Thousand Cranes

Yasunari Kawabata

First Sentence: Even when he reached Kamakura and the Engakuji Temple, Kikuji did not know whether or not he would go to the tea ceremony.

I’ve never read any Yasunari Kawabata before, never even heard of him if I’m being honest, but these new Penguin covers caught my eye so I picked up a couple a while back. The Thousand Cranes is a Japanese book in every way. The language, the mannerisms, the traditional tea ceremonies, and the sheer simplicity and beauty of the writing is all apparent throughout the entire (albeit short) book, and you certainly do feel transported to a completely different place. Set in post World War II Japan the book centres on Kikuji, a young orphan who is invited to a tea ceremony by Chikako Kurimoto, one of his father’s old mistresses. At this ceremony, Kikuji is introduced to Yukiko Inamura, a girl who is ideal wife material (in Kurimoto’s eyes). Also at this ceremony however is Mrs. Ota, a tea expert and another former mistress of Kikuji’s father. It is Mrs. Ota who leaves a lasting impression on Kikuji and they end up sleeping together after the ceremony. What follows is a tragedy which Kikuji and Fumiko (Mrs. Ota’s daughter) will be trying to make sense of for a long time afterwards. On the whole this was a memorable book with a strong sense of place. You really feel like you are in an old Japanese tea house when you read things like “The shadow of young leaves fell on the paper-paneled door.” The thousand cranes in the title come from a kerchief  Yukiko Inamura is wearing when she meets Kikuji at the tea ceremony. Although he does not pursue her, she does stay hidden in the recesses of his mind for some time afterwards and he thinks of her often:

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.

In a way this book is like ‘the Inamura girl’; it may not be immediately memorable, but rather it has a lingering effect which makes you think of it at unexpected times long after you have finished reading it. Eerily atmospheric and well worth a read.

* * * *

Last Sentence: As if spitting out all the accumulated venom on the woman he took for his enemy, Kikuji hurried into the shade of the park.

Last Sentence explained: After Kikuji and Mrs. Ota’s brief affair, Mrs. Ota kills herself. Her reasons for doing so could be anything, but it is the effect it has on Fumiko (her daughter) and Kikuji, that we as readers get to witness and worry about. Even after this tragedy Kurimoto is still trying to match make. She believes Yukiko Inamura is the best match for Kikuji and is not at all happy when Fumiko gets close to him after Mrs. Ota’s death. One day she lies to Kikuji and says that Fumiko has been married. As a result of this he loses contact with her, and ultimately nearly loses her altogether. The ‘enemy’ in the final sentence is Kurimoto as he is fed up with her meddling ways, and has only recently learned of her deceit regarding Fumiko’s false marriage. The pivotal scene in the book is a few chapters earlier however, when Fumiko and Kikuji share tea using old family drinking vessels. The traditions of tea, and tea drinking in general are very important in this book, as are the vessels used to drink it from. In this scene Fumiko uses her mother’s old Shino cup which seems to have a personality of its own:

It had a strange career. But perhaps the strangeness was natural to tea vessels.

Kikuji uses his father’s old Karatsu bowl, and in doing so adds a certain sense of gravitas to the occasion:

 […] the two bowls before them were like the souls of his father and her mother.

Fumiko, ashamed of her mother’s Shino cup, smashes it and runs away leaving only Kurimoto in Kikuji’s life, the woman he thinks of as his enemy in the final sentence…

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