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Book Review: Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

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Subtlety and intricacy are what composes the power within a Kawabata novel, and Thousand Cranes is no different. Readers are given insights into characters via way of passive comment, a gesture overlooked, the description of lipstick on a stained cup or forgetting a stamp when mailing a letter. While Kawabata has managed to mostly hit home runs with all of his novels, Thousand Cranes falls slightly below his best, thereby causing me to rank it as one of his (slightly) lesser works, comparatively. Yet even lesser Kawabata is still very good.

The tale revolves around Kikuji and the myriad of love affairs he has. Some are those from his father’s past and others dwell in his present, where he involves himself with both the young and old. At a tea ceremony that is being held by his dead father’s mistress, Kikuji meets a number of women from his father’s past, or “inherits” them is more like it. Chikako is a previous mistress of Kikuji’s father and seems content on imposing herself into his affairs, even when she is not wanted.

She suggests a young girl named Yukiko Inamura for Kikuji, while at the same time he meets another one of his father’s former mistresses, Mrs. Ota. She has since developed an attraction to him, since Kikuji offers her a constant reminder of his father, whom was also her former lover. Fumiko is Mrs. Ota’s daughter, and she too becomes involved within this quiet fiasco.

Oddly, in many ways Thousand Cranes has the set up for soap opera, only there never seem to be any moments where the characters actually get predictably feisty in the hair-pulling sense, but rather their reactions are expressed through passive aggressive comments, their movements and mannerisms and well, suicides. What would be a Japanese novel without suicide, right?

Well, usually Kawabata novels do not contain such (unlike Yukio Mishima for example, where if you’re presented with an attractive, buff, young male you know he will inevitably commit suicide before you even open the book).

Although Thousand Cranes is a very well written, intricate tale, its strength resides in its seeming simplicity. Yet my criticism is that the characters in Thousand Cranes are not quite as compelling as those in some of his other works. While most of Kawabata’s novels tend to be spare and on the short side, I actually felt that Thousand Cranes would have benefited with a bit more length  — even if not very much.

I’ve never read a bad Kawabata novel and I can’t think of not recommending any of those I’ve read, Thousand Cranes included. The metaphors throughout the tale are subtle yet powerful, using the image of the Japanese tea ceremony, and the description of the bowls and dishes and not only the tradition carried within the ceremony itself, but the idea that these things are ultimately passed on, generation through generation, much in the same way the son has inherited the women from his father’s past.

Underlining throughout all of this is the manipulation of Chikako who, from the very beginning, has her own intentions in mind when it comes to trying to arrange a marriage between Kikuji and the young girl, Inamura. As Kikuji builds a connection with Mrs. Ota, he also develops a relationship with her daughter, where he, just like Mrs. Ota, views the child and parent not necessarily as one, but as an extension of the past. Chikako is jealous and hurtful, but quite possibly the best character in the book. She fakes her sincerity upon hearing a tragedy bestowed upon Mrs. Ota, and the dialogue is perfectly rendered and beautifully bitchy:

“Your mother was such a gentle person. I always feel when I see someone like her that I’m watching the last flowers fall. This is no world for gentle people.”

“My mother wasn’t as gentle as all that.”

The above is an exchange Chikako and her daughter, Fumiko, where Chikako then continues to rub it in with the dread, “you must be lonely,” comment later on. The scene is convincingly insincere and Fumiko only feels worse on account of it, though says nothing. Thousand Cranes is full of moments as these, where the smallness of their surrounds adds up into the large loneliness each one of them faces.

Characters suffer and primarily bring on their own problems, for they are restricted by their pasts and unable to start afresh due to the expectations that tradition cloaks them in. No one is really happy and nor do any of them step away to do anything about it. Suffering becomes their only alternative.

Thousand Cranes, like any Kawabata novel, begs for rereading and I am happy to state that I found a brand new copy at a used bookstore, which will remain on my shelf for a long while.

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About Jessica Schneider

  • brenda

    I’m just reading the book now, about 3/4 finished, and broke off reading to get some reviews — the book being a little disturbing as well of course, beautifully written.

    Thank you for your insights, especially the idea that Kikuji “inherited” his father’s women. Put like this, the thing makes a little more sense. It brings up the idea that through Kikuji’s dealings with these women it is a way for him to enter and stay in his father’s life. The father did bring him to Chikako when he was still a child, and I think that is significant.

    I agree with you, and I think it is a very good observation on your part that Chikako is the best drawn character — for a Westerner to comprehend perhaps. She certainly has not an iota of the reserve shown by the other characters. A Westerner might explain by saying, “this is a cultural difference, this reticence is something we cannot comprehend.” But Chikako we can comprehend. But what is incomprehensible, until you bring in the idea of her being part of Kikuji’s “inheritence”, is why on earth he would ever consent to her infernal meddling!

    I thought the absence of the wife was a rather glaring absence. I really wondered about this. At first I put it down to yet another “cultural difference”, whereby a Japanese man of that time (the book was written in 1949) and class would take however many mistresses he could afford and the wife would compliantly accept. But then I realized he hid his relationship with Chikako from his wife, dissembling when his wife brought the birthmark up for discussion, so that is not the explanation.

    I think the explanation is simply a bereaved young man taking on certain aspects of his philandering father’s life, this being all he has left to remember him by, for better or for worse.

    many thanks for the thoughtful review. I’ll go and finish reading the book now!