Yasunari Kawabata's Thousand Cranes is a work of psychological fiction rife with symbolism.
Kikuki Mitani, a young bachelor, attends a formal tea ceremony put on by Chikako, who is a surrogate mother to him. The purpose of the ceremony is to introduce him to Yukiko, a potential bride.
The presence of two uninvited guests, Mrs. Ota, Mitani's father's former mistress, and her daughter Fumiko, complicate the meeting. Chikako serves Mitani and then Mrs. Ota from a black Oribe bowl which belonged to Mitani's father, and the sharing of tea from the artifact results in Mitani and Mrs. Ota sleeping together on the way home.
Chikako again arranges for Mitani and Yukiko to get together, and Mitani at this point says that he can imagine marrying the young woman. The next day, Mrs. Ota, having been told by Chikako that a marriage between Mitani and Yukiko is imminent, arrives at Mitani's house in tears. Mitani denies that he has committed himself to marry Yukiko, but accuses Mrs. Ota of confusing him with his father. The next morning, Mitani learns from Fumiko that Mrs. Ota has killed herself.
Fumiko and Mitani talk at the memorial service for Mrs. Ota, and develop a closeness. Chikako, who wants Mitani to marry Yukiko, tries to stop a relationship between Mitani and Fumiko from developing. Mitani, however, tells Chikako that he does not plan to marry Yukiko.
Several weeks later, Chikako tells Mitani that both Yukiko and Fumiko are now married to others. During a subsequent conversation with Fumiko, Mitani discovers that the story is not true. Mitani and Fumiko go to the tea cottage together, where they place Mrs. Ota's Shino bowl next to the bowl formerly used by Mitani's father. Fumiko, who has fallen in love with Mitani, senses that he sees her mother in the Shino bowl, and she breaks it. Fumiko's action has the effect of freeing Mitani to love her, but she herself is now consumed by guilt. She disappears, and the implication is that she kills herself.