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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Thousand Cranes

Kawabata Yasunari

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To purchase Thousand Cranes

Title: Thousand Cranes
Author: Kawabata Yasunari
Genre: Novel
Written: 1952 (Eng. 1959)
Length: 147 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Thousand Cranes - US
Thousand Cranes - UK
Thousand Cranes - Canada
Thousand Cranes - India
Tausend Kraniche - Deutschland
Mille gru - Italia
Mil grullas - España
  • Japanese title: 千羽鶴
  • Translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

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Our Assessment:

A- : evocatively understated

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 18/3/2011 Boyd Tonkin
The NY Rev. of Books . 27/3/1969 D.J.Enright
The NY Times Book Rev. . 22/2/1959 Siegfried Mandel
TLS . 5/6/1959 Philip Stanley Rawson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Behind a lyrical and understated surface, chaotic passions pulse as young Kikuji becomes entangled with two of his late father's mistresses." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent

  • "(A)n excellent work of art which thoroughly repays the effort of understanding. Some effort is needed, however (.....) Like a Bunjin-ga picture, it needs to be read with imagination, allowing the mind time to fill in the empty places for itself." - Philip Stanley Rawson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The main character in Thousand Cranes is Kikuji, now in his mid-twenties. His dead father was a tea ceremony aficionado and collector, and he left a fine collection of classical pieces -- cups and the like. He also left some mistresses, notably Kurimoto Chikako -- a brief fling who had quickly: "lapsed into sexlessness and been made a convenient fixture" in the household -- and Mrs. Ota, with whom he had a relationship that lasted until his death. The novel opens with Kikuji arriving for one of Chikako's tea ceremonies; only once he gets there does he realize that Chikako is playing matchmaker and has arranged this to be a miai, where Kikuji can check out prospective mate Inamura Yukiko (though given the nature of the invitation he received he must have realized that this was in the cards). Throwing a wrench in Chikako's machinations is the presence of Mrs.Ota and her daughter, Fumiko: "it's been the rule that anyone who happens to be in the neighborhood can drop in", and Mrs. Ota and her daughter have inconveniently decided to do just that.
       Thousand Cranes is a novel of gestures and images. From the first arresting memory Kikuji recalls in the opening pages -- Chikako's disfiguring birthmark that covers half her breast -- to the beautiful girl he sees upon his arrival for the ceremony, whom Kikuji identifies by the "thousand crane kerchief" she has with her, to the ceremonial tea cups, including one that Mrs.Ota suggested was (permanently) stained by her lipstick, Kawabata focuses attention on these images, and keeps it on them in lingering close-ups. Presented so evocatively, they are imbued with layers of meaning -- like the tea ceremony itself. When Kikuji identifies Yukiko by her thousand crane handkerchief Chikako (presumably) shakes her head: "Kerchief. What odd things you notice" -- but it is exactly these sorts of 'things' that dominate the story.
       Kikuji is not (yet) a young man looking towards building his own future -- such as by marrying and starting a family. His father has left him with a lot of baggage, and Kikuji has to deal with that first. The two fixtures from his father's household, manipulative Chikako and still-sensual Mrs.Ota (even though she is twenty years his senior), each insinuate themselves into passive Kikuji's life. More pro-active (or at least pro-passive) in his dealings with the younger generation -- Yukiko and Fumiko -- Kikuji is nevertheless held back in his struggle to break free from the hold his father and his father's legacy have on him.
       At one point Kikuji suggests that instead of the usual kind of tea ceremony they could do things differently for the one commemorating the fifth anniversary of his father's death:

It would be fun to invite all sorts of connoisseurs and use imitation pieces from beginning to end.
       Chikako dismisses the silly idea, noting that there wasn't a fake piece to be found in the entire grand collection -- but Kikuji knows exactly what he's talking about:
This cottage always smells of some mouldy poison, and a really false ceremony might drive that poison away. Have it in memory of Father, and make it my farewell to tea. Of course I severed relations with tea long ago.
       He may have tried to sever relations, but the poison certainly still lingers and he has good reason for wanting to take drastic steps. As is, Thousand Cranes is a short novel filled with sex, deception, suicide, and things (lives, tea cups) getting shattered. All presented quite ceremoniously and entirely understated: Thousand Cranes is a novel of quiet suicides and not of raised voices -- even when Kawabata relates: "He had cried out", it is a passive, past cry. Though the novel resounds with howls of despair, none of these are heard out loud.
       An effective story of deep emotion and suffocatingly binding personal ties (that still exert a hold even after death), Thousand Cranes is uncomfortably but powerfully understated -- with the slightly stilted feel of the translation working quite well as well here. Presented like the smooth surface of a body of water, the roiling underneath is suggested but barely shown, leaving much for the reader to read into the text, as Kawabata presents a surprisingly deep, layered, and disturbing story in such a short space and with such simple brushstrokes.

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 January 2013

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Thousand Cranes: Reviews: Kawabata Yasunari: Other books by Kawabata Yasunari under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Kawabata Yasunari (川端 康成) (1899-1972) was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1968.

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