Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Back to Fairy Tale School.

September is going to be here in a couple of weeks.  Soon, America’s young people are going to be returning to school.  And if our current children’s pop culture is to be believed, so will many famous fairy tale characters and their descendants.

Time to hit the books!
As of right now, the list of television, toy, book and internet properties that use the “fairy tale high school “ trope (or some variation of it) consists of:

  • Ever After High (Mattel, 2013)
  • Fairy Tale High (S-K Victory, 2013)
  • Disney’s Descendants  (2015)
  • Teenage Fairytale Dropouts (2013)
  • Regal Academy (2016)
  • The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani (2013)
  • Grimmtastic Girls series by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams (2014)
  • Fairy Tale Reform School series by Jen Calonita (2015)
  • The Ever Afters series by Shelby Bach (2012) [note: this one is actually more of an elementary After School Program]
  • Happily Ever After High School by Savannah Ostler (2015)
Mind you, these are just the ones I know about right now and some of them may have already run their course.  However, for so many variations of this one concept to appear over the course of four years is a bit mind-boggling.  One could assume that for many it’s an attempt to feed off of the success of Mattel’s popular Ever After High line.  However, only two of them, Fairy Tale High and Disney’s Descendants, ever seemed positioned to even compete with Ever After High on their home turf of the doll aisle.  The newest one of these is Regal Academy, an Italian series by the same folks that gave the world Winx Club.  The show had its US premiere on Nickelodeon this past Saturday.

Children’s media is no stranger to the “stick a selected genre in a high school setting” concept.  Though, it’s usually more spread out than this.  Also, in my experience, the genres in question are usually classic monsters or superheroes (two other things I’m very fond of).  Though, schools for ninjas, spies and of course wizards are hardly unheard of.  There was almost a Batman series entitled Gotham High once.  Heck, there was almost a Muppet High series (come to think of it, if they existed I might have actually watched them).

Of the ten properties listed above, I have some degree of experience with about seven of them, even if it’s just one episode.  The odd ones out are The Ever Afters, Grimmtastic Girls and Fairy Tale Reform School (I don't have much time to read middle grade novels).  You may recall that I’ve touched on the other properties before HERE, HERE and HERE.

But how do we judge these things and how do we compare them?  In my experience, many of them have good points, bad points and points that just make me scratch my head.

I gave the first book in Soman Chainani’s The School for Good and Evil series a positive review way back when.  I liked the way it played with fairy tale archetypes and put them to use within a high school setting.  At the same time, I gave Happily Ever After High School more of a negative review for its various flaws.  By the same token, I didn’t think Disney’s Descendants was all that great, but I thought it was so basically harmless that it was hard to really condemn it.  It also gets points just for trying to do this kind of thing in live action.  Teenage Fairytale Dropouts, a Mexican/Irish/Australian/American co-production based loosely on the Mexican animated film Magos y Gigantes was more comedy oriented than many of the others (not that any of them are serious drama).  The series focused on Jeremiah, a giant who is only five feet tall, Fury, the wingless daughter of the Tooth Fairy and Trafalgar, Merlin’s cocky but magically inept nephew, as they tried to navigate high school in the town of Fairy Tale Estates.  From the clips I’ve seen, could actually be pretty funny in spots.  That, however, didn’t stop it from being cancelled before playing out its full run on US TV.

But like I said, many of them have real head-scratcher moments.  The Fairy Tale High line seems to consist entirely of a (probably discontinued by now) doll line and two computer animated youtube videos.  The first video of the two sets the characters up at (and here’s the head-scratching part) a school for music and the performing arts.  A place that the narrator claims is “perfect for young princesses in training”.  I guess maybe they thought all the singing and dancing in Disney movies was a part of their royal duties.  Disney’s Descendants has the head-scratcher of trying to explain how all the different “Disney Kingdoms” got amalgamated into the country of Auradon.  You know, Kingdoms like 20th Century London (101 Dalmatians), China (Mulan), France (Beauty and the Beast) and others.  Essentially, King Beast straight-up took over the world.  And one that’s been bugging me more and more has popped up in both Regal Academy and The School for Good and Evil: they have characters perform magic that probably shouldn’t be able to.  There’s only been one episode of Regal Academy, but the main character Rose Cinderella has already been given a wand that allows her to do “pumpkin magic” (which makes it sound more like she's related to the fairy godmother).  In The School for Good and Evil, characters do magic by using their “fingerglow” (basically, they point at stuff and magic happens).  The confusing thing is that protagonists in fairy tales usually don’t do magic, magical things just happen to them and they deal with it.

Probably the standard-bearer at this time for such a thing is Mattel’s Ever After High line.  What started as a line of fashion dolls has also spun off a series of books (by Shannon Hale of all people), direct-to-DVD movies and internet based cartoons.  And I will admit, the animated bits are kind of a guilty pleasure of mine (remember I mentioned a guilty pleasure watch in my YouTube post last week).  I think the series has some thematic “oomph” in the fact that it deals with the idea of destiny vs choice to an extent.  The series can also be rather clever in spots (I still love how the Mad Hatter’s daughter can hear the narrators because she’s crazy).  There’s also something about the designs.  Yes, they are kind of ridiculous on the surface and no real human being would dress like them.  However, I love how many of the characters look like they’re trying to cosplay as an entire story.  The character of Briar Beauty (daughter of Sleeping Beauty) typically wears things patterned with thorns and a pair of shades that kind of looks like a sleep mask.  The Crumm Cousins (children of Hansel and Gretel) have candy patterns on their clothes.  Still others look like an odd mash-up of fairy tale and modern high school.  Daring Charming’s princely garb also looks an awful lot like a varsity letterman’s jacket.  And yet, there are still those odd bits.  For example, the familial connections that were so important to so many of the original tales seem to be gone here.  The daughter of Snow White and the daughter of the Evil Queen know each other but are unrelated in this series.  Combining that with the whole notion of them preparing to play out the same stories as their parents sometimes gives the whole thing a strange air of performance.  As if the characters are all actors prepping to take part in some lifetime-long pantomime.

These properties though, are all intended for young people ages 6-11.  So, they’re counting on them not sweating the details.

I can probably go on for a while about the esoteric bits of these different properties.  However, by now it’s probably best to tackle one of the big questions: Why?  Why combine fairy tales with high school?

Beyond the tendency to use the “high school” setting by cartoon writers anyway and the fact that a young audience can relate to going to school, I imagine some degree of it is a synthesis of other pop culture factors.  The Harry Potter series proved fantastical school settings can be popular.  The popularity of the Shrek movies showed that people would be interested in comedic fairy tale mash-ups.  But maybe there’s more to it than simply imitating a popular property and the formula of (Harry Potter+Shrek=Money).  I’ve said before that I often see fairy tales as stories of transformation.  Well, many people see high school as that too.  Though human beings tend to change and evolve every day of our lives, adolescence is often considered to be a period of the most dramatic change.  That’s why there’s an entire genre that’s comprised of stories set during this period of life: the coming-of-age story.  So, combining the transformative process of surviving a fairy tale with that of surviving high school could work.  I don’t mind the trope itself since it’s rarely played all that seriously.
And you know, the idea itself sounds fun at least from a character creation standpoint.  The whole bit where you mash up fairy tale archetypes with character types out of The Breakfast Club.  And I bet fairy tale fans like us could come up with some interesting ones.  Like, what would Bluebeard be like as a teenager?  Or the Girl with the Silver Hands?  Or Vasilisa the Beautiful?

I’ve got an idea I’m just going to throw out there.  Let’s see what high school-ified takes we can come up with for fairy tale characters both famous and obscure.  You can do it in the comments below but I’d also like to see if we could get something going on social media.  So, you can also post them on the Fairy Tale Fandom Facebook page.  (I think the character limit might make this too hard to do on Twitter).  Also, as usual, I am interested in your thought on the post itself too.

Until next class period, this is the Fairy Tale Geek signing off.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Fairy Tube.

So, when I was on vacation last week I received an e-mail from someone who wanted me to check out a YouTube video they made that mashed up the Olympics with fairy tale characters.  The idea being that maybe I could pass the link to my devoted readers.  Well, the concept seemed interesting so I clicked over to Kingdom Games on the Fantasy Fitness channel and . . . I wasn’t particularly impressed.  Maybe because it’s really more people in Disney cosplay pretending to participate in sports but it just didn’t do much for me.  Maybe you folks will have a different reaction.

But I thought that maybe I’d use this chance to promote some of the fairy tale related stuff I’ve run across on YouTube.  I’ve already done a little of that in the post I made for the Beauty and Beast teaser, but I thought it would be nice to have a proper post about it. 
 Now, I’m going to admit it: about 90% of fairy tale stuff you’ll come across on YouTube is Disney related.  I could be wrong, seeing as YouTube is an unusually vast platform.  However, even Disney related content can be good (even if we get a little tired of it being, y’know, everywhere).

Disney is often a draw for singers on YouTube and one of my favorites to get into the whole “Disney Princess song” thing recently is Evynne Hollens.  Evynne Hollens is the wife of the equally musical Peter Hollens (who I like for his folk song acapellas).  One thing I like about Evynne’s Disney song videos is that after the first few she’s added a certain variety to them.  Her Pocahontas, Mulan and Brave videos were notable mostly for the singing and the locations.  However, after that she started changing it up.  The Enchanted video had a story to it, with her husband playing a key role.  Her Cinderella video was a mash-up of “A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes” and “New Romantics” by Taylor Swift.  And her Snow White video turned out to be a mother/son video with her little son playing the part of the prince and filmed at the Enchanted Forest amusement park in Oregon (remind me to write a post on fairy tale amusement parks someday).  She even sang with a real jazz band for her Princess and the Frog video.  If you want to see any of them, click over to her Disney Collection.

Another favorite for YouTube musicians is music from the musical Into the Woods (which I know has a Disney connection now, but the music predates it.  One favorite is Nick Pitera’s “One Man Into the Woods” medley.  Violinist Lindsey Stirling also made a medley, sponsored by Disney when the movie came out.  Also, for some reason I just love this video of people lip-synching the song “Your Fault” in a car.  I can’t explain it. 

I’d be remiss to not talk about storytellers on YouTube as well.  One of my favorite story telling vloggers is Dael Kingsmill, formerly of the Geek and Sundry vlogs channel.  She tells a lot of stories from mythology, but she also has a series of fairy tale videos she refers to as Faerie Daels.  I’m also going to plug Story by Story here which is a show by the storytelling guild I’m a member of.  They tell all sorts of stories.  You can even hear me tell “Kate Crackernuts” and “How Six Men Got on in the World”.

There are also some literary webseries that fairy tale fans might like.  One I like is The New Adventures of Peter and Wendy.  It’s based on Peter Pan but reimagines it as a commentary about growing up and being a functional adult in the modern world.  For more traditional fairy tale fans, there’s Grimm Reflections.  If any of these interest you, there are even more interesting ones that aren’t necessarily based on fairy tales and children’s literature on the master list at Tell Me a Tale.
There are also some fun animations like the How it Should Have Ended Kids channel’s Fixed Fairy Tales.  There’s also the far less kid-friendly Twisted Fairy Tales which are told by the one and only William Shatner. 

I think it’s also best to mention the stuff that maybe shouldn’t be up on YouTube but is anyway.  Yes, I know that copyright infringement isn’t a good thing and I try to avoid it whenever I can.  However, some of this stuff has been up there forever, which means that the real owners don’t seem to have any interest in taking it down.  It’s also often the only place you can find this stuff.  I’ve already pointed people to stuff like Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics in past posts.  But how about looking back at the time ABC tried to make a sitcom based on Snow White back in the ‘80s, The Charmings.  Or maybe you want to revisit the Muppet specials that were based on fairy tales like Hey Cinderella or The Frog Prince.  As far as I know, YouTube is the only place to do it.

Well, that’s more than enough for now.  I’ve pretty much inundated you with links.  There is one more kind of YouTube fairy tale video that’s a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, but I think I’ll save that for another day.

If anyone else knows of any videos worth checking out, let everyone know in the comments below.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Stuff of Legends: Don Juan.

Y’know, when you look at a legendary character whose name has become a common euphemism, you expect to get a lot of interesting information.  Yet, here I am looking at the penultimate name on my The Stuff of Legends list and the information I’ve gathered about him and finding myself a bit underwhelmed.
The legendary figure I’m talking about is the one and only Don Juan.  The man’s name has become part of common parlance, albeit as a synonym for “womanizer”.  So, one would think that he’d be part of some grand legend, right?  Like some kind of roguish antihero who beat the bad guys and made all women’s hearts melt, right.

Not exactly.

Don Juan was a legendary libertine.  “Libertine” being a fancy, three dollar word for “guy who indulges himself constantly” (see also: hedonist).  The oldest known version of the story was written down as a play entitled “El Burlabor de Seville” (“The Trickster of Seville”) by Tirso de Molina in 1630.  The story goes that Don Juan was a wealthy man whose life was punctuated by violence and gambling but mostly seducing women.  His credo was apparently “What a long term you have given me!” meaning that he thought life was so long that he’d always have time to repent for his sins.  In many interpretations, Don Juan kills Don Gonzalo, who is the father of Dona Ana, the woman he is trying to seduce.  This leads to a famous scene in which Don Juan invites the statue of Don Gonzalo on the man’s tomb to dinner.  The statue does inevitably show up at dinner as a sort of harbinger of Don Juan’s death.  Don Juan’s death is ultimately where most versions of the play end.  Tirso de Molina, who intended his play to be a religious parable, had Don Juan be denied salvation by God.  Other writers took it in different directions.  Some have the character refuse to repent at the end, others have him walk into hell of his own volition while still others have him ask for a divine pardon and receive it.  As legends often go, they vary from teller to teller.  Jose Morilla y Moral’s version Don Juan Tenorio supposedly provides a slightly more likable version by adding in a pious heroine and a serious love interest for Don Juan.
The character is not without his impact.  He fascinated the likes of both Albert Camus and Jane Austen.  Romantic era poet Lord Byron wrote a poem that flipped the script so that Don Juan (pronounced “Don Joo-an” in the poem) was not a seducer but a man easily seduced by women.  He also appears in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. 

So, I was hoping for a picaresque adventure story and for the most part I found a religious parable crossed with a cautionary tale.  I suppose I should have expected the story have taken a different form centuries ago.  I guess I’ve been spoiled by the Errol Flynn version The Adventures of Don Juan.  I have the movie on DVD (along with The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk, and Captain Blood).  That movie features a Don Juan who starts as a womanizer but turns over a new leaf and becomes a hero when he falls in love for real.  Of course, the woman he falls in love with in the movie is the Queen of Spain, so I can see why that might not have worked as a story in the 1600s.  It might have been downright scandalous.
But I guess this just goes to show how legends and their perception can not only change over time but also change to fit the audience and the teller.  It also could serve as something of a metaphor for how men like Don Juan might seem in real life: They look like something grand and heroic on the surface but aren’t the same once you scratch the surface.  But still, at least it’s something different.  I’ve covered a lot of different legends in this series and I have already done one religious parable (St. George and the Dragon) but I haven’t covered something that functions as a cautionary tale like this one does.

Regardless, he’s still a well-known legendary figure in his homeland of Spain and his name has become part of the English language in terms of euphemisms.  And whether he’s what I expected or not, he is still THE STUFF OF LEGENDS!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Folk Tale Secret Stash: Issun Boshi.

After last week’s post about the Yokai, I’m still in a bit of a Japanese folklore mood.  So, I’m going to focus on another Japanese fairy tale that I’ve told recently.  Now, normally “Folk Tale Secret Stash” is about me tooting the horn of some obscure folk tale to proclaim to the heavens why I think it’s great.  In this case, I’m going to touch on some other stuff.  First, I’m going to touch on how the right variant can pull you into looking at a story type you really haven’t looked at before.  Second, I’m going to touch on how adding the right embellishments to a story by the teller can make a story resonate more.

The story of “Issun Boshi” is one that starts off with a couple wishing and praying at the local shrine for a child.  They want one “no matter how small he is”.  They get their wish but find that the child is only an inch in height.  The child, Issun Boshi, ages but does not grow taller.  He then tells his parents that he wants to go to the city to make his fortune.  They send him off with a needle as a sword, a rice bowl for a boat and a chopstick as a paddle.  He gets to the city and after an encounter with an unhelpful guard, gets a job at the lord’s manor as the personal retainer of the lord’s daughter.  He becomes good friends with the lord’s daughter and she carries him everywhere.  One day, As they’re returning from the local shrine, they get accosted by an oni.  The oni swallows Issun Boshi, but Issun Boshi fights back by stabbing the inside of the oni’s stomach with his needle-sword.  The oni then barfs up Issun Boshi who continues to fight him.  The oni runs off and leaves his magic hammer behind.  The princess then uses the magic hammer to wish Issun Boshi to full size.  The two get married and they all live happily ever after.
That’s a very abbreviated way of explaining it, but it is the full story.  You can read one of the sources I consulted HERE.

Now, I think most of us know the type of story we’re dealing with here.  It’s a “Tom Thumb” type of story.  These fall under the Aarne-Thompson index as tale type #700.  Stories of such diminutive heroes appear in a number of different cultures.  “Tom Thumb” himself first appeared in the English chapbook tradition.  Norway furnishes us with “Thumbikin”.  The Grimms transcribed two different versions from Germany: “Thumbling” and “Thumbling as Journeyman” (also called “Thumbling’s Travels”).  You could even argue that Hans Christian Andersen’s literary story “Thumbelina” (also called “Inchelina” or “Little Tiny”) is one of these kinds of stories.  Now, as much as I may like fairy tales with male leads, I never quite warmed to “Tom Thumb” tales.  I don’t know what it is, but I never fell in love with them the way I did the Jack Tales.  However, “Issun Boshi” stood out.  I think what really did it was one mental image: a one inch tall samurai holding a needle like a sword.  Sometimes, that’s all it takes.  One image or line or some event can set a story apart from others of the same type.
So, when I decided to tell a Japanese tale, this one came to mind.  So, I searched through all my books and eventually found the story itself online.  There was only one problem: the story didn’t work. 

Now, I can’t tell people what makes a story work or not work for them.  Despite the reviews littering this blog, I’ve never quite had faith in the idea that I was some kind of storytelling expert regardless of the medium.  What I do know is that when a story stops working for me, it starts to feel less like a story and more like a string of events.  That’s how “Issun Boshi” felt.  I could sympathize with his parents but once Issun Boshi took charge of the story himself, I lost my connection to it and it all started to feel more like one thing happening after another.  What I did then was simple.  I looked to how others told the story for a little added inspiration.  I watched this version told by an elementary school class.    I also watched this version told by storyteller Liz Nichols.  I even rewatched the version from Folktales from Japan.  What I found is that I had to add character to Issun Boshi himself.  Now, all that usually takes is a couple of lines.  So, for my own telling I added a line about how Issun Boshi even though he was small had big dreams.  This added something to his impetus to travel to the city.  I also added a bit to further establish the love story and make Issun Boshi’s wish to be full sized not seem unnecessary.

You know what?  It worked.  By adding little bits, I was able to make a story that wasn’t working for me work a lot better.  The main character went from a character I was having trouble connecting with to one I wanted to root for.

Now, I’m not saying every story can be “fixed”.  However, a little story massaging can make a world of difference.  In many cases, what an audience or storyteller gets out of a story depends entirely on what they bring to it.

I know a lot of my audience aren’t storytellers, but I’d still like to know.  Has there ever a tale type you didn’t like but that you ended up being able to pull a 180 on?  Or have you ever been able to “save” a story by adding something of your own to it?  Let me know in the comments below.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Yokai-mon Go!

So, since this past Friday, Australia, New Zealand and the United States have been going crazy about a new mobile game called Pokemon Go which utilizes GPS and a smart phone’s pedometer to get folks walking around out in the world to catch Pokemon.  I personally have the app and find it rather addictive.  It’s also interesting how social it makes people.  Folks will just stop you if they see you playing the game and ask you if you’ve caught anything good.

Now, Pokemon has been a major pop culture player since roughly 1996.  However, Pokemon is not all that there is in the “strange creatures” genre from Japan.  There is also Digimon, which started its life as a virtual pet and Monster Rancher, a Playstation series.  We also can’t forget their giant cousins the Kaiju like Godzilla, Gamera and others of that ilk.  So, what is it about Japan that makes their pop culture so prone to creating bizarre, super-powered beasties?  Well, it turns out creatures like that were part of their culture going way back.  Their folklore is filled with weird monsters.

So, let’s go ahead and take a look at them .  Let’s talk about Yokai.

Now, I’ve heard this word translated about a million ways.  I’ve seen it as “Japanese fairies”, “Japanese ghosts”, “Japanese spirits”, “Japanese monsters” and “Japanese demons”.  The truth is that none of these are quite accurate and the best translation would likely be “supernatural creature”.  Also, like “anime” or “manga”, the word “yokai” is often used by Americans to describe the specific Japanese product.  However, the Japanese use it a bit wider even referring to Western creatures like vampires and werewolves as yokai.  I’ve already talked a bit about oni in my Momotaro post and tanuki in my Folktales from Japan post, so we’ll leave those ones out for now.  Otherwise, here are some of the more notable yokai I know of.

Kappa- Kappa are one of the more popularly known yokai in Japan.  Kappa are water creatures that are the size of a child.  They have scaly skin, webbed hands and feet and beaks and shells like turtles.  They can supposedly fart three times as potently as a human being (not kidding) and their arms are joined within their shell so that if you pulled on one it would get longer while the other got shorter.  Kappa live in rivers and ponds and have been known to drown people or bite them to death underwater.  You can get them to leave you alone by offering them cucumbers, which are their favorite food.  Also, while they’re tough to beat in water, they’re not hard to deal with on land.  Kappa have a depression on the top of their head that needs to stay filled with water.  If it spills out, then the kappa is rendered immobile and may even die.  So, the easiest way to get the best of a kappa on land is to get it to bow to you so that the water spills out of the depression on its head.
Kappa appear in some form in all sorts of Japanese pop culture.  In many video games like Animal Crossing, turtle-like creatures that appear are based on kappa.  I also can’t help but note the similarity between the word “kappa” and the name of Super Mario’s turtle-like enemies the “koopa”, but Nintendo has never admitted any connection.  The Pokemon Lombre and Golduck also seems to be inspired by kappa.

Baku- Baku is a yokai originally transplanted from China.  It is described as having the head of an elephant, body of a bear, tail of an ox and eyes of a rhinoceros.  Overall though, it’s usually identified with the tapir.  In fact, I’ve even heard of it referred to as the “dream-eating tapir”.  The baku is actually considered good luck and a guardian spirit.  It feeds on the dreams of sleeping humans, particularly nightmares.  Evil spirits actually flee from the baku.

The baku appears in a few different places in Japanese popular culture, including both Pokemon and Digimon.  The Pokemon Drowzee and Hypno are based on the baku.

Tengu- The tengu is another Japanese creature with Chinese roots.  Their name stems from the Chinese tiangou which refers to a doglike Chinese demon.  However, the Japanese tengu is often described as having birdlike features including a beak.  Often, the tengu is given a more humanized form and the tengu’s beak is replaced with an unusually long nose.  Buddhism originally regarded tengu as harbingers of war.  However, their image eventually changed to that of protective spirits of mountains and forests who were still dangerous when crossed.  Tengu appear in Japanese folk tales a fair bit.  Usually the ones they appear in are of a humorous nature.
Tengu are another yokai with a pop culture presence, though I don’t have an exhaustive list handy.  I do, however, remember that it was the one Japanese monster represented in the 1990s toy property Monster in my Pocket (I had about a million of those when I was a kid).

Yuki onna- Yuki onna literally means “snow woman” and is a spirit that haunts snowy mountain passes.  Yuki onna are known for having a haunting beauty including snow white skin and long, dark hair.  They are as cold as ice and a mere touch can give someone an icy chill.  They feed on the Ki or life force of human beings which they usually suck from the mouths of their victims.  The process usually leaves the victim frozen solid.  Sometimes there are stories in which a yuki onna falls in love with a human but it rarely ends well.
Yuki onna is one of the creatures focused on in World Weaver Press’s Frozen Fairy Tales.  A yuki onna also appears in both the manga Rosario+Vampire and the webcomic Eerie Cuties.  The snow witch from issue two of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller: Witches also appears to be yuki onna.

Kitsune- There is a whole class of supernatural creatures in Japanese folklore that are animals that gained supernatural power after they turned a hundred years old or more.  These include the raccoon dog (tanuki), cat (bakeneko) and badger (mujina).  However, among the most popular is the fox or kitsune.  There are two kinds of supernatural kitsune in Japanese lore.  There are good foxes that work for the Shinto god Inari.  There are also the wild kitsune that are prone to mischief, trickery and even evil.  Even this kind of kitsune have their good side though, seeing as they are known to repay their debts, keep their promises and remember friendships.  Kitsune are often adept shape-shifters and some that turn into humans have been known to live out their whole lives as humans.  A distinguishing trait of magical kitsune are that they have more than one tail and are often depicted with nine of them.
On the pop culture front, the kitsune figures heavily into the anime/manga Naruto.  It’s also represented in Digimon by Kyubimon and in Pokemon by Vulpix and Ninetails.

Futakuchi onna- I’m including this one largely because of how bizarre it is.  Futakuchi onna is the “two mouthed woman”.  The story goes that in households in which the food stores are shrinking but the lady of the house rarely takes a bite of food, the lady may be a futakuchi onna.  The futakuchi onna is a woman who has a second, ravenous mouth filled with teeth on that back of her head hidden by hair.  The mouth will use long, prehensile tendrils of hair to feed itself and eat up all the food in the house.  Some say the futakuchi onna is another yokai that has shape shifted while others say it’s the result of a curse being placed on a young lady.
I haven’t encountered too many futakuchi onna in popular culture but there is one that’s a teacher in the web comic Eerie Cuties.  Also, the Pokemon Mawile is inspired by it.

As more Japanese popular culture gets imported to the Western world, we’re going to come in contact more and more with their folklore and myth.  Just recently Nintendo released a game in the US that plays even more on Japanese folklore called Yo-Kai Watch.  Also, the superhero series Ninja Sentai Kakuranger, which is based entirely on the idea of ninja vs yokai, was released in the US with subtitles.  The ones I wrote up above are just a primer.  There’s even a whole class of yokai based on objects that come to life I haven’t even touched on.  To learn more, check out, a database of yokai.  I got much of my information there, barring the pop culture stuff.  The database goes into far more detail, though.  Also, if you want more information on the connections between Pokemon and yokai, click HERE. 

Now I’ve got to say goodbye while I get some more steps in and catch some more Pokemon.  Until next time, “sayonara”.

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Fantasy Literature Rewind: Five Children and It.

Be careful what you wish for.  You just might get it.

It’s an old saying, one that might be bordering on cliché.  Yet, it’s a message that is used constantly, especially in fantasy fiction.  It was the message of “The Three Wishes” from More English Fairy Tales.  It’s also the message of “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, the cartoon The Fairly Oddparents, the movie 16 Wishes and even Disney’s version of Into the Woods.  I’ll admit, I’m probably missing a few examples but we don’t really have all day to list them here.

What I’m really getting at is a couple things.  For one, this simple concept still has legs even though it has been used a million times.  Also, it’s the central concept behind another classic work of children’s fantasy: Five Children and It by Edith Nesbit.
This is another of those children’s books that may have escaped your notice if you haven’t either taken a class on children’s literature or grown up in Great Britain.  Regardless, Edith Nesbit (or E. Nesbit) is considered by many to be the creator of the modern children’s book.  Nesbit drew on her own experiences as a child and as the mother of five children to write a number of children’s books that were popular during the transition period as the Nineteenth Century gave way to the Twentieth Century.  She also wrote a number of books for adults.  Trying to describe Ms. Nesbit’s rather extraordinary life would take up the better part of a post by itself.  However, I should note that they include a cheating husband, membership in a Socialist think tank and possibly a fling with George Bernard Shaw.  You can find a biography for her HERE and HERE.

The story of Five Children and It concerns five children: Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and their baby brother who is simply known as “The Lamb”.  These five have recently moved to a country home after spending two years cooped up in London.  Despite just arriving their parents are called away, leaving the five children in the care of servants.  Though, with the servants busy with their own duties, they were mostly left to their own devices (a situation that reflects Nesbit’s own childhood on many occasions).  It’s on one of these days left by their lonesome that they decide to go digging in the gravel pit.  It’s in the gravel pit that they discover the genesis of the whole adventure: The Psammead.  The Psammead (pronounced “Sammyad”) is a sand fairy that has the ability to grant wishes and is obliged to grant them to the person who catches him.  The Psammead can generally only grant one wish a day and they only last until the sun goes down.  The basic premise flows from this.  Every day, the children make a wish.  Usually it’s something that seems like fun.  Other times it’s something that they wish off hand that they didn’t intend to become real.  While the majority of them are fun at first, they soon go awry and the children are soon waiting for sundown for all of it to be over.  Among the things they wish for are to be as “beautiful as the day”, a fortune in gold coins, wings to fly with, to live in a castle under siege and for their baby brother to grow up already among other things.  They keep trying, with the hope that the next wish will be a better wish without any downsides.  Eventually, they have their final wish which escalates their problems to the point where others are at risk of getting caught up in it and have to fervently wish it all away.

It sounds simple, seeing as it has the basic “be careful what you wish for” plot and the lack of any sort of true antagonist.  However, the truly noteworthy thing is in how Nesbit pulls it off.  She really seems to break a number of unwritten rules.  In its own way, Five Children and It is a work of urban fantasy.  Everything, even the magic, happens in what was then the modern world.  This is something rarely seen in works of Victorian and Edwardian children’s fantasy.  There’s also the Psammead himself to consider.  The traditional Victorian fairy was often seen as wispy, delicate and beautiful.  The Psammead, in contrast is bizarre-looking.  He is described as having a round body like a spider, the hands and feet of a monkey, a rat-like face, a bat’s ears and most notable of all, it had eyes on stalks like a snail.  If the traditional Victorian “flower fairy” was meant to represent the beauty of nature then the Psammead might be meant to reflect the more bizarre side of nature.  Personality-wise, the Psammead is grouchy and difficult to get along with too, always concerned with one whisker that once got wet and hasn’t been the same since.  The Psammead himself is ancient but the stories he tells of the distant past are less grounded in fairy tales and myths and more in paleontology.  He tells of days when the gravel pit was still near the seashore and when human beings would catch psammeads to wish for megatherium (prehistoric ground sloth) and pterodactyl (prehistoric winged reptile) steaks to eat.  Nesbit grounds the premise of the story in the familiar tale of “The Three Wishes” but grounds the rest in a modern world that knows about prehistoric man and giant ground sloths.  At the time it was published, this probably gave young readers a greater sense of the magic happening in the “here and now” (which is now the “there and then”) much like modern urban fantasy like the Harry Potter books do today.  There’s also just something about how Nesbit writes children and particularly siblings that rings true.  There’s a certain vitality to the way she wrote them.  They argue and make jokes and get on each others’ nerves and use slang and do plenty of other things that more “proper” children in other books wouldn’t do and yet they’re still good kids.  With the exception of maybe Jane who gets a bit lost in the shuffle, you feel that you know these kids and their personalities by the end of the book.  Heck, it’s one of the first classic children’s books I’ve read that shows how annoying it can be to have a baby brother, seeing as the Lamb can be a bit of a handful.  We even get a rather active little heroine in Anthea , who takes charge when one particular wish goes off the rails.
Not all of it is great.  There are some rather dated elements considering how the book is 115 years old.  There’s one chapter in which Cyril accidentally wishes to fight some “Red Indians” because he’s been reading The Last of the Mohicans.  There are some stereotypes thrown around in that chapter that are clearly taken from the adventure fiction of the time period.  The book also nearly stereotypes a group of Gypsies in one chapter but ends up stopping just short of doing it.  Also, the things that I find interesting about this book might be found boring by others.  For example, I find I tend to be kind of fascinated by fantasy stories that have enough conflict without having a primary antagonist.  It seems like it would be a trickier thing to do rather than just having a villain to pin everything on.  But I can see how some might find a book entirely built around wishes gone awry as a little dull.

But I still think this book is rather good.  So, why isn’t it more well-known?  Well, it never got particularly popular on the American side of the Atlantic Ocean, which can impact media proliferation.  Now, I’m not going to say media adaptations are necessary for a book to become well-known, but it certainly helps a lot.  Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz might not be quite as well known if they didn’t have movie tie-ins going back to the age of the silent movie.  There have been some adaptations, but they’ve been largely localized to the UK.  There was a BBC miniseries, for one.  There was also a movie which seemed to chuck the existing story and turn the whole thing into a silly comedy.  I can’t say that they look too appealing to me.  Partially because they both chickened out on making the Psammead look truly bizarre.  Both adaptations gave him regular eyes and then turned the eye-stalks into antennae. 

But hey, that’s part of what “Fantasy Literature Rewind” is for, shining a light on fantastical literature of the past beyond the Carrolls, Collodis, Baums and Barries (though, I love all of them too).

So, if you like children’s fantasy literature and you’ve never tried it, give Five Children and It a chance.  You may end up wishing for more.