Thousand Cranes

Author: Yasunari Kawabata
Illustrator: Fumi Komatsu

Translator: Edward G. Seidensticker
U.S. publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 9780679762652
Released: November 1996
Original release: 1952

In 1968, Yasunari Kawabata became the first Japanese author to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature. His novel Thousand Cranes was among the three works cited as part of the award, the other two being Snow Country and The Old Capital. Although until now I have never read anything by Kawabata, I was familiar with his name. Not just because he won a Nobel Prize, but because he was a close friend of Yukio Mishima, who was my introduction to Japanese literature. Like Mishima, Kawabata also took his own life in 1972, albeit in a much less dramatic and much less public fashion. Thousand Cranes was originally published in Japan in 1952. The novel was first translated into English in 1958 by Edward G. Seidensticker and includes chapter illustrations by Fumi Komatsu. Thousand Cranes was selected for the August 2011 Japanese Literature Book Group, making it the first work by Kawabata that I’ve read.

After both his parents die, Kikuji finds himself living alone with only the maid in his family’s large household. Kurimoto, who once briefly had an affair with his father, takes it upon herself to set up nice marriage for Kikuji. In doing so, she invites him to attend a tea ceremony in order to introduce him to the Inamura’s daughter Yukiko. Although he has his reservations, Kikuji agrees to go. While he is there, he not only meets Yukiko, who he is charmed by, but also the widowed Ota and her daughter. This was something that Kurimoto did not intend to happen. Ota was the long-time mistress of Kikuji’s father, making her Kurimoto’s rival. The unexpected meeting between Ota and Kikuji, and their subsequent liaisons, has unanticipated consequence for everyone that is involved.

On its surface, Thousand Cranes is a simple story. But despite how it may first appear, it is highly complicated by human emotions and desire. It may seem reserved, but by paying close attention, the reader will notice a subtle, underlying intensity to the tale. The characters are much the same way—their generally calm and deliberate outward demeanors obscure their turbulent internal passions. They all greatly affect each other by their actions and by their inaction. The presence of Kikuji’s father, even after his death, is nearly overwhelming. This is especially true for Kikuji himself, but even the women he is involved with in one way or another find their lives and individual circumstances closely entangled. None of them can really completely escape the influence of Kikuji’s father. Honestly, it would be hopeless for them to try not to be. It does give rise to some rather unfortunate situations.

Reading Thousand Cranes, Kawabata’s skill as an author was readily apparent to me. It’s not a very long novel, well under two hundred pages, and so every phrase and moment must count. But even though Kawabata is able to achieve this with seeming ease and even though Thousand Cranes is a beautifully rendered piece, the story still seems to end rather abruptly. Some passing familiarity with Japanese tea ceremony will be useful for someone who wants to read Thousand Cranes, but it is not absolutely necessary to enjoy the novel. The influence of the tea ceremony on Thousand Cranes is undeniable. The symbolism found in the tea ceremony is incorporated into Thousand Cranes and is then expanded on. While a reader with a basic understanding of Japanese tea ceremony will probably get more out of the novel, Kawabata brings out the elements particularly important to the story. If Thousand Craned is at all representative of Kawabata’s novels, I suspect I will enjoy his other work.

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