Thousand Cranes by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Edward G. Seidensticker (Perigee, 1981)
When Kikuji's father died it seemed he inherited not only his material properties--the house and the antique tea bowls. His father's mistresses seemed to claim their hold onto him too. At the beginning of the novel, his father's first mistress Chikako sought him out to participate in a tea ceremony. But it seemed there was more to her invitation than tea drinking. She was arranging for Kikuji to meet a young beautiful woman as a marriage prospect. Mrs. Ota, his father's second mistress, with whom his father had had a longer lasting affair, was also present in the tea ceremony, together with her daughter. Her presence turned out to be a prelude to sexual relations with her former benefactor's son, with Kikuji himself.
The novel was another slippery haiku performance from Kawabata. As with his earlier novel Snow Country, nature and culture functioned as more than backdrops to sexual encounters. They were the very settings on which human frailties and beauties were heated to bubble up to the surface like steam on a tea kettle.
Over fiery coals the tea boils to perfection. The smoke couldn't hide the hushed desires, meaningful evasions, and raging passions of the characters. The elaborate tea ceremony at the opening almost obscured the all-too-civilized catfight between two mistresses soliciting the attention of a young man.
Thousand Cranes was a work of high symbolism and lyricism. It could be seen as a novel of cultural inheritance, the transference of culture through the generations, like a valuable heirloom in a family.
Before Mrs. Ota's ashes it [Shino tea ware] had been a flower vase, and now it was back at its old work, a water jar in a tea ceremony.
A jar that had been Mrs. Ota's was now being used by Chikako. After Mrs. Ota's death, it had passed to her daughter, and from Fumiko it had come to Kikuji.
It had had a strange career. But perhaps the strangeness was natural to tea vessels.
In the three or four hundred years before it became the property of Mrs. Ota, it had passed through the hands of people with what strange careers?
"Beside the iron kettle, the Shino looks even more like a beautiful woman," Kikuji said to Fumiko. "But it's strong enough to hold its own against the iron."
The novel could also be seen as a description of "cultural niche" (cf. ecological niche), the unique functions and inherent values of products and artifacts like tea bowls, in which the essence of culture dwells since immemorial time. There was a kind of mutual agreement between tea bowls and tea drinkers: the drinkers maintain the beauty of the bowls; the drink rejuvenates its drinkers.
"It's a great waste not to use Shino [sixteenth century ware] for tea. You can't bring out the real beauty of a tea piece unless you set it off against its own kind."
In black enamel touched with green and an occasional spot of russet, thick leaves of grass encircled the waist of the bowl. Clean and healthy, the leaves were enough to dispel his morbid fancies.
The proportions of the bowl were strong and dignified.
One appraised the value of tea vessels in terms of their aesthetic qualities and utility. Beauty and function defined their place in the world. The tea bowls were a valuable inheritance and were acquired at a high price. One left one's soul in them, like the stain of a lipstick that couldn't be rubbed off a teacup's rim.
The Shino was reddish to begin with, but Mother used to say that she couldn't rub [her] lipstick from the rim, no matter how hard she tried. I sometimes look at it now that she is dead, and there does seem to be a sort of flush in one place.
There was coevolution between cultural artifacts and people. As with The Old Capital, Kawabata was concerned with how cultures and traditions are transferred like genetic traits, like birthmarks. The imprint of culture was consistent to the way a birthmark was imprinted on a person. In the novel, Chikako had a birthmark on her breast. This mark, one character had noted, could leave a lasting impression on a child suckling on it.
From the day it was born it would drink there; and from the day it began to see, it would see that ugly mark on its mother's breast. Its first impression of the world, its first impression of its mother, would be that ugly birthmark, and there the impression would be, through the child's whole life.
As for the figure of the "thousand cranes", it was the striking pattern on a young woman's kerchief. It had so affected Kikuji's perception of her (the Inamura girl, the marriage prospect) that she came to embody it, becoming for him the "girl of the thousand cranes". The pattern could symbolize the vitality of youth, or the exhilarating freedom in flying. In the flight of the thousand cranes, flapping wings bring bird blood into the bristles of every feather. She probably inherited this piece of cloth from someone.
Read for Tony's January in Japan.