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House of the Sleeping Beauties


House of the Sleeping Beauties by Yasunari Kawabata

It was initially hard to imagine the incredible twist that Ann Rice induced in her extended version of Sleeping Beauty. In her three volumes she took the chaste image of a sleeping beauty and woke her to an increasingly intense gambit of highly erotic and sadistic scenes as men and women, in the prime of their sexuality, become the sexual slaves of their aristocratic owners. Yasunari Kawabata in the early 1960s took a highly erotic, but very different view of sleeping beauties.

In a sensitive, yet very revealing, look into Kawabata's views on aging, sexuality and virginity, his book, House of the Sleeping Beauties, the reader is introduced to an aging gentleman as he enters a very different sort of "inn". Upon receiving instructions that he was not to do anything in bad taste, old Eguchi, listened while the woman told him, "He was not to put his finger into the mouth of the sleeping, or try anything else of that sort." The mystery of the "inn" is then intensified with a brief description:

"There were this room, some four yards square, and the one next to it, but apparently no other rooms upstairs; and since the downstairs seemed too restricted for guest rooms, the place could scarcely be called an inn at all. Probably because its secret allowed none, there was no sign at the gate. All was silence."

Obviously entering some sort of a brothel recommended by a friend, Eguchi receives further instructions that he is not to try and wake the woman he will sleep with. As he considers his situation, the woman continues: "She's a very pretty girl. I only take guests I know I can trust."

After a few questions are answered, Eguchi enters the house of the sleeping beauties, where young women are heavily drugged and left to sleep in a room, with an old, presumably impotent, man. The men pay a considerable amount to simply sleep with the beautiful women, allowed to look, but not allowed to touch them.

Kawabata masterfully juxtaposes the seemingly chaste sleeping virgin against the dark lechery of the old men. Fearing the reaction a prostitute would have at their impotence, the men are allowed to look and feed on their fantasies and memories without any embarrassment or ridicule from a woman.

As Eguchi spends the first night he looks closely at the woman. Kawabata's description of her emphasizes purity:

"He gazed afresh at her forehead and cheek, and at the girlish line from the jaw down over the neck. Although he knew well enough already, he slightly raised the quilt that covered the shoulder. The breast was not one that had given milk. He touched it softly with his finger. It was not wet."

On Eguchi's second visit to the "inn" he ponders the ugliness of age:

"The ugly senility of the sad men who came to this house was not many years away for Eguchi himself. The immeasurable expanse of sex, its bottomless depth – what part of it had Eguchi known in his sixty-seven years? And around the old men, new flesh, young flesh, beautiful flesh was forever being born."

As Eguchi confirms in his thoughts, he is not the impotent man the woman at the inn thinks he is. Eguchi struggles with himself with each visit, at times trying to awaken the girls and often caressing and touching them in increasingly sexual ways. While torn between a heightened respect for the purity of the young women and his growing lust to possess this purity, Eguchi avoids any blatant sexual contact that might expose his manipulations.

Between visits to the "inn", Eguchi meets often with his friend who originally recommended the house to him. In one of the visits, old Kiga talks of a well respected gentleman who died the previous night at the house:

"'And they carried that huge body away in the night.'

Who had carried him away? Someone in an automobile, no doubt. The picture was not a pleasant one.

'They seem to have gotten away with it,' whispered old Kiga at the funeral, 'but with this sort of thing going on, I doubt if that house will last long.'"

Old Kiga expressed his concerns regarding the death to Eguchi, wondering if the old man had not requested to be helped along in his demise. The need for secrecy had indeed grown.

Eguchi continued returning to the house, sleeping with, leering at and subtly touching the young women. Growing more adventurous, one evening he slept with two women, while at other times he went to great lengths to wake the women up.

Throughout the story, Kawabata deftly continues building the erotic tension as Eguchi gets bolder and bolder in his attempts to engage the sleeping beauties. In a shocking end to the story, Kawabata reinforces his belief in the ultimate purity of virginity, equating the loss of virginity with a type of death, basically putting death and eroticism at the same place. All this is derived through an older man, trying to relive his erotic past through beautiful, sleeping women.

Yasunari Kawabata has published numerous books in his native Japan, most of which have been translated to English. Best known for his book, Snow Country he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968, the first author from Japan to win.

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