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The Theme Of Brevity In Yasunari Kawabata’s The Grasshopper And The Bell Cricket

How is “The Grasshopper And The Bell Cricket” by Yasunari Kawabata able to achieve so much more than might be expected, given its brevity?

“The Grasshopper And The Bell Cricket” by Yasunari Kawabata gives an initailly unassuming yet extremely compelling account of a magical insect hunt on a Japanese embankment. Kawabata’s use of narration, symbols, serene imagery as well as vivid language all work together harmoniously, giving the story a deeper meaning in contrast to what the reader initially might have expected about the events.

The rapid contrast of and the immersion in the movement and colour of the magical scene on the embankment, introduced in paragraph two of the short story, faces the reader with a remarkable and unexpected “play of light” (Kawabata 221) marking an intense departure from the story’s lonesome and arguably uninspiring beginning paragraph. This dull aspect of paragraph one can be characterised by its glum initial setting with its “tile-roofed wall”(219) as well as the “dusty clump of bushes”(219), where the narrator is solitary, walking at a slow pace with only an insects song to accompany him. Then, later on in the paragraph, there is a notable shift in the feeling of the story where a sense of momentum gathers, drawing the reader’s curiosity toward what the narrator has seen on the embankment. It is clear that the narrator’s haste, shown by his stating “I hurried forward with short steps”(219), exemplifies this momentum while the awe at the scene, his eyes refulgent at the sight, settles it here. At this juncture Kawabata introduces to the reader what they might not have expected having read the first few lines of the story, that is, the starkly contrasting movement and colour of the events introduced in paragraph two. The “bobbing cluster of beautiful varicoloured lanterns”(219), the playing children and the diction centred around colour and movement, shown by the observation of an “insect chase”(219) and the numerous colours present, further exemplify s this skilfully achieved and unexpected contrast.

Therefore the effect of this use of contrast captures the reader swiftly, showing that there is much more character and aesthetic beauty to the story than what might have initially been expected and all in the short space of one and a half paragraphs. It is clear that at this point in the story, the narrator has articulated something strikingly visual.

In the third paragraph the narrator introduces an aspect of the scene, focusing particularly on the children, that gives a deeper meaning to their actions than what might have been assumed, when the reader first encounters them, as merely the innocence and playfulness of childhood. It is clear that the picture of the children on the embankment shown in paragraph two, while exceeding the reader’s initial aesthetic expectations, doesn’t lend itself to the interpretation of the event as anything more than how they are visually depicted. It is clear that this event is serene, playful and focal but nothing hints beyond this. This can be seen by the narrator only describing what he sees, lingering on the serenity of the images which he describes as an event “one might see at a festival or remote village”(219). However, in paragraph three, the narrator creates a back story for the vibrantly lit gathering at the embankment showing that the building of lanterns hints at something more than just that.

For example, the narrator’s account of the slowly developing ritual of lantern making, in this paragraph, illustrates the specificity and skill that the children demonstrate in the making of their lanterns. The lanterns are complex and they represent, with their intricate cut out shapes and “little window[s]”(219) each decorated with different colours, a sense of artistry exhibited in the children’s creations. The lanterns don’t merely represent the innocent play of the children, as objects of insect hunting paraphernalia, but rather their hearts and passion. They are more than the readers initial expectation of them as playing children, they are “wise-child artists”(219). This rigorous nightly ritual that encompasses various tools and techniques, old style patterns and the individual names of the children, being “cut in squared letters”(220) into their lanterns, further adds to the notion of complexity that accompanies the lantern making which, again, the reader doesn’t expect when first confronted with the raw visual elements of this scene in paragraph two. Thus, the narrators instils in the children a sense of artistry, versatility and heart filled passion that is the driving force of something as arguably inconsequential as the making of a simple paper lantern, which could be easily understood as ‘just innocent childhood play’. So, Kawabata uses the subjectivity of the narrator and the poetic assumptions he makes to show that the children and their actions account for much more than what lies on the surface, turning this seemingly normal or average event into an expression of something exceptional in the children.

Through the subjective interpretation, by the narrator, of the scene on the embankment ,Kawabata, using the symbols of light, grasshoppers and bell crickets, is able to point out something more than what might be expected about the seemingly innocent interplay between Fuijio and Kiyoko, which transcends the event itself. The sense in which this interaction could initially be seen by the reader as a product of childhood innocence, comes from how Fuijio sweetly makes sure that his gift, of what he thinks is a grasshopper, that is, the valued artefact of the insect hunt, goes to his subject of his interest, Kiyoko. This interest can be characterised by his asking aloud three times to the group, “does anyone want a grasshopper?”(220). His aim here is to catch the attention of Kiyoko, who had not heard him the first and second times, so that he might impress her and gain her interest. There is a feeling in Fuijio’s ‘technique’ of catching her attention as being innocent and honest as he hands her the bell cricket so graciously and givingly, their hands meeting as “the insect was transferred to between the girls thumb and index finger”(220). At this juncture the encounter is seen by the reader to be meaningful but nothing more than a testament to how the children value bell crickets more than grasshoppers, shown by the repetition of “its a bell cricket!Its a bell cricket!”(220) , and a sweet display of childhood love that puts Fuijio’s previous actions into context.

However, as the narrator later explains, the light from their lanterns inscribing their names onto eachother and the unexpected turn of the story, when Fuijio, Kiyoko and the children gleefuly find out that Fuijio’s gift was more valuable than they had all expected, represents a special moment of connection. This is shown by the narrators view of this connection as being a “chance interplay”(221). It is clear that this is a moment missed by the children on the embankment and that the expectation of them all toward the value of the bell cricket as well as toward the giving and recieving of it, forecloses their ability to fully appreciate the beautiful and rare fairytale encounter between them. To show this, the narrator says “this chance interplay of red and green – if it was chance or play- neither Fujio nor Kiyoko knew about”(220). They don’t know about it because Fuijio’s blunder in thinking his bellcricket was a grasshopper and Kiyoko’s delight at finding her grasshopper was a bell cricket, has absorbed them both such that they can’t appreciate the magical scene and their connection like the narrator can. They have been distracted. The idea that expectation is the root of the foreclosure comes from the symbolic use, by the narrator, of the grasshopper and the bell cricket; shown here to represent different kinds of expectation, namely that of something valuable and of something less valuable, not unlike these two insects. He illustrates this point by emploring Fuijio to remain neutral in the face of the expectations of his love from his future love interests, saying that he should “laugh with pleasure at a girls delight when, told that it’s a grasshopper, she is given a bellcricket; laugh with affection at a girls chargrin when, told that its a bell cricket, she is given a grasshopper “(221).

The reader also gets caught up in this expectation and the perfection of the moment doesn’t entirely dawn on the reader until the narrator explains it from his vantage point, which illustrates the point further in real time. This realization of the foreclosure of meaningful experience by expectation is a stark and unexpected departure from the initial view of the scene on the embankment as being a matter of child hood play and innocence. Indeed this is part of the matter but Kawabata has used this scene as an example to show how expectation can fetter the experience of love and experiences in general.The last paragraph, moving to a more serious register, outlines the consequences of this expectation for Fuijio by showing that this tendency will result in a “wounded heart”(220) that is not able to tell the difference between a truely meaningful experience and one that is not, or, a bellcricket and a grasshopper. Again, Kawabata is able to show that the encounter between Fuijio and Kiyoko represents far more than that what lies on the visual surface of the story.

Remarkably, Kawabata is able to achieve so much more than might be expected by instilling an incredibly meaningful message about expectation and the insightfulness of children, all into a motion and colour filled word painting. Through his skilful use of narration, symbols, serene imagery as well as vivid language, a richness of detail and insight is delivered so gently and precisely showing just how masterful he is in the short story. The Nobel prize awarded to him for this work has something to say about this.

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