September’s book of the month is an unusual one. I highly recommend this if you want to read works by some classic Japanese authors and are interested in the Japanese tea ceremony, but not if you don’t like books that have an unclear ending. I recently heard that the author ‘was not a fan of ending his novels’ and it’s definitely true of this one.
Here is ‘Thousand Cranes’ by Yasunari Kawabata.
‘Thousand Cranes’ is set in post-war Japan and follows the story of Kikuji, a young bachelor who is dragged into a rivalry between Mrs Ota and Chikako, his deceased father’s former lovers. It begins with Kikuji being invited to attend a tea ceremony by Chikako, who his father left for the more beautiful Mrs Ota, where he meets Mrs Ota, her daughter Fumiko and a girl whom Chikako is trying to arrange him to marry, Yukiko.
I expected a very different story in ‘Thousand Cranes’ to what I actually got. Instead of a classic love rivalry between Chikako and Fumiko, Kikuji has an affair with Mrs Ota, much to the dislike of Chikako. The rest of the novel looks at Kikuji’s relationship with the rest of the small cast of characters following this affair; the most bizarre of all his relationship with Chikako, whom Kikuji keeps imagining as her mother because of her physical resemblance. Equally unusual is Chikako’s behaviour, as she continues to meddle in Kikuji’s life, whether it’s tidying his father’s old tea room or reminding him how much he looks like his father.
In true traditional Japanese literature style, this book is rather odd. The focus is much more on the behaviour and psychologies of the characters, rather than any real story development. Not much ‘happens’ in the conventional sense, although Kawabata paints very vivid images of the characters in the space of 130 or so pages. The older women are the real drivers of what unfolds in the novel and neither of them are portrayed positively. Chikako is understandably jealous of Mrs Ota, who stole Kikuji’s father from her, and she manipulates everything and everyone so that she can get her revenge on Mrs Ota and Kikuji. There is an uncomfortable three-page description of the birth mark on her breast, which Kikuji saw when he was a child, early in the book. At first, this makes the reader sympathise with this ugly spinster character but, by the end of the novel, it becomes part of her spitefulness. The reader doesn’t get much reprise from strange old woman with Mrs Ota who, to put it mildly, is an obsessive drama queen. I personally really disliked her as a character, especially as her actions have detrimental effects on her lovely daughter Fumiko, who would have been a much better match for Kikuji.
You learn a lot about the Japanese tea ceremony in the space of this short book, from the methodologies to the names of utensils. Kikuji’s father’s tea house is a particularly important location in the story, as it goes from being an unused ghost house to a psychological battleground. After Chikako has meddled and tidied up the little shack, a couple of tea ceremonies take place in intricate detail. Different characters become embodied in certain objects and leave their mark on others, like Mrs Ota’s lipstick on one bowl which refuses to be rubbed off.
Despite being a rather slow story overall, the ending is very good and scandalous. Of course, as we know Kawabata does not like ending his stories, it ends on quite a cliffhanger and it’s up to the reader to decide what Kikuji does next. If you are looking for a classic Japanese novel that you can read within the space of two days and are a fan of detailed character development and the tea ceremony, ‘Thousand Cranes’ is definitely worth a read.
Next week: I’ll be talking about a famous Japanese cat!