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Yasunari Kawabata’s ‘Dandelions’ probes the nature of mental illness

by Damian Flanagan

Contributing Writer

In this short, late-blossoming novel published by Yasunari Kawabata (1899-1972) in 22 installments between June 1964 and October 1968, and subsequently revised from his notes after his death, Kawabata depicts the mostly out-of-view young woman Ineko, who is confined to an asylum with mental illness.

Dandelions, by Yasunari Kawabata, Translated by Michael Emmerich.
128 pages
NEW DIRECTIONS, Fiction.

Much of the novel has the feeling of a play and there are long tracts of dialogue between Ineko’s mother and her daughter’s lover Kuno, who occasionally seems invisible to Ineko.

In trademark Kawabata fashion, the timeline of the novel switches back and forth, frequently to memories of Ineko’s father, an officer during World War II supposedly saved from suicide by a magical young woman. So strong is the presence of this young woman in the family’s collective imagination — despite perhaps never even having existed — that Ineko begins to conflate her own existence with the woman’s.

Memories merge into dreams, and dreams create their own reality. Do internal emotional crises determine both what we choose to believe and what we choose not to see?

Ultimately Ineko exists according to mood, sometimes seeing and sometimes not seeing, unsure exactly what memories are real, and how memories, imagination, emotion and vision all interconnect.

This is a highly suggestive piece by Kawabata that attempts to probe the wider human condition. But it is also capable of being read symbolically, with frequent nods to Japan’s own recent historical memories and the means by which it, as a nation, treats them.