Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Book Review: Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata (1951)

Thousand Cranes by Yasunari Kawabata

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Yasunari Kawabata was the first Japanese author to win the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968 "for his narrative mastery, which with great sensibility expresses the essence of the Japanese mind." In awarding the prize, the Nobel Committee cited three of his novels, Snow Country, The Old Capital and this novel, Thousand Cranes. In 1972 he joined the list of celebrated Japanese authors (including Akutagawa, Dazai and Mishima) to have comitted suicide when he apparently gassed himself.

A beautiful and deceptively simple piece of Japanese Literature

Blurb: Set in a post World War II Japan, the protagonist, Kikuji, has been orphaned by the death of his mother and father. The novel is divided into five episodes: "Thousand Cranes", "A Grove in the Evening Sun", "Figured Shino", "Her Mother's Lipstick" and "Double Star" and follows several relationships via the interactions of the traditional tea ceremony.

Thoughts: The weight of tradition and the powerful influence of family life lie at the heart of this tale of ill-fated love. Kikuji reconnects with his dead father's mistress at a tea ceremony only to find his life becoming intwined with all four of the women present, in a series of meetings with these women Kawabata uses the intricacies of the tea ceremony to weave "a tale of desire, regret, and sensual nostalgia, every gesture has a meaning, and even the most fleeting touch or casual utterance has the power to illuminate entire lives, sometimes in the same moment that it destroys them."

I particularly enjoyed the comparison between the ghosts of Kikuji's nameless parents and the 300 year old tea bowls; the fact that these items can survive that long despite life being so fleeting serves as a fine metaphor whilst at the same time confirming the weight of tradition on the protagonist. Kawabata was indeed a talented poet.
"Now, even more than the evening before, he could think of no one with whom to compare her. She had become absolute, beyond comparison. She had become decision and fate."

Thousand Cranes is filled with individual passages of beautiful imagery yet taken in its entirety achieving a real sense of melancholy, with his calm style and his short sentences Kawabata has the ability get into your mind and, I feel certain, will leave you thinking about his work for days after.

It wasn't until the conclusion that I realised the potentially heavy influence on the work of Haruki Murakami but then this approach towards lost love may just be typical of Japanese culture, perhaps I should read more Edward G. Seidensticker as an education?

There's no need to write more on the subject, it's a tiny yet powerful novel and to go in to too much detail will spoil it for you. Go now, enjoy Kawabata.

Further viewing suggestions

                                      Tony Takitani       Sound of the Mountain      Tokyo Twilight

Additional reading

                            Snow Country   &   Tokyo From Edo to Showa 1867 - 1989

View all my book reviews


  1. This book looks like something I'd love. Adding this to my wishlist right now, and someone has actually seen Tony Takitani? I am super impressed, that film is awesome.

    Great review, as always.

    1. I think something I didn't mention is how short it is. Short meaning accesible in my eyes. When I picked up a Mishima and the font was small and the page count long I was put off starting just yet but Kawabata manages to create something beautiful in such a small space of time. Very impressive.