Sunday, September 16, 2018

Once Upon a Pixel: Okami pt. 1

Hey, everybody!  If anyone’s been paying attention to my social media presence, you may know that I have been absolutely hooked on playing a game called Okami.  Now, this game came out years ago for the Wii and other systems of the day.  However, it was just recently rereleased on the Nintendo Switch virtual console as Okami HD.  It’s a great adventure game with fun gameplay, a unique art style and an interesting game mechanic involving a “celestial brush”.  You want to know the best part, though?  This game is absolutely filled with references to Japanese history, art and culture.  And of course that includes Japanese folk and fairy tales. 
I thought I’d go over a few of the tales referenced and how they manifest themselves in Okami.  The title of each will be a link connecting you to the actual story.  First though, we should start with the story that starts things off, one that’s more myth than folk tale.

In Shinto myth, the god Susano-o was kicked out of the dwelling place of the gods, Takamagahara, by his sister the great sun goddess Amaterasu.  When he ended up on Earth, he was near a river where he saw some chopsticks floating downstream.  Figuring that meant someone lived upstream, he followed the river until he found an elderly couple and their daughter Kushinada-hime who were very distraught.  They explained that Kushinada-hime was to be sacrificed to a monstrous serpent with eight heads and eight tails named Yamato-no-Orochi.  The couple had eight daughters and every year Yamata-no-Orochi came for one until Kushinada-hime was the only one left.  Susano-o tells the couple that if they’ll grant him Kushinada-hime’s hand in marriage, he will save her.  They agree.  Susano-o’s plan is a bit unique, involving Kushinada-hime being transformed into a comb and lots of very strong sake.  But it ends with Susano-o finding one of the Three Imperial Treasures of Japan (what?  I’m not giving the whole story away.  Like I said, click the link above).

The whole first part of Okami is based on this myth.  There are some differences, though.  In this case, Orochi was an evil that had been defeated before and been sealed away.  Generations ago, Orochi plagued the land, firing an arrow into the home of any woman he wanted sacrificed to him.  He was eventually defeated by a warrior named Nagi and a white wolf named Shiranui.  Now, the creature is released from the place where it was held so it may terrorize the countryside again.  There’s still a Susano-o figure though.  Susano is a descendant of Nagi in this game.  He’s also a bit of a stubborn buffoon, albeit an earnest one.  Kushi is the Kushinada-hime character, a young woman who brews sake in Kamiki Village (if you see her design, you’ll notice that her hair is distinctly comb-shaped).  As for Amaterasu?  That’s the player character.  Yeah, that’s right.  The main character in this game is the goddess of the sun, mother of all, in the form of a wolf.

“Issun-Boshi” is a story I’ve covered before on the blog here.  It’s sort of like a Japanese “Tom Thumb”.  A childless couple pray for a child only to have one born to them that is incredibly small.  The child grows older but not much bigger, and decides to go off and earn his fortune.  Taking a sewing needle as a sword, Issun-Boshi sails a rice bowl down to the city and gets a position as the personal attendant of a rich man’s daughter.  One day on the way to the temple, the daughter and Issun-Boshi are ambushed by an oni who swallows Issun-Boshi.  Issun-Boshi causes so much trouble in the monster’s guts that he throws him up and takes off, leaving his magic mallet behind.  The rich man’s daughter then uses the mallet to enlarge Issun-Boshi to full human size.

That actually is pretty much the whole story, but I needed to lay it all out to talk about all the references in the game.  From pretty much the beginning of the game, Amaterasu is given a companion to act as a dialogue proxy and also comic relief.  A tiny little guy referred to as “Wandering Artist Issun”.  And Issun is . . . well . . . kind of a pain in the ass, actually.  He’s loud and opinionated.  He’s boastful.  He scolds you if you screw up a challenge.  He also hits on pretty much every woman you meet in the course of the adventure.  But he does have a few uses.  At one point you have to sneak into the Emperor’s palace.  The only way to do that is to use a magic mallet to do the opposite of what it does in the story.  You shrink down to about Issun’s size and creep into the courtyard through a chink in the wall.  At that point, Issun becomes the expert on how to survive at bug size.  In another reference, Issun and Amaterasu do end up having to go into someone’s body.  The difference is that it’s not an oni this time, it’s the emperor.

“The Tongue-Cut Sparrow” is a story about a kind old woodcutter and his pet sparrow.  The woodcutter is married to an old woman who is greedy and cruel who hates the sparrow.  One day, after the sparrow ate the rice paste that she was going to use to starch her clothes, the old woman gets angry and cuts the tongue out of the sparrow’s beak (cruel as it is, I’m amazed at the old woman’s precision in doing that).  The sparrow flies away.  Later, the woodcutter finds the sparrow again in the woods and finds out that not only is the sparrow well with a newly restored tongue but that she’s actually a magical creature.  The woodcutter is welcomed into the sparrow’s home where he is entertained all evening.  He leaves the next morning with a choice of two boxes to take away as gifts, one big and small.  He chooses the smaller one.  When the woodcutter’s wife discovers he left behind the bigger box, she goes to the sparrow’s home to get it.  She later discovers that may not have been such a good idea.

During the first part of the game, you may discover two different places.  One is a cottage with a palpable aura of evil around it and a rather creepy and dangerous old lady out front.  The other is a place called Sasa Sanctuary, an inn and hot spring resort run by giant sparrows.  You find out in short order that the youngest daughter of the Sparrow Clan is being held by the old woman and her husband.  Using a certain set of circumstances, Amaterasu is able to enter the house and reveal the old couple’s true forms as a pair of Crow Tengu.  After defeating them, the young sparrow is freed and you get access to all of Sasa Sanctuary which is very helpful in game.  So, it’s a little different.  This time, not only is the old woman awful, she’s an actual monster.  As is her husband, who is not the kind woodcutter of the tale.  However, there is a guest at the Sasa Sanctuary inn who comments that he helped a sparrow once and that he felt their hospitality was him being repaid for it.  And that word is probably the biggest connection for the sparrows themselves: hospitality.  It may not be a simple home in the woods, but the inn at Sasa Sanctuary is an amped up expression of the hospitality that the sparrow showed the woodcutter in the folk tale.

The story of “The Bamboo Cutter” is a rather magical and touching story about a bamboo cutter who finds a tiny little girl inside a stalk of bamboo and raises her as his own.  As the girl, Kaguya,  grew older and became more beautiful, suitors pursued her but she wanted nothing to do with them.  Until the time came when she had to leave and go back to the Moon Kingdom where she was originally from.  If you’ve seen the Studio Ghibli film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, then you know what story I’m talking about.  Also, the Australian Fairy Tale Society had been focusing on this tale just recently.

Through the first part of the game, you’ll run into a man named Mr. Bamboo frequently.  Mr. Bamboo is a craftsman who makes things out of, you guessed it, bamboo.  In many of your encounters with Mr. Bamboo, you’ll be in situations in which you’ll have to cut open a glowing stalk of bamboo.  This is a direct callback to how the Bamboo Cutter found Kaguya and the treasures sent down by the Moon Kingdom.  A little while later you meet the in-game version of Kaguya, who is Mr. Bamboo’s adoptive granddaughter, in the emperor’s palace where she’s being held against her will.  This is another callback, this time to the part in the tale when the emperor tried to marry Kaguya himself.  Amaterasu and Issun free her only to assist her later in the bamboo grove behind Sasa Sanctuary to dig up . . . a giant bamboo-shaped rocket.  Hey, I didn’t say these were completely serious takes on these tales.  It is a rather unique take on the tale’s Kaguya-hime and her origins on the moon.  Another interesting thing you might notice is Kaguya’s design.  The bamboo part is obvious, but did you notice the little “rabbit ear” like protrusions on her head.  This also alludes to her origins on the moon.  In China and Japan, rabbits are associated with the moon because of a pareidolia (the psychological phenomenon of interpreting a pattern where none exists) that sees the shape of a rabbit using a mortar and pestle on the moon’s surface.  Where Americans see the face of “the man in the moon”, the Japanese see a rabbit (see also Sailor Moon aka Usagi, whose long pigtails make her look kind of like a lop-eared rabbit).


I’m not even done yet.  This one’s going to have to be a two-parter.  Keep an eye out for the second half where I highlight four more stories that make cameo appearances in Okami.

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Fairy Godbrothers.

Well folks, if you ever wanted to see a raunchy, violent, M-rated, “not safe for work” fairy tale comic, have I got the thing for you!

Fairy Godbrothers, Volume One: Tooken was brought to us by writer Ken Kristensen and artist M.K. Perker.  The book is published by Adaptive Comics.
The comic stars two brothers named Sean and Marcus.  They were seemingly normal kids who grew up with their German immigrant father who ran an ice cream shop.  One day while preparing ice cream treats for the boys and their friends, the father suffers a massive stroke and dies right in front of them.  Years later as adults, Sean and Marcus are still effected by their father’s death.  Sean has become an uptight businessman consumed by work as he tries to turn his father’s shop Magic Castle Ice Cream into a worldwide brand.  Marcus, on the other hand, spends his days and nights in a haze of alcohol, drugs and sex.  This is how it goes until the day of Sean’s big deal when an accident with their father’s antique (and apparently magic) clock sends them into a realm of (rather dirty and dismal) fairy tales.

This comic, man.  How to describe this comic?

It’s like someone attempting to create the fairy tale equivalent of the movie Deadpool. 

I mean, we’ve had fairy tale comics that were for “Mature Readers” before, like Fables.  But Fables was a rather mature approach to “Mature Readers”.  Fairy Godbrothers feels more like an immature approach to “Mature Readers”.

This comic doesn’t seem to shy away from any chance to show the fairy tale world as being dark, dirty and a bit depressing once you cut through the humor.  From three pigs who can’t afford to build houses out of bricks to a cracked-up Humpty Dumpty begging to be put out of his misery to an expectant Rapunzel who seems willing to knock boots with whoever climbs into her tower.

But you know, Sean and Marcus’s bickering as they journey through the fairy tale land to find the Fairy Godmother and be sent home does lend the story a fair bit of levity (hence why I compared it to Deadpool instead of something more serious).  Also, the character work for those two and how they deal with their estrangement and messed up emotions does have some potential.  There’s also an interesting bit about how the darkness of the real world and the darkness of the fairy tale world reflect each other (suggesting that this may also be a way for the creators to vent about the state of the world).

I’m going to say that this one definitely isn’t for everyone, but I’m pretty sure there’s an audience for it.  And there are some interesting bits beyond just the dark and raunchy bits.  If this is your kind of thing, check it out.  I’d also suggest keeping an eye open for volume two just to see if any of that potential pays off.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Rumpelstiltskin (1987)

Okay, I’m going to admit, the loss of the poll widget has been a bit of a blow for the Cannon Movie Tales project.  Going forward, the polls will now have to be done via social media.  Look for the Fairy Tale Fandom page on Facebook or my personal account @FolkTaleGeek on Twitter.
Anyway, on to the next movie chosen by you, my amazing readers (all one of you who voted.  Come on folks, I know you’re out there).

That movie is 1987’s Rumpelstiltskin.  Here, have a trailer video:
Now, I’ve never been particularly fond of the story of “Rumpelstiltskin” and I’ve never been able to really put my finger on why but I think I’ve finally figured it out.  None of the characters are all that likable.  The title character is the villain.  The miller is a liar.  The king is greedy.  And while the Grimms don’t do too badly by way of the miller’s daughter, there are some variants that introduce her as either lazy or a glutton.  Even in the Grimms’ version, you have to question her sense of judgment.  Almost every character leads with their worst foot forward, and that’s saying something in a fairy tales where characters get very little characterization.

But let’s get back to the movie version.

All the Cannon Movie Tales have at least one big name marquee star in them to lead the production.  For Rumpelstiltskin, that star is the one and only Amy Irving.  Ah, yes, Amy Irving.  From such famous films as . . . um [checks IMDB] . . . Carrie and Yentl and Deconstructing Harry.

Okay, I’m going to admit something.  I’m not the biggest expert on Hollywood stars.  Also, this movie was from thirty years ago.  It’s possible she was a bigger star then.  According to what I’m reading online, she is still acting in movies and on stage though, which is pretty good for any actor.

One actor that I recognize a lot more readily is Billy Barty who plays Rumpelstiltskin himself.  Barty was one of those little person actors who absolutely had fantasy dwarf roles nailed down back in the ‘80s.  If you’re a fan of genre films from that decade, you’d probably recognize him the minute you saw him or heard his voice.  He was in Legend.  He was in Willow.  He was also in a whole bunch of other movies for Cannon Films/Golan-Globus like Snow White and Masters of the Universe.

The plot is fairly standard for a “Rumpelstiltskin” retelling, just stretched out with some songs and some elaboration on events.  There are some little changes toward the end, including ones that involve added characters like Rumpelstiltskin’s pet magpie and a little mute girl.

In this case, I’m not sure fidelity is really a strong point.  Remember how I said the characters don’t seem all that likable in the tale of “Rumpelstiltskin”.  Well, that’s the case for a lot of them here too.  The miller is still a liar.  The king is still greedy and so is his queen this time.  Rumpelstiltskin is still the villain and they elaborate that he wants a child to serve as a slave for him (though, at least he’s entertaining).  As for Katie, the miller’s daughter?  Well, they try but the character shoots herself in the foot pretty much from the beginning.  You see, Katie starts out by singing a song entitled “When I’m Queen of the Castle” that’s all about her wanting to live a life of ease.  It makes her seem kind of lazy and selfish.  It might have worked if they had established that her life was unusually hard, but it's the first we see of her.  Really, one of the saving graces of this film is they split the greedy king character from the fairy tale into two characters.  In the fairy tale, the king wants the miller’s daughter to spin straw into gold and when she does it three times, he marries her.  In the movie, there’s the greedy king who makes her spin the straw and his son the prince who she marries.  The prince isn’t a bad guy, even if he’s not particularly interesting.  For some reason, he spends a good chunk of the movie pretending to be a palace guard to befriend and woo Katie, which might have made for an interesting love story in more capable hands.  They don’t even do anything interesting with the king now that he’s been changed into a secondary villain.  There’s no depth or nuance to him.  He has a song entitled “I’m Greedy” that basically sums up his entire motivation but that’s it.
I’m going to be honest here, this movie is missable.  While the other Cannon Movie Tales I’ve looked at were flawed but had some little things to make them interesting, this one really doesn’t.  It’s slow.  It’s relatively dull.  The characters aren’t very likable.  You won’t be missing much if you don’t watch this one.  Unless you’re the world’s biggest Billy Barty fan or something.

Anyway, that’s it for this movie.  Remember to vote for the next Cannon Movie Tale you want me to tackle on the Fairy Tale Fandom Facebook page or on my home Twitter account @FolkTaleGeek.

Until next time.

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Master-Thief.

Though I am partial to the classics, I do try to read an assortment of different things.  I mean, a mind can’t survive on just folk tales and children’s books.  Just recently I indulged in some classic crime fiction.  The adventures of Maurice LeBlanc’s gentleman thief character Arsene Lupin.  Lupin’s an amazingly crafty criminal with his own code of honor and a heart that he hides behind a veneer of whimsy and arrogance.  He’s hardly the only character of this type, though.  Italian comics have Diabolik.  More contemporary English literature has Simon Templar, also known as The Saint.  And those of us who grew up reading American superhero comics in the ‘90s can’t forget about Remy LeBeau, the X-Man known as Gambit.
Monsieur Arsens Lupin
What I’d nearly forgotten is that the Brothers Grimm also contributed a crafty purloiner of possessions to the greater culture.  If you take a copy of Grimm’s Fairy Tales and you turn towards the back end of the book, you might come across a tale simply titled “The Master-Thief"

(there’s apparently a Norwegian version of this tale too, which I am discovering right now).

The story opens with a man and his wife at a ramshackle house.  Suddenly a carriage drawn by four black horses comes up and a richly dressed man descends from it.  Taking the man for a nobleman, they ask what they can do for him.  He says he would just like to taste a peasant dish and asks for a potato dish the way country-folk make.  The peasant woman goes to make the potatoes and the nobleman goes into the back with the man where he has been planting trees.  They start talking about family and the peasant man says that he used to have a son who was clever but a ne’er do well who was full of bad tricks.  The son apparently went off into the world years ago.  His father would hardly recognize him today except for maybe a birthmark on his shoulder in the shape of a bean.  They then talk about gardening and the “nobleman” asks why he doesn’t tie up an old, twisted tree in the garden.  The man responds that trees have to be trained when they are young to grow up “straight and narrow”.

You know what, let’s cut to the chase.  It turns out the nobleman actually is the man’s son, birthmark and everything.  The son is now, as he puts it, a “master-thief”.  To him, there are neither locks nor bolts, anything he desires is his.  He also makes a point of noting that he doesn’t steal from the poor.  He only takes some of the “superfluity of the rich”.  He also doesn’t steal anything that he could take too easily.  He only goes after that which he must acquire with “trouble, cunning and dexterity”.
So, it turns out this master-thief’s godfather is the Count of all the surrounding area, and he has a rather dim view of thieves.  His father even warns him that if the Count finds out, the thief would find himself swinging from a halter.
The thief doesn’t seem to think much of this warning, so he goes to the Count and tells him about his vocation himself.  The Count decides to deal with his godson with some leniency.  Instead of sending him straight to the gallows, he sets three challenges for him and if he fails any of the three he’ll hang.

Those challenges are:

1) To steal the Count’s personal riding horse right out of the stables.

2) To steal the bed sheet out from under the Count and his wife, as well as his wife’s wedding ring.

3) To steal the parson and the clerk out of the church.

I’m not going to spoil how he pulls off these daring heists, because that’s the fun part.  I will say that they involve disguises, cunning, mistruths and misdirection.  And surprisingly no killing.  That’s not often the case in stories like this.

But I think all this begs the question: Why do we like rogues?  (Pretty sure I covered this in my Robin Hood post, but stick with me anyway because I’m on a roll).
Rogues and thieves appear in folklore from all over the place.  I know of examples from Europe and Asia, but it wouldn’t surprise me if there were a few in Africa and Latin America too.  Jack is a bit of a rogue in his most famous outing, considering he steals from a giant.  Then there are the legendary figures like Robin Hood and Ishikawa Goemon.  Heck, the American West is infamous for making legendary heroes out of real life criminals like Billy the Kid.  It especially feels strange when rogues are in fairy tales.  Of course, that’s because we’ve had a couple centuries of people trying to turn them into moralistic stories for children.  “The Master-Thief” is more folk tale than fairy tale because there’s no magic in it, but it would still receive the same attention by proximity.

I think, on some level, there’s a part of everyone that wants to buck the rules of society.  This could especially be true for times and situations where those rules seem to hold people back or keep them down.  Those situations where the rich seem to get richer beyond all need and the poor get poorer .  Lately, there seems to be a lot of that going around.  It’s especially appealing when the rogue in question doesn’t seem all that bad to begin with.  When the rogue breaks one big societal rule but follows his own rules that are understandable and sympathetic like “no stealing from the poor” or “no killing people”.  Or if the end result is some degree of wealth redistribution like it is with Robin Hood.  Folk tale characters aren’t known for their depth, but just this much nuance can elevate a character enough to significantly make them more interesting.

Well, whatever it is, I like “The Master-Thief” and I’m glad to add him to the secret stash.