CM . . .
. Volume XXII Number 20. . . .January 29, 2016
With a long global history, folktales have traditionally been oral narratives that have served as a form of cultural dissemination for transmitting particular histories, values, or ideals to their respective audiences. Subsequently, these have manifested into other forms such as prose and drama. Influenced by these oral narratives and the motifs contained within them, writers have borrowed and integrated these into their own stories. In the contemporary context, many authors have retold ancient folktales, some perhaps largely forgotten, to increase people’s awareness of this cultural heritage and to revive them for readers to enjoy. In some instances, authors have chosen to modify or annotate the original tales so that they are more comprehensible to readers who may not be knowledgeable about the tales’ cultural, historical, or mythological references which audiences in the past may have known more readily.
Written by Rui Umezawa and illustrated by Mikiko Fujita, Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan consists of eight Japanese folktales retold for young readers. Umezawa’s satisfying and compelling renditions of these tales will attract young readers who will find their themes strikingly relevant and contemporary. Indeed, each tale’s title refers to a major theme or element that appears in the respective story. For example, a few titles, such as “Envy”, “Vanity”, and “Betrayal”, refer to human traits and behaviours each of which readers can grasp readily and make sense of in relation to their own knowledge and experiences. Other titles, such as “Snow” and “Paradise”, are more descriptive and evoke a particular setting or mood associated with the story.
As suggested by their respective titles, these tales explore human behaviours, such as addiction, bravery, greed, and envy, within the Japanese context. The protagonists exemplify these aspects through their thoughts or actions which are further enriched by Umezawa’s exploration of their motivations. Since the stories are short, Umezawa has limited space to develop these in depth, besides which he is also adapting previously told tales. However, this should not be discounted as a limiting factor since these tales are, to an extent, left open to interpretation and discussion.
For example, in “Paradise”, Taro initially finds the supposed underwater paradise to be attractive. However, over time Taro appears to become disillusioned and finds it suffocating, yet he seems saddened once he returns home. However, the reason for his sadness is open to interpretation since it could be due to a sense of regret or loss. Similarly, in “Snow”, the main character Minokichi forgets his promise to a supernatural being that he would never tell anyone about his encounter with it, but it is unclear why the spirit is angry that Minokichi has broken his promise. The backstory for this spirit has some ambiguity, and, as well, readers are provided with only a few intriguing details. Other unanswered questions would include why the spirit has spared Minokichi’s life earlier in the tale, although the tale hints that Minokichi reminds the spirit of her child.
As for “Envy”, a tale about a man whose misfortune appears to have plagued him his whole life, the initial sympathy that readers may feel for him will turn as the story progresses when it is shockingly exposed how manipulative and unrepentant he is for his actions. Even at the end of the story, he continues to feel that he has experienced injustice. The collection’s last story, “Betrayal”, is perhaps one of the darkest tales as it highlights that one cannot escape retribution for one’s immoral actions. Nevertheless, readers may still feel a bit of pity for the protagonist since his failings can potentially be found in any of us.
Since the tales contain some specific references to Japanese culture and mythology, it would have benefited readers, particularly those with limited knowledge of those contexts, if the book had included a glossary that defined unfamiliar words or culturally specific concepts. For example, it would be useful to know about the origins and characteristics of the tengu, which appears in “Vanity”, or the cultural significance of the Chrysanthemum Festival that is mentioned in “Honor”. The book’s “Afterword” does provide some information about these tales’ origins as well as Umezawa’s storytelling approach and intentions for retelling them, which will be useful for readers unfamiliar with these Japanese contexts and the folktale tradition. As Umezawa mentioned, all these stories would have been familiar to most Japanese people in the past since folktales were often cautionary tales with didactic messages circulated among communities. As a result, however, the characters would tend to serve as props representing good and evil in order to move the narrative along. Through his retelling of these Japanese folktales, Umezawa affirmed that the characters were rendered with more depth and that his intent “in fleshing out these characters was less to redeem them than simply to understand their perspectives” (p. 158).
Therefore, even if readers do not know these references, readers can still appreciate and relate to these adaptations of Japanese folktales because of their intriguing narratives, character development, and explorations of human behaviour. Indeed, these characters are compelling precisely because they are realistic portrayals of people with complex personalities and ambiguous motivations. Umezawa also depicts each of these tales’ otherworldly elements and beings in a more complex manner, whether they are spirits, demons, or other supernatural incarnations. They are not simply one-dimensional characters who act evilly or out of malice, but rather have other dimensions to their personalities, desires, and motivations.
For example, “Vanity” revolves around a narrator who fails to recognize his own faults and shortcomings, even as he remains confident in his own moral superiority. Even after others try to teach him a lesson, he still believes in his inherent goodness and generous capacity for love. As a result, his inability to see his own faults is tragic but certainly realistic. As another example, the tale “Captive” exemplifies the complexity of human motivations and personalities through Hakuryo. At first, he appears to be a fairly flat character—as a dour man who fishes and keeps many pets—but he is revealed to be a more complex person as the story progresses. When Hakuryo meets the supernatural being Otoki, he wants her to stay with him on earth. Perhaps it is love, at least partially, that causes Hakuryo to want Otoki to stay, but it is debatable whether this is the only reason. Because readers will see a similarity between her and the other animals that Hakuryo keeps at home, they may question his motivations for Otoki. This ambiguity makes Hakuryo’s character more interesting because he does seem to feel regretful when Otoki escapes.
Readers may also find elements of the stories familiar and may be reminded of folktales or fairy tales from Western traditions. For example, “Paradise” is about a young boy Taro who rescues a turtle from being bullied and is subsequently taken to an underwater kingdom where his wishes are fulfilled. However, he eventually feels discontented and wants to leave, but he is then given a cruel lesson once he returns. Readers may recognize a similarity between this tale and the well-known tale of Rip Van Wrinkle but in a Japanese context. Similarly, the story “Trickster” may prompt readers to think of the Trickster figure of First Nations narratives, a character which appears in various incarnations and is an ambiguous and paradoxical figure that defies categorization.
In a different sense, the story “Honour” may remind readers of similar narratives that are still popular today. “Honour” focuses on the two sworn brothers, Samon Hasabe and Akana Soemon, the latter someone Samon has rescued from illness. The story depicts the bond that grows between them and, subsequently, the measures that Samon takes to find the people responsible for Akana’s death. This general plot trajectory could arguably be a well-known and classic trope that has manifested in contemporary popular culture and that readers will recognize from other works and other contexts such as theatre and film. However, this story is striking for its complexity because Samon’s motivations for going after the people responsible for his brother’s death may not simply be about revenge but rather a desire for meting out justice.
Mikiko Fujita’s black-and-white pencil illustrations accompany these stories and contribute to their evocative and ghostly atmosphere. Subtle and softly drawn with intricate details, the illustrations portray a significant scene or character from the folktale. For example, the illustration accompanying the tale “Captive” highlights a pivotal moment from it, the point when Hakuryo watches Otoki dance for him before she escapes. The illustration for “Trickster” depicts the noodle vendor the pedlar meets while “Paradise” is prefaced by an underwater scene with the kingdom that Taro is taken to by the turtle. As this collection’s stories are based on ancient folktales, Fujita’s illustration style is appropriate as it evokes a sense of historicity.
For this folktale collection, the appropriate readership would be ages 12 and up because it contains some references to violence, death, poisoning, and other issues that could be unsuitable for a younger audience. However, if teachers or parents preface these stories with a suitable amount of context, younger children could still enjoy these tales. The book’s language and chapter-based format are also suitable for the age group.
Strange Light Afar would lend itself readily to discussion or analysis in a variety of educational contexts. Suitable for study in a public school setting, it could be incorporated into a social studies unit on Asian cultures and storytelling traditions or an English class as part of a unit on folktales and fairy tales. Alternatively, in an academic context, it would be worthwhile to examine these folktales’ representation of Japanese culture, such as within the context of a course about Asian literature, folklore, or young adult literature. Regardless of the educational context, it would be valuable for teachers to contextualize these tales with some understanding of the genre of folklore, folklore traditions, and Japanese culture. Doing so can encourage discussion on what these stories—as cultural artifacts or representations of Japanese culture and history—reveal about the people whom they represent. For example, such discussion points could focus on the fears, desires, and values that these tales articulate for Japanese communities, the extent to which these tales would have been told to different audiences or for different purposes through history, and the ways in which these tales may have evolved over time in the process of retelling them.
Readers can learn more about the author and illustrator from the following websites. Rui Umezawa’s Facebook page can be found at https://www.facebook.com/Rui-Umezawa-129767607072795/, while the illustrator Mikiko Fujita maintains an official website at http://www.mikikofujita.com/roripoppu/fujita_mikiko.html.
Huai-Yang Lim has a degree in Library and Information Studies. He enjoys reading, reviewing, and writing children’s literature in his spare time.
To comment on this title or this review, send mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any
other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.