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.