When I first discovered eBooks years ago, my first source was Project Gutenberg. Although the collection was vast, I had little interest in hoary tomes on architecture written in the 1800s, or obscure dissertations on sundry subjects written by long dead authors on long dead issues.
However, the genres I loved hadn’t come to exist yet in books available to the public domain. Project Gutenberg has improved since those early days, but if you were interested in fantasy, all that was available was fairy and folk tales. Japanese Fairy Tales is one of the first eBooks I discovered.
The book was written in 1908 by Yei Theodora Ozaki, but the version available to the public domain lacked the illustrations that originally were published with it. This year, WestPub published a new version with the Japanese illustrations by “Tokio” artist, Kakuzo Fujiyama, included. I eagerly snapped it up and review it for you today.
Inspired “indirectly” by public domain folklore superstar, Andrew Lang, Ozaki translated and westernized many traditional Japanese tales taken from even older books from the early 1800s and earlier, some not considered fairy tales by academia at the time. It is hard to imagine the 10th century “Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” (Taketori Monogatari, called “The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child” in this collection) not considered as a fairy tale, but such was the case in 1908. These are the types of insights one gains from mining Project Gutenberg.
With the help of colleagues, Ozaki put together twenty-two tales for Western enjoyment. As with any collection, there are gems and turds to be found, and it usually depending on your taste.
Although I found all of them to be exotic and refreshing compared to the European traditions I am accustomed to, there were a few that stood out. First, may I say “Fie! Fie! Fie!” upon Prince Yamato. What a putz. If there is one story that is guaranteed to rankle modern audiences, it is this one.
Let’s focus instead on “The Bamboo-cutter and the Moon-child”. This is a classic, and Ozaki’s rendition is nice. “The Story of the Man Who Did Not Wish To Die” is an equally old tale that hints at its Chinese origins by appropriating the original cast and placing them in Japan for a Japanese hero to interact with.
These tales are filled with princes and princesses like Western tales, and some are very reminiscent of Western tales like “The Story of Princess Hase”, which is very Snow White-like. However, since Japan is filled with coastal communities, many tales involve the ocean and its denizens, and are far removed from Western traditions. There are also anthropomorphic animals in the Eastern tradition, like talking hares and sagacious monkeys. Many tales feature the elderly, as well as themes of repentance and revenge.
The imagery of the tales is quite poetic and beautiful at times. Here is a striking passage from “The Story of Urashima Taro, the Fisher Lad”:
Strange to say only a beautiful little purple cloud rose out of the box in three soft wisps. For an instant it covered his face and wavered over him as if loath to go, and then it floated away like vapor over the sea.
It is a striking story with a sad ending and very different from Western traditions in its attention to imagery. Other tales stand out, like “How an Old Man Lost His Wen” for humor and “The Ogre of Rahomon” for adventure and derring-do, all illustrated beautifully with old fashioned Japanese illustrations before Disney inspired Tezuka and manga reigned supreme. I highly recommend fans of fairytales and folklore seek out this edition of Japanese Fairy Tales.
Original Release Date: 1903 (USA)
Publisher: WestPub (though many publishers have released it)
Alcohol/Drugs: 1 (sake/wine is consumed)
Violence: 1 (enemies were vanquished, and some people died. Also, there was that wen…)