The Rooster and the Dancing Girl (Niwatori to Odoriko) by Kawabata Yasunari, 1926

views updated

by Kawabata Yasunari, 1926

The short story's appeal has depended on its brevity and intensity. In this way it can produce emotion and meaning whether in shaping a plot, creating a character, or producing a mood. In terms of length, however, its range is relatively wide. At its briefest it can range from 500 to 2, 000 words (in which case it is called a short-short story). At its longest it can amount to 7, 000 or 8, 000 words (a novella, or short novel). Prominent practitioners of the short-short story in English included Edgar Allan Poe ("Shadow—A Parable" and "Silence—A Fable") and O. Henry ("The Gift of the Magi" and "The Furnished Room"). The Japanese Nobel Prize-winning author Kawabata Yasunari also wrote short-short stories.

Kawabata devised a unique kind of work. His stories (as with some of Poe's) are so poetic in style, so delicate in sensibility, and yet so coolly detached in their objectivity that if they are not prose poems they resemble them. In Japanese the short-short story is ordinarily called chopen shsetsu or kyo shsetsu. But Kawabata called his stories tenohira no shsetsu ("palm-of-the-hand stories"). Seventy-four of this type of story by Kawabata have been translated into English by Lane Dunlap and J. Martin Holman and appear in one volume titled Palm-of-the-Hand Stories.

The question of what Kawabata meant to convey by his so-called palm-in-the-hand story has some interesting implications. Certainly he considered the palm, a part of the hand, as a unit of measure, suggesting that one of his stories was condensed enough to be written on the palm of his hand. (The concept of hands, of course, has been used as a measure in determining the height of horses.) Second, Kawabata's idea suggests prestidigitation, or the use of sleight of hand that is quick, clever, and deceptive—as in the card or coin tricks of a stage musician. And third, the idea of palm suggests divination by palmistry (shusōjutsu), or the reading of the lines and marks of the human hand and the form of the fingers to determine intelligence, character, and the future. Many of Kawabata's stories end on a note of prophecy—as is the case with "The Rooster and the Dancing Girl" ("Niwatori to Odoriko").

In "The Rooster and the Dancing Girl" a teenage girl living in Tokyo has completed her dance training and is rehearsing at a theater in the district of Asakusa, TaitWard, preparatory to making her debut before a public audience. The girl lives with her mother somewhere near Hong Avenue in Bunky Ward, which is west of Tait Ward, and when walking to Asakusa goes from Hong Avenue eastward into Kototoi Avenue and her destination.

At home the girl's mother raises chickens and naturally employs roosters, or cocks, as well as hens to produce eggs and chicks. The mother visits her daughter in her dressing room at the theater to inform her that one of the roosters crowed at night. Such an action by a rooster is regarded by the Japanese as an ill omen. To avoid a calamity the mother requests the dancing girl to carry the rooster to the Kannon Temple in Asakusa and to donate it as a sacred bird in honor of Kannon, a popular bodhisattva, and at the same time utter a prayer of supplication to the figure. Before carrying out her mother's request, the girl informs her that a strange man has been observing the windows of the room where the dancing girls shower, although the glass of the windows is frosted and the man can see nothing but drops of water. The next evening the girl carries the rooster to the Kannon Temple, sets it free, feels pity for the rooster, and prays. She is surprised to see four chickens roosting in a tall ginkgo tree.

On her way to the theater the next day she wonders what the rooster is doing and stops to see it at the Kannon Temple. The rooster approaches her. She runs and the rooster chases her. She blushes and people stare at them.

In several days the rooster regresses to a more primitive form and becomes wild, able to fly and swagger about the temple grounds. But the girl never passes in front of Kannon again, and "even if she had, the rooster had forgotten her," presumably because it had become its primitive ancestor, the red jungle fowl, Gallus bankiva, the indigenous fowl of India that was the ancestor of the Japanese chicken.

Now 20 chicks have hatched at the dancing girl's house, but again a rooster has crowed at night. Hence, her mother insists that the girl dispose of it at the Kannon Temple at Asakusa in the same manner as with the first prophetic rooster. The dancing girl smiles, for she had thought that her mother had discovered her secret. The girl thinks of the 20 chicks that have hatched and wonders if she might be allowed to have 20 men during her lifetime.

The prophecy of the rooster has nothing to do with the girl's desire for 20 men, but rather with the intrusion of the strange man, who represents evil. He approaches her when she is carrying the second rooster to Kannon Temple and proposes that she help him in a scheme to blackmail the male admirers of the dancing girls, who write them love letters. The girl tries to run away, but he grabs her. She shoves the rooster in his face; its flapping wings terrify him, and he flees.

The next morning the girl walks in front of Kannon, whereupon the rooster of the previous night comes running after her. This time she stifles a laugh and does not run away. When she returns to the dressing room at the theater, she instructs the other girls not to throw their love letters into the trash and thus protect public morality. Now it is suggested that she may turn out to be a great dancer.

Although the above summary is more or less straightforward, causal, and chronological, and may be practically useful, it is a complete distortion of Kawabata's own narrative structure. His narration frees instead of enclosing space, allowing it to be open-ended. It often ignores temporal sequence and the logic of cause and effect, presenting effect before cause and allowing events to occur by chance. Kawabata's narrative depends mainly on evocative images that are often symbolic and that are invested with mental and emotional energy, pictorial images often appearing on the screen of our consciousness like rapid snapshots in a TV commercial. The critic Masao Miyoshi has noted that Kawabata's narratives tend "to remain flexible and open-ended like individual verse-stanzas in a renga (linked poem)." Images require background, and background is important in Kawabata's writings.

Further, what "The Rooster and the Dancing Girl" is really about and what its significance is is not revealed in the above summary. The story is essentially about sexuality. It is about male and female, fertility, reproduction, propagation, polygamy, and voyeurism. Finally, it is about sexual maturity together with artistic maturity and creativity.

The sexuality begins with poultry raising. The mother raises chickens, and she requires her dancing daughter to associate with roosters, or cocks. In Japanese folk belief a rooster is a symbol of male vigor and courage. It can even ward off evil and be used for prophesying. In poultry raising its importance is acknowledged in the saying that it constitutes "one-half of the flock," for it is ordinarily mated with from 10 to 20 hens. It is polygamous and promiscuous.

The heroine of the story is a dancing girl. Her dancing consists of rhythmic and patterned bodily movements, usually performed to music. Although dancing can be a healthy form of entertainment, it can easily deviate, even in a ballroom environment, into eroticism that produces sexual arousal. Animals, birds, insects, and human beings engage in courtship or mating dances. The heroine is sexually aware and knows the role of the rooster: when chicks are born of her mother's flock, the girl thinks of the men she might have.

When the heroine carries the first rooster to the Kannon Temple and releases it on the grounds, she pities it and looks up into the ginkgo tree, where she sees four chickens roosting. The ginkgo tree, a deciduous tree prevalent in Southeast Asia, is sexually peculiar because its male flowers grow on separate trees from its female flowers, with pollen producing motile sperm cells in autumn. The dancing girl is a worshiper of the Buddhist bodhisattva Kannon, whose name means "the one who hears the cries of suffering beings." A bodhisattva is one who, having perfected himself to become a Buddha and to enter the state of nirvana, compassionately refrains in order to save others. In Japan Kannon is worshipped as a deity and hence is commonly referred to as the God or Goddess of Mercy, for Kannon can assume any incarnate form, male or female, according to the status of the worshipper. In representation Kannon was originally male but latterly began to take on a feminine appearance, so that in China from the eighth century (known as Kuan-yin) and in Japan from the tenth century the image of this deity became predominantly female. (The Kannon Temple at Asakusa is now called Senroji.) No image of Kannon is to be seen in the temple, for it is supposedly buried underneath the building. At any rate one can speak of the bisexuality of Kannon. In prewar Japan Asakusa was the seat of popular entertainment in Tokyo.

In sum, Kawabata's story is a fable showing the development of sexual and artistic maturity in a young dancing girl.

—Richard P. Benton

About this article

The Rooster and the Dancing Girl (Niwatori to Odoriko) by Kawabata Yasunari, 1926

Updated About content Print Article