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.”