Monday 3 June 2013

Japanese Fairy Tales

Yei Theodora Ozaki, 1903 [1970]
(May 2013)

The caption to the frontispiece reads as follows:

Prince Yamato Take bade his wife help him to attire himself like a woman

So right from the off you can be pretty sure of what you’re going to get.

Lots and lots of ‘traditional’ fairy and folk stories here, in what I suppose is something approaching their original forms. In the same manner as when you read any of the Western standards from before Disney got hold of them and knocked off the rough edges and straightened out the kinks, when you read these you are often taken aback slightly.

It’s not just the values dissonance engendered by culture and time, though there is that: wanting anything beyond your allotted position is wicked and will be punished swiftly and disproportionately; the ultimate ambition of any woman is to bear children; sons are brave, daughters are meek, and both are obedient; emperors are wise and benevolent; princesses are beautiful and marriageable; monkeys are twats.

“It–was–your–father’s fault–not–mine!” gasped the unrepentant monkey.
“Can you still lie? I will soon put an end to your breath!” and with that he cut off the monkey’s head with his pincher claws. Thus the wicked monkey met his well-merited punishment, and the young crab avenged his father’s death.
This is the end of the story of the monkey, the crab, and the persimmon seed.

The surprise is more how the narrative structure is, well… almost completely absent. For stories that are supposed to be ‘much loved’ and have apparently ‘stood the test of time’ you’d expect some sort of more traditional progression. Set-up, rising tension, dénouement. Beginning, middle, end. That sort of thing. But as you can see from the above quote, when the end does come it quite often seems like the narrator just couldn’t be arsed going on with the story any more.

I particularly like The Goblin of Adachigahara in this respect. The story is as follows: a travelling monk seeks shelter in a run-down shack, unaware that a goblin is rumoured to feast on the unwary thereabouts. The old crone who inhabits the shack offers him hospitality on the condition he doesn’t look in the back room. She goes out, he looks in the room, and of course there are piles of human remains. He runs away.

That’s it. He just legs it and the story finishes. I suppose discretion is the better part of valour, but after seeing so many characters in other stories get flat-out murdered simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time I was expecting the goblin to receive something more by the way of a comeuppance. So these, then, are a selection of unnervingly realistic morality tales for children; the moral being that there is no moral. Life is hard and random and unfair. Don’t make waves, and if things look dicey run like fuck in the other direction.

The centerpiece of this collection is, of course, Momotaro. A few months back I did a couple of substitute lessons in an elementary school, and one of the homeroom teachers wanted me to help the students practice for an English language version of Momotaro they were going to do as a play. While I’ve been here long enough to be aware of the name and its cultural significance (kind of a Jack and the Beanstalk and Wizard of Oz mash-up), it’s only when I got to the school that I realized I’d never actually read the story before, and had no idea what was about to happen. A quick google-powered bout of speed-reading ensued.

This kid is born out of a peach (“Paging Dr. Freud? Dr Freud?”), then collects a motley assortment of animals by bribing them with rice-cakes, then invades and subjugates an island populated by ‘devils’. That’s it in a nutshell/peach kernel. I can’t improve on Eryk’s suggested epilogue over at This Japanese Life, but having read that an unavoidable thought did strike me:

Momotaro is an allegory for America’s participation in the Pacific theatre of WWII. Momotaro is Douglas MacArthur.

I’m entirely serious. Consider –

An old man (Britain) and an old woman (France) are sad because they have no-one to help them till the fields in their old age (fight the Nazis). Then across the water (Atlantic) the old woman sees a juicy fruit (North America), out of which pops a child (America) whose youthful vigour puts the old folks to shame, for all that they admire its energy.

              “…Your cry has been heard and I am here to be the son of your old age!”
              On hearing this the old man and his wife were very happy. They had cried night and day for sorrow at having no child to help them in their lonely old age.”

Momotaro/America/MacArthur sets off to fight, because, “…far away from here… there is an island in the sea. This island is the stronghold of a band of devils. I have often heard how they invade…, kill and rob the people, and carry off all they can find.”

Before reaching the Island of Devils, he assembles a group of strange and desperate allies (Oppenheimer, Von Neuman, Stalin), sweetening the deal with liberal distribution of rice-cakes (Lend-Lease).

He journeys across the sea to the island, and once he arrives he launches airborne attacks prior to a ground assault:

              At last he called the pheasant:
“It is a great advantage to have you with us,” said Momotaro to the bird, “for you have good wings. Fly at once to the castle and engage the demons to fight”

              They soon came upon two beautiful damsels washing clothes… they saw that the clothes were blood-stained… He stopped and spoke to them:
              “Who are you and why do you weep?”
              “We are the captives of the Demon King. We were carried away from our homes to this island, and… we are obliged to be his servants... and the maidens held up the blood stained clothes…”

              “Momotaro’s onslaught was so furious that the devils could not stand against him… The chief of the devils at last… made up his mind to surrender, for he knew his enemy was stronger than mortal man.
              He came humbly up to Momotaro and threw down his iron bar, and kneeling down at the victor’s feet…
              “I am afraid of you,” he said meekly. “I cannot stand against you. I will give you all the treasure hidden in this castle of you will spare my life!”
              Momotaro laughed.
              “It is not like you, big devil, to beg for mercy, is it? I cannot spare your wicked life, however much you beg, for you have killed and tortured many people…”

              The[y]… carried home the plunder, and thus Momotaro returned triumphantly to his home… to live in peace and plenty to the end of their days.

OK, so maybe the last line doesn’t quite ring true, but it’s a pretty good fit otherwise, don’t you think?


  1. Narrative structure? Have you not read anything by Japanese? Endured speeches?

    Do like the MacArthur analogy, but you poor Brits cannot get over pissing away your empire. Be glad of it. It's going to sink the Americans worse.

    1. True, but these are kids stories. They're traditionally less tolerant of vague bollocks. Or so I thought...

      There's actually a bit I missed out, where Momotaro argues with the old man about wanting to leave home. It's not explicit, but it's made pretty clear that it's the intervention of the old woman that tips the balance. I figured that would just muddy the waters for the rest of the metaphor though ;)

  2. Darn skippy.
    I'm going to tell this one to the wife next time she reads Momotaro with the kids; I expect everyone to poop themselves.

    1. Well, as long as you don't expect me to clear up the mess.

  3. As soon as I started reading this, I was thinking Momotaro. The ending is so freaken unsatisfying. He beats the monsters because they are shitfaced! Also, you missed out the best part - it's not just rice cakes it's kibi-dango. I dunno why but that just sounds so much more fun to say. I stayed overnight in Okayama, the supposed home of Momotaro and had to buy the kibi-dango omiyage!

    The absolute worst Japanese story, although it's a true one, is the stupid freaken 47 ronin. I feel a ranty post coming on about that.

    Btw have you read Naomi by Junichio Tanizaki? I read it a few years ago and I'm not really one to go into the layers of meaning behind a story but was really curious about it. Everything I could find talked about it as a story of obsessive love but it's got to be more than that.

    1. Kibi-dango is glorious fun to say, isn't it? But they're called 'rice cakes' in this book, so I figured I better stick to the source as closely as possible lest I undermine the whole MacArthur thing.

      Please rant about the ronin. I always enjoy your ranty posts :)