The House of the Sleeping Beauties

One of my favorite authors is Yasunari Kawabata. I was relaxing on the lanai reading one of his short novels and my mind made a connection between the novel and a movie I had sitting on my Netflix queue. The movie was Sleeping Beauty (2011) from Jane Campion (a Julia Leigh film). The novel was Nemureru Bijo (1961) which is generally translated as The House of the Sleeping Beauties.

Sleeping BeautyHalf-way through the novel I ran in the house, fired up my Netflix, and watched the Australian film. Then I ran back outside and finished reading the Kawabata original. It was obvious the film was based on the story and I thought it was clever how one scene in the movie where the teacher is leading a class in Go was a direct homage to Kawabata and his excellent novel, The Master of Go. But Julia Leigh turns the viewpoint of the story around and tells it from the view of the young woman. In the novel, it is from the view of the old man. There was also a dreadful German film made in 2008 called Das Haus der Schlafenden Schönen which follows the novel closely but otherwise is a real stinker.

Here is what they summarize for the Australian film:  “A haunting portrait of Lucy, a young university student drawn into a mysterious hidden world of unspoken desires.” The scene in both the movie and the novel is a secret house where old men go to crawl in bed with beautiful and very young women: the women are heavily drugged and do not wake up, no matter how they are fondled or jostled around. Oh, they are also naked. But there are rules: touching but no penetration. After awhile the old man takes a sleeping draft and sleeps the night beside the young girl. He leaves in the morning and the girl has no memory of anything that happened or anyone that she was with.

In the movie we follow one girl through several nights and various older men. In the novel we follow one older man through several visits and various girls. Here is what the novel has to say about the situation:

It was a house frequented by old men who could no longer use women as women. But Eguchi [our hero], on his third visit, knew that to sleep with such a girl was a fleeting consolation, the pursuit of a vanished happiness in being alive. And were there among them old men who secretly asked to be a sadness in a young girl’s body that called up in an old man a longing for death. But perhaps Eguchi was, among the old men who came to the house, one of the more easily moved. And perhaps most of them but wanted to drink in the youth of girls put to sleep, to enjoy girls who would not awaken.

Kawabata writes of “a sleep like death.”  The theme of death occurs in both the film and the novel but I felt it was more germane in the novel. After all, the idea of old men nearing death reaching out for a small physical recollection of being close to a beautiful young girl—of having memories of their youth revived by the action of sleeping with a naked girl—isn’t really supported in a movie following a very pretty actress around town, no matter how good she looks naked.

What are your thoughts on this?

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