Critical Context

In balancing the claims of individual passion against the perspective of time, Thousand Cranes is typical of Yasunari Kawabata’s novels. Awareness of mortality is hardly consolation for human suffering, but in books such as Meijin (1954; The Master of Go, 1972) and Yama no oto (1954; The Sound of the Mountain, 1970), Kawabata focuses on the necessity of attaining such a stoicism. Pursuit of the pleasures of this world, he demonstrates in novel after novel, results in confrontation with the cosmic emptiness of all of time itself. Thousand Cranes is not as stark and uncompromising a depiction of this confrontation as is Kawabata’s Mizuumi (1955; The Lake, 1974), but its conclusions are uncompromising. It depicts a Japan in which all forms of traditional discipline, including that of the tea ceremony, have been subverted. The characters in the novel lack the moral perspective that any form of discipline would provide.

Knowledge of the tea ceremony and familiarity with the various ceramics from which its utensils have been made would enrich the reading of Thousand Cranes, but such information is not essential to an understanding of the novel. Like Beauty and Sadness, the book deals with a woman’s attempt to extract revenge from a lover, even to the extent of inflicting suffering on his son. Chikako Kurimoto misuses her knowledge of the art of tea by making use of the tea ceremony as an occasion for manipulating the feelings of young Mitani. Thousand Cranes testifies, in addition, to the degree to which the way of tea represents the influence of the elder Mitani on the life of his son. In this case, the influence does not lead to the traditional purification of mind and spirit associated with the discipline of the tea ceremony. It leads to the very opposite.