on 8 May 1997
Snow Country and Thousand Cranes exemplify Kawabata's mastery of the subtle and not-so-subtle nuances of human psychology. Yet what amazes is his almost Haiku-like precision and pithy brevity. For me, each sentence exploded off the page. When I returned to the first paragraphs of Thousand Cranes I was amazed to see that these few spare sentences somehow contained, or rather encoded like DNA, the whole essence of the novel.
on 21 June 1998
Kawabata's novel gives amazing insight into the Japanese traditions of family ancestors, as well as insight for anyone who has felt tied to their parents. Kikuji's struggle to find himself and his independence from the memory of his father signify the struggles of youth at the death of a parent in modern times. Brilliantly executed, it is quite possibly one of the best novels to ever come from Japan.
on 2 October 2012
This is a wonderfully subtle novel which achieves its effect by defining the characters against the absence of others. We are in effect bought in to the afterglow of a world that is fading from view after the death of the protagonist's father. The tea ceremony, which the whole novel revolves around, is a system in break down after loosing those who gave it its significance. Yet it is precisely against this world in decline that the characters gain their identity.
The book starts with Kikuji on his way to a tea ceremony that has been arranged by Chikako, a former lover of his father. Yet Kikuji himself, far from continuing his fathers passion for the ceremony, purposefully avoids them. Chikako herself only seems to be holding the events in order to cling onto the spirit of Kikuji's father - the water jar, the tea measure and the tea cup that is given to Kikuji are all his fathers. And in fact it is only in the absence of his father that Kikuji manages to exert the social force he does over the other characters. Mrs. Oto, her daughter (Fumiko) and Chikako are all only interested in him insofar as he is his fathers son - insofar as he represents the last refuge of those embers of significance for the world of the tea ceremony - just as later Kikuji is only interested in (until the very end) Fumiko insofar as she resembles her mother. It is as if all are shadows in the light of the previous generations. It is just this light that we watch fade throughout the novel, as Kikuji slowly moves further from the realm of the tea ceremony, and as Chikuko's attitude towards him becomes more vexed. It seems he does not nourish those embers of his father's world that she values so dearly.
It is in the closing moments of the novel, however, that Kikuji finally manages to establish himself, become more than that determined by absence. He finally makes "his way outside [that] dark ugly curtain". It is through his relationship with Fumiko that he is finally able to break free of that world, by finding a position that is neither fleeing (selling the house, moving away) nor embracing the dying world of his fathers (continuing the relationship with Mrs. Oto, considering marrying Chikako's match) either of which would leave him as before - i.e. defined by those whom he is not. When Mrs. Oto's Shino cup is broken by her daughter it is as if the reign of the tea ceremony (and his fathers memory) is finally over. This lets Kikuji finally see Fumiko for who she was: "Always as before, she had been Mrs Ota's Daughter. Now he had forgotten". Simultaneously then he is freed from his obsession with Mrs. Oto: "It was as if an addict had been freed of his addiction by taking the ultimate dose of a drug". She becomes the absolute which lets him establish his own place in the world, his own sphere of intimacy.
Yet Fumiko becomes trapped in her mothers image. She both flees from its defining essence and embraces it. Flees it by selling her family home, embraces it in her relationship with Kikuji. She thus can't escape her mother's guilt. Kikuji shows his naivety to all of this when, with regard to Fumiko's implicit suicide in the closing pages, he says "she has no reason to die". Yet for Fumiko, her own significance in the world comes from her mother's image and so it must seem appropriate to her that she should share her mother's fate.
Finally then, the novel starts and finishes with the same question: how do we find our way in the world when we loose those who give it significance?
on 13 April 2016
Yasunari Kawabata’s prose infiltrates our senses redolent of the delicate memories of tea, drifting with equanimity across the page; there is a languor that lulls us into a dreamlike state full of suggestion, powerfully soporific, quietly calming. ‘Thousand Cranes’, just like ‘Beauty and Sadness’, deals with relationships based on misunderstanding, on silent communication where the acts of simple symbolism guide the characters to reach for meanings that are both abstruse and inchoate, ends with death.
Kikuji Mitani is a man recently come into his station as an orphaned adult; a man whose memories constantly drift back to his childhood where his emotions vacillate between the powerful polarity of youthful belief and his struggle to mature into what his father once was. As with all Kawabata novels, the struggle to detach from the maternal forms a backdrop to the mental anguish and sense of dislocation. For Kukiji, his father’s once short-term mistress, Chikako Kurimoto, forms a lasting, faintly mendacious bond with him, her insouciance and propinquity finding an outlet in the marred, unseen blight of her breast:
“He thought of the birthmark that covered half her breast. The sound of her broom became the sound of a broom sweeping the contents from his skull, and her cloth polishing the veranda a cloth rubbing at his skull.”
It is Kurimoto, with her insistent, insidious steering of Kukiji towards finding a bride in an effort to spite a memory he has of his father’s longer relationship with the anguished Mrs Ota, who leaks into Kawabata’s prose like a slow poison; she is the cynosure of his world, an ever-present focus that he struggles to avoid.
The story is short, episodic, full of the symbolism of the Japanese tea ceremony; Kukiji is beholden to meet both Mrs Ota and her daughter, Fumiko; to assess the eponymous Inamura girl who is an ephemeral as the white kerchiefs that glide overhead the span of this novel. By mid-novel we understand that Kukiji has “bad memories of Kurimoto…I don’t want that woman’s destinies to touch mine at any point. It’s hard to believe that she introduced us.”. What remains is for him to part with his father’s past, to cast off his need for a sexuality that is, to Western mores painfully Odepidan and reach for his own identity. Yet, it is a struggle, for his own sense of identity is inextricably linked to understanding the sadness from which, in part, we all come, ““He and Fumiko, haunted by the death of her mother, were unable to hold back this grotesque sentimentality. The pair of Raku bowls deepened the sorrow they had in common.” Eventually he crosses the bridge from his childhood, recognises that he does know himself, understands the same path Fumiko must cross: “It was strange and subtle, the fact that the child should not know the body from which she had come; and, subtly, the body itself has been passed on to the daughter.”
Finally he sees that “It was strange to be told that death cut off understanding.” For understanding is what Kawabata’s story is all about.
There is a precision in Yasunari Kawabata’s narrative that shines with many hues. An author who rightly won the Nobel Prize for Literature, there is a mellifluous tone to his short novels that hides the vast depths; each character is broadly drawn with wide brushstrokes, their souls bared in tones and uncertain dialogue that become strong soliloquies in their thoughts…thoughts that Kawabata lays out with just the right amount of descriptive balance. The writing is painfully exquisite, melodic, it flows red and white from skies to cups glazed in history and memories, driving the reader to understand the sentiment of Kukiji’s procrastinating uncertainty in a tea service of tropes until, in the end all that remains is to watch as “the sun flowing over the branches sank into his tired eyes. And he closed them. The white cranes from the Inamura girl’s kerchief flew across the evening sun, which was still in his eyes.”
on 7 January 2016
Of the five novels of Kawabata that I have read, this is the one I find most powerful. Although his range is limited, his depths are unfathomable. There is a malancholy in his books and his characters are often passive and unable to meet the challenges that present themselves. Writing in post-war Japan no doubt has something to do with this, but it probably only served to exaggerate an already present tendency. I like his extreme compression, it seems he has the sensibility of a poet, but the wrestle with words and silence must be difficult in translation. I find this translation better than adequate but have no Japanese so cannot properly judge.
Three adjectives for this novel: claustrophobic, incestuous, fetishistic. It has something of the feel of a Greek Tragedy. To my knowledge, the notion of a curse has never been more powerfully explored in a modern novel. Kurimoto seems more pitiful than malignant, although she is that too. She is the object of Kikuji's projections arising from his own troubled relationships with both parents. The lack of emancipation of the women is a given in this book, and not a central concern. Perhaps there are deep currents that carry our lives in directions we don't understand, certainly this novel suggests that. Being busy, the way of the West, may create an illusion of being in control when in fact we are most alienated from ourselves, but as Kikuji's life reminds us, being passive has its own pitfalls.
What happens at the end of the novel? There is a crisis for both the main characters, but the outcome is uncertain, even what happened to precipitate it is a little mysterious. Why in effect does Kawabata leave the novel unfinished? This is an aesthetic choice, although perhaps grounded in a philosophic outlook in which fate or destiny seems always on the point of upsetting the individual's path through life in ways that are unpredictable. Is Kawabata saying to the reader, "What happens is too close to call, why don't you tell me?"
It strikes me that Goethe's "Urworte. Orhisch" a five stanza late poem with headings: Daemon, Chance, Eros, Necessity and Hope is interesting to read alongside Thousand Cranes. In Goethe, however nihilism is balanced by serene Olympian detachment, in Kawabata pessimism clearly predominates.
on 11 January 2007
Similar in mood and approach to Kawabata's exquisite Snow Country, this one just isn't as engaging. As with Snow Country, it's more about mood and asociation of ideas and images than plot and cause-and-effect, but here it's hard to feel much of anything for the characters or events. Whereas Snow Country trembles with unexpressed emotion, this book just seems empty. Kawabata's short story The Izu Dancer is similar again, and whilst not as good as Snow Comutry, is also better than A Thousand Cranes.
on 10 February 2014
At 100 pages, this book may seem short, but I've spent two weeks poring over it, re-reading, and re-reading again! Elegantly written, simple but never straightforward- I was mesmerised by the poetic quality in Thousand Cranes and pleased by its rather demure plot.
on 26 April 2013
Beautifully written. Lyrical and mesmerising. Kawabata is a writer of fine distinction, who evokes the subtleties of life and culture in Japan.
on 11 July 2016
sweet and all, but didn't really satisfy
on 9 April 2012
An easy read and an evocative story about love, desire and attraction in the context of ancient customs, in this case the Japanese tea ceremony. But as a novel I found this rather lacking in character development and plot. Not much actually happens, and when it does I didn't really feel very involved because we hadn't been made to care enough about the characters.
I read this because the author won a nobel prize for literature, and it's true there is a certain charm and sadness to the relationships between the main character, a wealthy man in his twenties, and an older woman, his dead father's ex-lover, who he finds himself attracted to, and also his attraction for a younger woman, who he wishes to marry.
But I expected more. There is a sparseness to the writing that perhaps goes too far, in that it leaves so much unsaid, and I felt that possibly the translation from the original Japanese could have been better, as often the English lacked finesse. So overall, worth reading, but don't expect a great novel.