Book: Thousand Cranes (1964) / 千羽鶴 [Senbazuru]

Author: Yasunari Kawabata

Original Language/Translation: Japanese, tr. by Edward Seidensticker

Genre: Romance, Japanese Literature, Nobel Prize, Drama

Page Count: 147 pgs

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆


“Teaism is a cult founded on the adoration of the beautiful among the sordid facts of everyday existence. It inculcates purity and harmony, the mystery of mutual charity, the romanticism of the social order. It is essentially a worship of the Imperfect, as it is a tender attempt to accomplish something possible in this impossible thing we know as life.”

-The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura


There is a man in the house. He is trapped. The walls that surround him are dripping with tainted memories; the windows glossy with grief. He looks outside, inside, sideways just for one glimpse of his real self. Each passing moment is inscribed in the past – ridden with guilt – refusing to acknowledge the present. He is lost.

There is a woman in the house. She is trapped. The mist from her tea ceremonies rises with embarrassment; the curtains curl in despair. She looks outside, inside, sideways for just one moment of importance. Each passing breath is engrained in anguish – suffering from ugliness – unwavering to the beauty that beckons. She is ugly.

There is a mother in the house. She is trapped. The fragrance left by her floral perfume diffuses the air with longing; her porcelain face embraces the expression of cold winter. She looks outside, inside, sideways for just one moment of lost romance. Each passing heartbeat is yearning for the lost, while time quietly erodes the present. She is broken.

There is a daughter in the house. She is trapped. The soft rouge on her lips stains her words with crimson; the kimono on her milky skin hides her secrets. She looks outside, inside, sideways for just one moment of truth. Each passing lie is remembered and truths forgotten while the colors of the world fade. She is alone.

There is also a girl in the house with a kerchief patterned with a thousand cranes – each crane stamped in place, ready to take flight, but permanently frozen in design on the decorative fabric. She holds the legend in her sleeve – of a thousand cranes – that claims to grant a wish to he or she who folds a thousand origami figures of cranes; a symbol of peace and luck. She sits among the trapped and broken with her titular kerchief in Yusanari Kawabata’s poignant tale titled Thousand Cranes.

The narrative revolves around the aforesaid man named Kikuji, a Japanese youth in his twenties, and his involvement with various women in post-WWII Japan. Left alone after the death of his mother and father, Kikuji falls under the influences and troubles of these women while realizing his own. Through carefully strung episodes Kawabata eventually reveals a wider entanglement of human affairs. Kikuji’s fated relationships stem from his father’s – Mr.Mitani’s – amorous and sinful legacy that he “inherited” which involved Chikako, the tea instructor with a “hideous” birthmark, Mrs.Ota, the distraught mother with an inkling for reliving past indignities, and Fumiko, the daughter with her own destiny. There is also the crane-holder, Yukiko who serves more as proxy and juxtaposition to the rest of the characters and only through her kerchief can we speculate about her implied beauty and idealized importance.

“One of the girls was beautiful .She carried a bundle wrapped in a kerchief the thousand-crane patter in white on a pink crape background”.

All meet over a tea ceremony – held after the death of Kikuji’s father – by Chikako as more of a ruse to conduct a miai (a meeting with purpose of prospective bride viewing) than an earnest gathering.  Set in the pastoral lush of the Japanese countryside – like many of Kawabata’s stories – Thousand Cranes uses the sanctimonious tea ceremony at the forefront contrasted with unholy symbolic deteriorations represented by the characters and their associative images to paint an evocative portrait bustling with emotion and insight. Kawabata masterfully streamlines this within the ebb and flow of life, while simultaneously exploring the fragile nature of the broken heart, fragmented identity, and eternal longing (all elements caged by existential decay).

There is a gnawing sentiment of loneliness embedded in the core of this tale. This isn’t unusual of Kawabata as most of his works are meditations on some form of loneliness, alienation, and silent submission. Kawabata lived in a time that was characterized by drastic shifts. On one hand, much of the Japanese society was moving towards a rapid modernism both in attitude and art while on the other, still trying to retain their cultural and historical identity. Kikuji is the ideal embodiment of this disillusioning penchant. Much like Kawabata, Kikuji represents an alienated form, deprived of his family and relatives at a young age, placed on an amorphous canvass that was shifting in scenery and values. Perhaps this is why so many of his settings depended on isolated, bucolic villages or rustic snow countries – far removed from the inevitable morphisms of the urban/modern persuasion – sitting still within a snapshot of time that seemed to run in a different direction. Even then Kawabata maintained the disenchantment and disconnect between space, time, and individual very palpably and consciously. Through Kikuji, Chikako, Mrs. Ota, and Fumiko, Kawabata actualizes the fervent struggles of the self and society, whims and desires of the heart, and a tender ode to death all brushed by masterful strokes of sublime imagery, intricate emotions, and juxtaposed ideals – similar to the time and place that contained him.

Thousand Cranes thus is a novel of ideas and people, not plot and linearity. It is as formless as the tinted tea without its vessel. It moves from episode to episode with a swanlike grace and fluidity. But there is no underlying structure since Kawabata is not concerned with the mystery of the plot, but the hearts of the humans within it. The emotional intensity that is wrapped up in a constant poetic rhythm and opulent imagery is astounding in this novel. He paints the world as he sees it, with characters that reflect that world with all the hues and pathos attached, conjured up on pages that speak loudly about wanting, love, redemption, identity, fulfillment, and fate.

Yet there is no redemption, or identity, or love, or fulfillment to be found here as only the treacherous thorns of fate, jealousy, sin, facades, and heartbreaks grow here and only they hold up the withering buds that lay above. But they sure are beautiful and beauty is always meant to awe, just as the being or circumstance devoid of it. This disparity: the inherent distance between two dualistic points forever pitted against each other in a space of this AND that is the underlying propeller of Thousand Cranes. For example, there is the tea ceremony, which is engrained on a higher plane of spiritual existence and Aesthetics. The tea is the elixir of life; the centuries old ceramic cups and artisan kettles that hold and brew the mystic liquid are infused with the signature of Eternal Art and Meaning for they are as living as the beings who sip from them. And the ceremony is the transitory act that binds the participants and objects in a holy union of purification, transcendence, and rejuvenation. It is the tea ceremony which gave way to much of the cultural transcript that defines the moral, spiritual, and artistic musings of Japanese society. The tea ceremony then and the delicately sophisticated process behind it is not just an art of arrangement and Aesthetics, but a religious experience that blossoms with tradition, values, and divinity. To use such a symbolic act of moral importance coupled with the impure vindications of place and character is a major theme of the novel which underlines the negative tone that Kawabata wants to convey.

From Kawabata’s Nobel Prize Speech:

A tea ceremony is a coming together in feeling, a meeting of good comrades in a good season. I may say in passing, that to see my novel Thousand Cranes as an evocation of the formal and spiritual beauty of the tea ceremony is a misreading. It is a negative work, and expression of doubt about and warning against the vulgarity into which the tea ceremony has fallen.

The pure is swathed with the impure, the religious with sacrilegious, and beauty with the ugly – and not within their definitive sense but – within the impressionistic conveyances of Kawabata’s characters. This isn’t meant to be some heavy-handed drivel and Kawabata doesn’t present in that way, but shows it through sensual evocations and nuanced gestures like the countless tea ceremonies which slowly degrade into selfish fancy and personal whims. The slow but systematic breakdown of that which is beautiful and holy is ongoing and speaks to the larger ruination of social values, moral virtues, and personal transcendence.

The ceremony serves as the pillar of all which is measured with and against. There are recurring instances of the dyadic heart that beats within this novel. However, as with the ying and yang, there is a fine line that runs between the two, allowing them to coexist with one another but with very different consequences and meanings. The birthmark of Chikako is rendered as a hideous tragedy that plagues her physical body and she must live with that shame, yet it is Chikako who performs most of the tea ceremonies and teaches the ways of the Tea and its Ceremonies to many. The beauty then exists within her singular action in infinite proportions but equally paralleled by both her physical and mental ugliness. And it is within imperfection and the flawed that exists impeccable beauty as signified by the ceremony itself.

“But he might find something attractive in it. In having it for a secret. And then again the defect might bring out good points.”

Kikiuchi too, is a walking magnet with two polar ends, attracted to the opposite of what is intended. Burdened by his father’s misdoings in the past, he struggles with his modernized image as a bachelor that calls for casual romances and superiority while being completely smitten by the past. Completely enamored by the idea of physical beauty as represented by Yukiko, but mentally entrapped and impassioned by his tryst with Mrs.Ota, Kikuji takes his shameful inheritance as a duty of sorts. Furthermore, he is disgusted by Chikako’s birthmark but is repeatedly mesmerized by it indicating the alluring nature of flawed beauty, akin to the tea ceremonies. He fails to understand the man he portrays to be for his “inheritance” and encounter with Mrs.Ota completely destabilizes him and the mirrored wall he had built up around him comes crashing down leaving only guilt and longing.

Mrs.Ota further solidifies this but takes it a step further. She is tormented by the ghosts of the past but cannot live without them. She exists in a limbo of sorts where she is left numb from her dejected state as a lover, as a woman, and as a mother. Although, she hopelessly wants to acquire the tempestuous love she once had and seeks for it in Kikuji, she eventually becomes the personification of futility and beauty. What Kawabata signified with the demise of Mrs. Ota is the elegance of the “end” over continuing a life etched in nothingness, void of meaning, just like what the tea ceremony was becoming. Yet, suicide and death is never glorified for it brings its own callous pain unto others and the present that can never forget the past. And even after death, the nostalgia and bonds remain everafter as defined by the symbiotic relationship between the late Mr. Mitani and Kikuji, and later between Mrs.Ota and Fumiko.

The past is indeed inherited and Fumiko’s eventual importance is direct complement to that assertion. Like Kikuji, Fumiko is haunted by her mother’s demons and she receives them unwillingly. Void of both luck and purity, Fumiko is given a slate scribbled with the tragedies and disappointments of her mother. All she desires is a blank state, but stuck in a state of perpetual irony, Fumiko finds herself within the sad arms of the man who once held her mother, and the torment refuses to abandon her.

“In a gourd that had been handed down for three centuries, a flower that would fade in a morning.”

…So beats the dichotomous heart of Thousand Cranes; a fleshy, visceral heart that will resonate deeply with all who hear it.

And while the forlorn continue to chase the very phantoms they fear and hate, the sadness keeps growing and beauty diminishing, until a state of nothingness is materialized. Here we have the juxtaposition of the enlightening tea ceremony with the regressive man and woman; the kerchief studded with a thousand cranes meant to grant wishes and bestow luck but not a trace of luck could ever exist here, not along the sides of these characters. Thus this becomes a tale of a thousand cranes that refuse to fly, among the trapped and sullen souls that sit beside them; they too remain only outwardly beautiful in their fabricated home.

               “Does pain go away and leave no trace, then?’

                  ‘You sometimes even feel sentimental for it.”


Some added notes:

  1. Thousand Cranes was an incomplete work. Kawabata wrote 5 episodes, but was said to have never finished it.
  2. The dualistic/dichotomous nature of this novel isn’t just thematic but an extension of Kawabata himself as a writer. Kawabata’s writing trends display a certain dualism since he imbued many of his writing ideologies from the western canon with their ideas of form, thematic & ideological density, and even plot while trying to maintain the traditional “simplicity” and form of traditional Japanese literature from the 15th and 17th century such as Renga poetry. Throughout his life he experimented with various western influences (especially those dealing with the modernist movement) but also maintained tradition with both content and style.