Yasunari Kawabata

Thousand Cranes is a Japanese novel from the 1950s. It begins when a young man, Kikuji, attends a tea ceremony at the invitation of Chikako, the former mistress of his father. While there, he meets Mrs Ota, another lover of his father, and her daughter, Fumiko. Kikuji is also embarrassed to realise that Chikako has arranged the ceremony in order for him to meet Miss Inamura, a beautiful girl whom Chikako hopes he will marry, and who is carrying a cloth decorated with the pattern of a thousand cranes. However, despite his attraction to Miss Inamura, Kikuji is equally fascinated with Mrs Ota and her daughter and, rather surprisingly, becomes involved in a relationship with Mrs Ota.

This opening scene at the tea ceremony is orchestrated by the manipulative Chikako (who I found a memorable and very unlikeable character, as she is so interfering and tactless). It brings all the characters together and sets in motion the story of destruction that follows. What then happens between Kikuji, Mrs Ota and Fumiko seems to be destined, the result of a family curse. Miss Inamura, the girl with the thousand crane handkerchief, is seen by Kikuji as pure and clean, untouched by the histories that affect Mrs Ota and Chikako. However, he resists Chikako’s attempts to arrange their marriage. I felt that Kikuji seemed to be drawn to the complexities of the past and the unresolved relationships of his father, rather than wishing to start again with his own life.

The idea of inheritance arises again and again in the novel, and I think this is symbolised in the tea bowls that used to belong to Kikuji’s father. At the end of the novel, two of the bowls seem to represent male and female, Kikuji’s father and Mrs Ota, or Kikuji himself and Fumiko. The book suggests how treasured objects can be handed down the generations and that passions can also be passed on from parent to child in a warped version which causes guilt and regret. It is noticeable that the generations keep blurring together; Kikuji feels similar to his father, while Fumiko often reminds him of her mother.

Thousand Cranes is sparsely written and understated but at the same time contains moments of strong emotion or violence. It is full of images that are at times ethereal and delicate, at times sinister. Although it evokes an ancient, traditional world, it also brings in aspects of contemporary 1950s life, and I found this an unusual combination. Yasunari Kawabata’s writing creates a melancholy, poetic feeling in its descriptions of memories of a lost love or moments of natural beauty. I’d certainly read other books by the same author.

(I read this for the Japanese Literature Book Group at In Spring it is the Dawn).