Yasunari Kawabata’s novel thinly fictionalizes a famous 1938 go match which lasted several months and proved to be a final decisive loss for its grand master player. Kawabata had already shucked off the expressionistic, surreal mode he’d used for books like The Scarlet Gang of Asakusa and was well on his way towards, as he put it, writing only elegies for Japan. He might have only declared as much after the devastation of WWII, but Master shows him already bending in that direction. This is not a book about a game, but an attitude towards life.
The story was originally serialized for the Mainichi Shinbun, and some flavor of its serial nature is felt here in its short chapters, each evoking some round of the game or some parallel goings-on. There are no secrets that this is the master’s last game or that he will lose: it begins after the game has already ended, with the master’s death (the author photographing the body is given its own chapter), and only then do we jump back into the game itself. We quickly see the clash is one of character, not caricature: the go master’s younger opponent, Ōtaké, is not some smirking rake with pomaded hair, but a family man with a stubborn streak of his own that mirrors, rather than opposes, the master’s.
It’s not hard to see how Kawabata is pitting two Japans against each other: the older Japan that is organically connected to its traditions and obsessed with maintaining its dignity; and the newer, more “Westernized” Japan of commercial opportunity and modernism. The book is illustrated with detailed diagrams of the game in progress, and some understanding of go is useful to help interpret that part of the goings-on. But none is required to understand the way Kawabata wanted to evoke a sense of utter loss, of the passing of the old without anything necessarily to replace it in the new. Ōtaké might have been the technically superior player, but not the better one, and Kawabata leaves it to us to decide who is the better man as well.