest for someone unfamiliar with the game. Any novel that cannot stand alone is more of a sociological study than a novel per se.

Jim Murdoch said...

I have to say, Randa, I would have thought that too but really you can get by with a very basic idea of how the game works, surprisingly so. It's only a wee book, if you get a chance don't let your ignorance of the game get in the road.

Sinh said...

I have read Snow Country and The Sound of the Mountain numerous times. The Master of Go was the last work of Kawabata, and I read it last. The book is indeed a nuanced and subtle, one I greatly enjoyed reading.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for the feedback, Sinh. I really must find the time to read some more of his work. So many books, so little time.

Clare Dudman said...

Thank you Jim, a fascinating and, I believe, very astute review. I can only say that on the basis of reading Thousand Cranes, but a lot of what you say here applies to that too.

I have to say that I am very glad I saw a few 50s Japanese films before reading Thousand Cranes. It helped to give it a lot of context - given that so little is said.

Ben said...

I realize you wrote this 2 years ago, but I just read it, making it new to me.

I think I can explain the situation with black playing sealed move 121. The move he chose to to play was something that could have been played at any time throughout the game, and white would have to respond locally in order to keep that group at the top alive. The Master was so upset because playing that move has no apparent value for black at the time. Seemingly, black played that move as a sealed move so that he would know white's next move, and thus have the entire break to think about his following move, thus giving him an advantage in the fight at the lower right.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks for your input, Ben. I’m still not sure why it was such a big deal but I guess I have the wrong mindset for a game like this. I struggle with all the fuss that often surrounds chess matches. I keep thinking: It’s just a game.

Ti Perihelion said...

Thank you for the deep analysis. If you're interested, the movie "Sleeping Beauty" (2011) starring Emily Browning is loosely inspired by a Kawabata novella, "The House of the Sleeping Beauties." I would never have known except that in a certain scene, a university lecturer has a slide on the projector featuring one of the images from "The Master of Go." I recognized the image and did some research after the movie. I think it captured the muted sadness of Kawabata's work. (It was also pretty disturbing.)

Btw, a friend of mine gave me a book of short stories by Kawabata called "Palm-of-the-Hand Stories." If you don't have time to commit to a full novel, maybe check it out? They're excellent.

Jim Murdoch said...

I saw Sleeping Beauty, Ti. Didn’t make the Kawabata connection at all. Now I’m intrigued. The House of the Sleeping Beauties is on my to-read long list but, as I’m sure you’re well aware, there are so many books and so little time. I read about 160 books last year but this year I’ve devoted all my spare time to editing my next novel so the only reading I’ve done has been research. If only there were two of me.

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