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Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto

A Close Reading of Yasunari Kawabata’s
“The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket”

From Palm-of-the-Hand Stories by Yasunari Kawabata.
(Translated from the Japanese by Lane Dunlop and J. Martin Holman.) North Point Press-Farrar Straus and Giroux: New York, 1988.

Read it online.

Grasshopper on Gourd Vine by Shibata Zeshin

This is an enchanting story from Yasunari Kawabata’s Palm-of-the-Hand-Stories. Kawabata won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1968, the first Japanese writer to do so, and this collection of short-short stories is beautifully written and shows his literary artistry. This particular story from the collection is a charming story of childhood innocence, of child artists, and of an observing narrator who blends memory, tradition, past, and present. With great attention to detail, Kawabata is careful not to explain everything, is careful to leave room for the reader to think upon and to co-create the greater meaning or significance of the story.

The story begins on the grounds of a university.  The first-person narrator, “I,” hears an insect’s voice. He keeps listening to the pleasing sound and is reluctant to walk away from it. Then he sees “a bobbing cluster of beautiful varicolored lanterns” like those that might be “seen at a festival in a remote country village.” The narrator realizes the children are on an insect hunt. There were about twenty lanterns, most of which the group of children had made themselves. The narrator says his eyes gleam at what they, the children, see up ahead.”

The narrator never interacts with the children, and they remain unaware of his presence. At times he even addresses one of the children, Fugio, although the child doesn’t hear him. Nor does the narrator intend for the boy to hear him. He observes the children from afar and mentally addresses Fugio when he speaks of the lessons to be learned from this enchanting night.

Right after the initial scene of the twenty children with their creative lanterns, the narrator goes into a back story, provides information on how the group ritual came to be.  This is also right after he states “surely it was a scene from a fairy tale?” Ending in a question mark suggests that the narrator can’t quite say what it is, exactly. And this unusual technique works to arouse reader interest.

The ritual, he explains, began with a single child who, like the narrator, attended to the song of an insect. That first child purchased a red lantern to help in the search for the insect.  Then on the second night, a child who couldn’t afford to buy a lantern, created one and joined the hunt. Each subsequent night more children brought their lanterns and joined the search for the singing insect.

The children are strangers to the narrator but he knows a lot about them. He knows how they kept trying to perfect their lanterns, sometimes discarding the efforts of the night before in order to create even better lanterns. It’s as if the narrator is stepping into, or likely back into an old familiar fairy tale. Or is perhaps recalling the memories of his own childhood insect hunts and the folklore behind the events.

With this unusual flashback readers leave the present and learn the history behind this gathering of “wise child-artists.” They are creative and inspire each other. Their lanterns become more unique, more individual and more beautiful as they keep improving their creations. Each child hopes to create the “most unusually beautiful” lantern. One child discarded his lantern after deciding it was a “tasteless object that could be bought at a store.” Every single day the artist children created new and better lanterns out of their “hearts and minds.”

Back in the present again, a child, Fugio, calls out, “Does anyone want a grasshopper?”  Several children say they want it but the boy doesn’t give it to them. He calls out the question three times and doesn’t give the insect to any of the several children who would like to have it.  Then a girl says she would like to have the grasshopper. This is who the boy wants to have it. She is who he has been waiting for. When he transfers the grasshopper to her, she announces that it’s a bell cricket rather than a grasshopper.  It’s clear from context a bell cricket is far more valuable than a grasshopper. At this moment the boy lifts his lantern and glances at the girl’s face.

The narrator claims to be “slightly jealous” and feels sheepish, feels guilty that he didn’t understand the boy’s actions until now. But the narrator doesn’t spell out what’s taking place. He engages the reader’s imagination and in so doing manages to keep the sweet mystery of this night intact.

The narrator then sees on the girl’s white kimono something no one else saw– the name “Fujio had been inscribed through his green lantern’s light.  And her name, Kiyoko, is inscribed in red from her lantern on the boy’s waist.  The two “wise child-artists” had in effect signed each other’s artistic canvases– a “chance interplay of red and green– if it was chance or play– neither Fujio nor Kiyko knew about.”  The story suggests a story of young and innocent recognition of someone else whose identities have been forever linked in this small and innocent incident.

The narrator comes away with a great guide to life (and a guide for readers). He urges Fugio, mentally, without speaking to him, to laugh with pleasure when a girl is given something more valuable than she originally thought. And to laugh with affection when a girl is given the opposite, something less valuable than she originally thought.

He also tells Fugio (still mentally) he will pity him on those days when he finds girls who are less than ideal (the grasshoppers). He might even mistake one of them for someone more desirable (a bell cricket). And will pity him on those days when his heart is clouded and wounded, when someone of great value to him can seem like anyone else, a common grasshopper. The narrator says he will pity Fugio if the day comes when it seems the world seems full of nothing but grasshoppers and he has “no way to remember tonight’s play of light, when his name was written in green by his beautiful lantern on a girl’s breast.

Another interesting thing about the charming story is the number of adjectives and adverbs the author uses. Their frequent use defies some well-meant advice from some writing workshop participants on how to write effective short-short fiction. Those well-meaning advisors often recommend removing excess words—claiming there’s no need for double adjectives or adverbs. So it’s always refreshing to see a story that goes against the easy and too-often-repeated “rules” of writing these short pieces. Without the adjectives and adverbs, this story would most certainly be less magical. Kawabata provided just enough information to give the reader a sense of being in on the beautiful event taking place.

Something I like about certain stories is how they can sometimes imbue a common object with magic.  I have a cricket cage and have had it for years.  It has always been empty and has never meant much to me. It’s just one of those objects I’ve had for a long time. My cricket cage was without much meaning until I tried analyzing this story. Now when I see it I think of Fujio and Kiyoko and that night’s beautiful and creative play of light, and art, and innocent love.  Maybe my cricket cage was just waiting for a magical story to fill it.  This delicate, subtle story certainly fits well.


About the writer:
Pamelyn Casto,
 twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction: Tips from Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books and Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction. Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

About Yasunari Kawabata: Yasunari Kawabata is a Japanese novelist and short story writer and winner of the 1968 Nobel Prize in Literature.

Image: Grasshopper on Gourd Vine by Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891). Lacquer on paper. 7.5 x 6.5 inches. 1882. [Color adjusted.]  Public domain.

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