Gazing upon the “beauty” in distance / by HUA SHANG

representations of women in KokoroSnow Country, Child's play, Sisters of the Gion, and Tokyo Story 


Women, in most of the readings and films we have encountered, are subjected to male protagonists’ or viewers’ gaze. Under all the gazes, women are either reducible to an idealized object of male desires or become marginalized figures lacking full-fledged selfhood. No matter whether they are being spotlighted on the pedestal or being shadowed in the corner, those women are kept in distance from male protagonists, viewers and even themselves. Moreover, a sense of helplessness is also pervasive in both cases, following those women as their own inescapable shadows. Strangely, such a mix of distance and helplessness somehow generates a sense of “beauty”, alluring us to step further into the stories.

The male idealization of women lifts women up onto a pedestal against or without inquiring women’s own wishes, which widens the distance between men and women. In Soseiki’s Kokoro, woman is idealized as man’s last resort to seek innocence and beauty within life and human nature. The wife of the sensei is idealized as the purest person in the world by sensei. She is treated as delicate glassware, carefully preserved by sensei. A piece of sensei’s internal monologue after his friend K’s suicide shows his intense idealization towards Ojosan, who is about to become sensei’s wife: “I was glad that she had not witnessed the terrible scene immediately after his death. I was afraid that a beautiful person such as she could not behold anything ugly and frightful without somehow losing her beauty” (Kokoro P.181). Sensei shelters his wife at home, and protects her from the real world, which he thinks is full of ugliness, dirt and danger.  Sensei’s betrayal of K compels sensei to drive his wife further away from his inner world, which he also considers as an ugly and dirty place. From sense’s wife’s conversation with the narrator (student), we can tell that she is not as fragile as sensei assumes and she is helplessly searching for ways to narrow the distance between herself and sensei. However, she does not know that the distance between them is actually vertical. Long ago, Sensei putted her up on a pedestal and has taken the ladder away the day K died.

In Kawabata’s Snow Country, women are idealized as a source of aesthetic experience. And keeping a distance is the essential practice to obtain such aesthetic pleasure. The emphasis of cultivating distance is revealed at the very beginning of the story, by the way Shimamura, the male protagonist, first “see” Yoko. “The light inside the train was not particularly strong, and the reflection was not as clear as it would have been in a mirror. Since there was no glare, Shimamura came to forget that it was a mirror he was looking at. The girl’s face seemed to be out in the flow of the evening mountains” (Snow Country P.10).  Instead of looking at Yoko directly, Shimamura chooses to gaze her from the reflection of the train window. This distanced way indulges him to envision a sort of imaginary beauty, a beauty that should melt into a dreamy nature rather than flourish in an earthy world.  While Komako, the young geisha Shemamura encounters in Snow Country, who has gradually developed her characters and became too real for Shimamura, is ruthless abandoned due to her strong sense of presence. The idealization of women in this story indeed fabricates an aesthetic “beauty”. However this “beauty” is as “cold” as the winter in the snow country. It is hard for us to appreciate this sort of “beauty” without feeling chilling and guilty.

Various female idealizations also generate and widen the distance between women and themselves. In Sisters of the Gion, the elder sister Umekichi, who maintains her loyalty toward her broken patron Furusawa, strictly follows the idealized Geisha code from the beginning to the end. She is an unconscious victim of the male idealization, who came to lose part of her own being and constantly shrouded by shadows, softly yet gloomily.

A blessing or a curse, some of these women still maintain certain degrees of self-consciousness about their true self and idealized self. Struggling to narrow the distance between her own -being and the idealized self, they are helplessly tortured by such internal conflicts. Noriko, the “paragon” of filial piety in Tokyo Story, who always wears a benevolent smile, confesses in the end to being selfish, no longer thinking constantly about her dead husband but rather about her own life and what would become of it. It already took Noriko a long time to reveal her painful and helpless inner struggle, how long would it take her to truly resolve this struggle?

The starting point of women’s self-distancing is gently and cautiously captured by Ichiyo, the only female storyteller we have encountered so far. In Child’s Play, Ichiyo provides us, for the first time, the opportunity to gaze the world through a female character Midori’s eyes, without layering any disguise or creating any distance. We witness her initial moment of growing up from a girl to a woman, the very moment she starts to lose part of her being-ness. “There were things Midori could not talk about. Sad thoughts accumulated, vague thoughts that she could not define herself -thoughts that would never come to the Midori of yesterday… She hated it, hated it, she hated grow up. Why did she have to grow old?” (Child’s Play, P.108) Midori is rather sensitive to notice such unspeakable sadness, and sense such a loss. However, soon the notorious thief “time” will sneak in with its tick-tock footsteps and callously steal this precious string of sadness, which Midori holds so tight in hand at the moment.

“Who are these women? What are their stories? What are their thoughts?” I can’t help asking. Greedy and unsatisfied, I am not pleased with just gazing upon those women from distance and indulging myself in their blurry and man-made “beauty”. I am longing to approach them, to take a look closer, to hear them speak for themselves, and to gaze the world from their perspectives. And I hope the day they ultimately step down from the over-lighted pedestal and walk out of the shadowy corner, we can obtain a broader perspective, a perspective not constrained by gender.