Friday, May 29, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya.

I have to say that I’m glad to be writing this piece because I had wanted to shed a little more light on folk and fairy tale adaptations that were outside the usual big name Hollywood system for a while.  I had managed to do it once already with my review of Song of the Sea.  Now, I can do it again because I’ve finally had the time to get my hands on and watch TheTale of the Princess Kaguya.

For those not in the know, The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is one of the latest releases from acclaimed Japanese animation giant Studio Ghibli.  

 Their past works include movies like Princess Mononoke, Castle in the Sky, Whisper of the Heart, Kiki’s Delivery Service, Ponyo, My Neighbor Totoro and more.  This specific movie is directed by Isao Takahata and based on a Japanese folk tale usually entitled “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.
This may be something of an unusual review/spotlight because I actually only read the story the movie was based on the day before I watched it.  Click the link right HERE to read the version I read.

The story starts off with a poor old bamboo cutter.  He goes into the bamboo grove to do his work and encounters an unusual sight.  A glowing bamboo shoot sprouts out of the ground right before his eyes.  Inside, he finds a tiny little woman who looks like a doll.  He brings her home to his wife.  The little doll-girl quickly transforms into a little baby causing the old couple to decide that this girl wants them to raise her.  The bamboo cutter and his wife call the girl Princess but because she grows very quickly like a bamboo stalk, the local kids nickname her Little Bamboo.  Little Bamboo is happy living like a country girl.  However, after magically receiving expensive gifts of gold and silk from out of the bamboo grove, her father decides that it’s a sign that he should raise her like a proper noble princess in a big house in the capital.  Little Bamboo goes along with her father’s wishes.  Pretty soon she has a new name, a noble tutor, lots of beautiful robes and high class suitors.  However, the question is whether she’s really happy with all this.

In general, it’s hard to go wrong with Studio Ghibli films.  There’s always something special about them.  This one seems no different.  From the story to the animation to the art style, it’s another in a line of fantastic animated films.  The art style is definitely something I should mention.  The art has a style that makes everything look like it’s drawn in sketchy lines and colored in watercolors.  This gives the movie a feeling similar to looking at traditional Japanese paintings or the illustrations of a high end picture book.  It goes a long way to evoking the folk tale vibe of the story.  The English-language cast does a superb job acting out the story.  Personally, what I love about other Studio Ghibli films is something that’s very present in this movie as well.  It’s the little things and quiet moments.  Studio Ghibli has a way of making even scenes of everyday life and the regular Japanese countryside seem to have a magic all their own.  As opulent as the mansions of the palace are, the scenes of the bamboo groves and woods near the bamboo cutter’s tiny house seem to have a different kind of wonder that you can’t quite put your finger on.

From a folk tale perspective, I think the movie is interesting.  In Japanese folklore there are many stories about older couple raising strange and otherworldly children.  Stories like “Momotaro”, “Issun-Boshi” and “Strong Tarou” are obvious examples.  However, when reading many of these stories, the child in question often seems kind of otherworldly and distant or like destined heroes just waiting for the right moment.  These especially seemed to be the case when I read “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.  The talk of the bamboo princess’s grace and beauty made her seem more like an angel brought down to Earth.  It was like she didn’t quite belong.  However, Studio Ghibli’s Princess Kaguya is human in all the ways that count.  She has a full range of emotions and when she’s cast into the role of princess you can see her enjoying it at some moments and longing to be back in the country the next.  This movie managed to humanize a character who could have been just a little too divine.  On the cultural side of things, it’s nice to see a “princess” movie that breaks from the Disney Hollywood formula we’re used to.  In Disney films, princesses are usually longing for something the minute they appear on screen.  In older movies, they long for true love.  In newer films, they long for some nondescript sense of fulfillment they don’t have.  In Princess Kaguya’s case, she’s happy at the very beginning in the countryside.  Then she’s brought to the capital by her father and things get complicated.  Part of her likes the trappings of her new life, part of her is just interested in going along with it to please her father and another just wants to go back home and pal around with all her old friends.  This princess wouldn’t quite be sure what to long for.

I would highly recommend this movie.  How highly?  Well, it inspired me to immediately download a new book of Japanese fairy tales to my kindle so I could read more stories of a similar type.  Then, when I had to return the copy I watched to the library, I went out immediately and buy my own copy. 
library copy

my copy
Seriously, give this one a watch.  You’ll be really glad you did.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Megan Kearney's Beauty and the Beast.

This one is going out to all the “Beauty and the Beast” fans out there and I know there are more than a few.

Fairy tales are often known for their brevity.  They’re longer than fables, but often much shorter than your average short story.  Now, most of the fairy tale comics I’ve shown you thus far have been anthologies or mash-ups of different tales.  However, there are certain tales that can be made to work in a longer format, provided that the writer or artist is able to add a certain amount of richness and depth to the story themselves.  “Beauty and the Beast” is one of the stories that can do this remarkably well.

The earliest literary version of “Le Belle et le Bete” was written by a woman named Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve.  As was the tradition of the time, the work was lengthy and included many baroque, opulent descriptions.  Later, this story was retold in an abridged form by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.  As near as anyone can tell, it’s from this abridged form that the story found its way into the folk tradition (whether Villeneuve got the story itself or just the motifs from folk sources is not known).  From there, it found its way to the Auvergne region of France where Henri Pourrat recorded it as “Lovely Rose” and also to Germany where the Grimms found it as “The Summer and Winter Garden” (it was included in the first edition but was later removed for not being German enough).  I’ve even encountered a version from the Scoharie hills of Upstate New York entitled “The Rosy Story”.  That’s just kind of the tip of the iceberg however, when you consider all the media adaptations.  It was made into a much-lauded film by French director Jean Cocteau.  It was also transformed into a soap opera for CBS starring Ron Pearlman and Linda Hamilton (later to be remade as a teen drama on the CW).  Also, it was made into a very popular animated movie by Disney that opened the floodgates for all sorts of different adaptations, including a Broadway show.  Again, still just the tip of the iceberg (I don’t think I even have space to list all the YA novels based on this story).

However, I’m not writing this to focus on “Beauty and the Beast” in general.  I’m writing this to focus on a webcomic version of the story by online cartoonist Megan Kearney.  Megan Kearney’s Beauty and the Beast is basically a black-and-white webcomic retelling of “Beauty and the Beast” with a few tweaks.  The story starts off with Beauty and her sisters Virtue and Temperence awaiting the return of their father and Virtue’s husband Claude on a snowy night.  When they do return, Beauty’s father is in a bad way, unconscious from some ordeal.  They also find with him all sorts of gifts that they had asked from him, including a single rose.  The interesting thing about the gifts is that it’s pretty clear that they asked for them all in jest.  However, the father, wishing to please his daughters, took them seriously.  This does a good deal to change the dynamic between Beauty and her sisters from the usual version, which depicts them as vain and greedy.

Anyway, the basic plot of the story is the same as the one everyone knows, so I probably shouldn’t dwell much on that.  It is how the story is told that makes the most difference.  Kearney, in her way, takes a page from Villeneuve.  However, while Madame Villeneuve engaged in verbal description to add to her tale, Kearney uses the visual medium she’s working in to show us the opulence of everything around Beauty.  Kearney’s art style is simple yet has detail where it counts.  In some parts, I find it reminiscent of the work of Jeff Smith (best known for his comic series Bone).
Reprinted with permission from Megan Kearney
Also, as Madame Villeneuve did, much is made of both Beauty’s and Beast’s histories.  However, instead  of exposition, Kearney gives us mere hints and glimpses that keep the reader curious.  You’re never quite sure what the whole story is, but you know a little bit more every time.
Reprinted with permission from Megan Kearney
However, I’d say that perhaps the greatest strength is in how she depicts the emotions and relationship between Beauty and her Beast.  Beauty herself is smart and brave, yet has her vulnerable moments.  The Beast, in general, is not altogether beastly.  He’s usually depicted as a lonely, gentle soul.  However, he does have a more animalistic side which he strives to hide from Beauty.   
Reprinted with permission from Megan Kearney

Reprinted with permission from Megan Kearney
It’s a slow, gradual process as these two warm up to each other.  Yet, even after some time, it’s not without its complications.  One of the best scenes is one where Beauty reveals how conflicted she is over actually befriending Beast because despite it all, she can’t forget that she’s still technically his prisoner.
Reprinted with permission from Megan Kearney
Megan Kearney seems to have realized something that even the animation powerhouse Disney did not.  When written well, there really is no need for a villain in this story.  At least, there is no need for one in the present-day portions of the story.  One could argue villainous intent for some of the figures in the mysterious glimpses of the past.  There is no swaggering Gaston figure waiting to cut the Beast down and take Beauty for himself.  There aren’t any greedy boyfriends like in Cocteau’s version that want to steal from the Beast’s treasure trove.  She even goes one further and removes the more unsavory aspects of Beauty’s sisters, replacing greed with simply a misunderstood joke.  In the end, it’s the situation itself that provides enough conflict to carry the story thus far.

I’ll leave a link to the archive of the series right HERE.  This is potentially one of the best fairy tale webcomics around and it manages to do it by bringing unexpected nuance and emotion out of just one story.  I’d also like to close this one out by saying “thank you” to Ms. Megan Kearney herself who I contacted and let me use the wonderful images from her webcomic to illustrate this post.

To all the “Beauty and the Beast” fans: you’re welcome. :D

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Grimm vs Grimm.

Well, it had to happen eventually.  Thanks to the Upper Hudson Library System, I’ve gotten my hands on a copy of this book:
It's Grimm, only more Zipes-y.
That’s right, it’s The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by well-known fairy tale scholar Jack Zipes.  Zipes made the effort of going back to the original first edition of the Grimms’ book before they made all sorts of changes to appeal to the masses and actually translated the whole thing into English.

Now, I don’t know how many of you might recognize me when I post on other blogs and news sites.  However, you may recall that I met the news of this book with just a little skepticism (okay, more than a little).  I just didn’t see the point of another version of the Grimm book.  However, since it was a big, enchanted deal among fairy tale people, I thought I’d eventually have to do something in regards to this book.

So, since the big deal is in the changes that were made, let’s take a look at those changes.  So, I pulled out my own, trusty copy of Grimm:
Trusty old Grimm.
and set to reading a handful of these stories side by side to compare and contrast them.  So, here goes!  We start with . . .

“Cinderella”- The first thing you’ll notice upon reading the first edition story is that the stepsisters have a far more active role in being cruel to Cinderella.  In the later editions, most of the blame seems able to fall on the stepmother.  Another big difference has to do with the pigeon coop.  If we’re to recall the later edition versions, Cinderella uses the pigeon coop as a hiding place after her first trip to the ball.  The prince then destroys the pigeon coop in his search for Cinderella.  Luckily, she managed to slip away.  In this version, she does go into the pigeon coop, but without a trip to the ball.  The pigeons actually say to her after helping her sort lentils “Cinderella, if you want to see your sisters dance with the prince, then climb up to the pigeon coop.”  I’m not sure if this pigeon coop is magical or just located really close to the palace, but Cinderella goes into it and watches the ball in action.  When she reveals this to one of her sisters, she immediately orders the pigeon coop to be torn down.  It seems that through their edits, what the Brothers Grimm did was formalize a formula of events in this story.  It basically comes down to “three trips to the ball and three hiding places”.  Interestingly, in all the press for this book, this is actually the kind of thing I had been hoping to hear about.  This is a case when the events in the first edition story’s plot were actually different.  Instead, most of what I heard was about how the Grimms “sanitized” their stories (Note: I only just barely care about the dark side of these tales.  That side is there, but it is not a selling point for these stories for me unless the dark bit is really weird and fantastical).

Now we move on to . . .

“Little Snow White”- The big difference between the first edition and the later editions is the lack of these sentences in the first edition: “And when the child was born, the Queen died” and “After a year had passed the King took to himself another wife”.  That’s right, in the older edition, the Evil Queen is Snow White’s biological mother.  The interesting thing about this change is that it seems huge at first glance but it really only changes things from the outside.  The fact that the Queen is Snow White’s stepmother only makes the reader feel better knowing that the Queen is not trying to kill her own flesh and blood.  It’s easy to see the stepmother Queen as an interloper who wormed her way into a once happy family.  Readers like it because we like the idea that this royal family was not damaged to begin with.  However, it does nothing to change Snow White’s predicament.  In either case, it’s still Snow White being persecuted by the only mother she ever knew!  Look at the two sentences I quoted.  The biological mother dies in childbirth and the King marries the new queen a mere one year after that.  Snow White was just a baby when this villainess was introduced into her life.  It’s a change that seems to mean so much but really means little from the main character’s point of view.

On the subject of little changes that change little, we move onto . . .

“Rapunzel”- This story wins the prize for silliest edit ever.  In the first edition of the story, after the titular heroine has been visited by her prince a number of times, she says to Mother Gothel “Tell me, Mother Gothel, why are my clothes becoming too tight?  They don’t fit me anymore.”  You can guess what happened between the prince and Rapunzel in that tower, especially seeing as she gives birth to twins later in the story.  However, the later version has her saying “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son- he is with me in a moment.”  I mean, come on!  It’s clearly an attempt to cover up the presence of pregnancy and thus sex in this tale.  However, it’s just kind of delaying the inevitable because the story still references her giving birth to twins later on.  It may work on little kids, but once they get older and learn the facts of life they’re going to put two and two together.  In the process, Rapunzel is now required to ask one of the stupidest questions in fairy tale history.  It’s almost as bad as in the bowdlerized version of “Sun, Moon and Talia” from The Pentamerone, in which Sun and Moon aren’t born to Talia but just appear to her from “she knew not where”.  It’s clear there’s something missing from the story and it’s easy to figure out what.  The only other major change is that Dame Gothel in the first edition is a fairy and in later editions is a witch.  This is probably left over from earlier versions that were brought over from France.

And now our last comparison piece . . .

“Allerleirauh”/”All Fur”- This may seem like an odd choice compared to the “all stars” I just focused on, but I wanted to look at a story that was always known for its unsavory elements.  For those not in the know, in this story a princess runs away from home because her father has become convinced that he should marry her.  She then reappears in another kingdom disguised in a cloak made from patches of different kinds of fur.  However, she also brought with her three miraculous gowns that she wears to three different balls to enchant the kingdom’s young king.  I can say with all assurances that the suggested incest/king wanting to marry his daughter bit is in both versions!  The only major edit I can see is that the king of this other kingdom keeps getting referred to as the girl’s fiancĂ©e/betrothed in the older version.  This suggests that the princess was already promised to another when the king decided he absolutely had to break the laws of God and man.  It also makes it seem more like a tease/prank when the princess appears at the balls in her fantastical gowns.

I also read other tales besides these four, but it seems that stories like “Little Red Cap” and “Briar Rose” are essentially the same in both versions.  However, this edition also seems to include tales that were cut because they weren’t considered “German enough” like “Puss in Boots” or stories that seemed redundant like “The Frog Prince” (Not to be confused with “The Frog King or Iron Henry”).  It’s also a very readable translation.  So, I will now have to admit somewhat grudgingly that this book isn’t as pointless as I may have once thought.  So, you may be wondering why I was so hard on this book in the first place.

Well, it’s because I’m kind of sick of the Brothers Grimm is all.

It seems like there is always a new version of Grimm hitting the bookstore shelves.  First edition, third edition, annotated, illustrated . . . pop-up edition.  Every flavor of Grimm is represented.  Not only that, Grimm and occasionally Andersen are all I can seem to find on bookstore shelves these days.  It wasn’t always like that, though.  I used to be able to find books like these:
I bought all of these books OFF THE SHELF!
on the shelves in the Barnes and Noble and the late, lamented Borders.  Strangely, it seems like as fairy tales have become more popular in the media, the choices in book stores have dried up.  Sure, the library can be useful but I prefer to own my folk tale books so that they’re handy.  Kindle is nice too, but harder to flip through.  Then, there is of course  But I still walk into Barnes and Noble from time to time hoping against hope that I’ll find some strange and obscure book of folk tales from some far off exotic land on the shelf.  More often than not, I’m disappointed.

So, Mr. Zipes has in fact put together a very solid first edition Brothers Grimm book.  Maybe I’ll put it on my Kindle, just in case.  But I still hunger for more exotic and less familiar fare in my folk tale diet.  One cannot live on Grimm alone.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Happily Ever After High School.

It’s that time of year again!  Back to school!  What?  You’re a little confused because it’s May and most schools in North America are winding down for the year and getting ready for summer vacation?  Well, here’s the thing, we’re not so much going back to a physical school as we are going back to the “fairy tale school” trope.

For anyone who’s been paying attention to fairy tale depictions in media for children and teenagers, you’ll notice that the “fairy tale school” concept is pretty big.  There are two fashion doll lines based on it, Ever After High and FairyTale High.  There are children’s books like The School for Good and Evil and Grimmtastic Girls based around it.   There are also cartoons like Teenage Fairy Tale Dropouts.  This summer, Disney tosses its own hat in the ring with their TV movie Descendants, which is sure to have a toy line to follow.  The whole fairy tale school thing may seem a bit odd and sudden as far as trends go.  However, I’ll point out that it’s really just a sup-type of the “Special School” trope which is much older and more prolific.  It’s the trope that since the ‘80s has given us superhero schools (Hero High and Sky High, for example), monster schools (Gravedale High and Monster High), ninja schools (Shuriken School), alien schools (Galaxy High) and wizard schools (you may have heard of a little book series called Harry Potter), among others.

The book I’m going to focus on today is a little bit more under the radar than most, seeing as it’s coming from a small publisher and what seems to be a rather untested author.  The book is Happily Ever After High School by Savannah Ostler.  Ms. Ostler apparently isn’t new to media, apparently doing some acting and singing work.  However, this appears to be her first book.  This book actually only came to my attention after its official twitter account started to follow mine.  I decided “What the heck!” and decided to give it a try.  The book is published by Ravenswood Publishing as part of their Howling Wolf imprint for young adults.  While the book is Young Adult, it kind of seems to skew toward the younger, middle school section of the young adult audience.

Ring!  Ring!
There’s the bell!  I guess we’d better get this review underway.

The story is told through the eyes of 17-year old girl named Albany French.  Albany is a girl disillusioned with her life.  She skips classes, gets in trouble frequently with her teachers, forgets about her homework and fights with her father.  Her only escape is reading fairy tales, something her father has tried to dissuade since she was very young.  One day, Albany gets a phone call from her grandmother and receives some terrible news.  Her father has died in a plane crash.  Her mother having died long ago, Albany has no one to turn to now but her grandmother.  After moving in with her, Albany suddenly finds herself enrolled in Happily Ever After High School.  In this school, magic is commonplace, football is replaced with jousting and the cheerleading squad is filled with actual princesses.  As she adjusts to the new life that she always dreamed about, she finds that while some parts of living in a fairy tale are fantastic, other parts are nothing like she expected.  She also finds out, by way of a fairy godmother that she never knew she had, that the deaths of her parents weren’t so accidental.  They were killed by a former student and she’s expected to get her revenge when he inevitably comes for her.

This book was . . . flawed. 

Okay, maybe I should go into more detail.  While I like the book’s concept, certain aspects of the story seemed rushed and under-developed.  The death of Albany’s father seems particularly sudden, with no mention of any sort of funeral or grieving period for Albany.  The villain is also introduced without much development.  The character, named Larry Shadows, is supposed to be such a big deal that he has some degree of say in the law regarding creatures like centaurs and unicorns.  Yet, there isn’t quite enough world-building to explain why he has this authority.  Is he the king?  Are the teachers at this school just waiting for this girl to kill their king? 

From a fairy tale standpoint, the book kind of drifts from this central premise and into more of a general fantasy area as if it’s some kind of Harry Potter knock-off.  As I said before, there are centaurs and unicorns, which aren’t very fairy tale-ish.  She also mentions that in addition to princesses, witches and trolls, some of the students are vampires, werewolves and mummies which causes more of a drift toward gothic fantasy.  On top of that the school is also filled with all sorts of generic medieval characters like knights, jesters and blacksmiths, which don’t really have much of a presence in traditional fairy tales (woodsmen, hunters, tailors , soldiers and farmers, sure.  But not blacksmiths).

Don’t get me wrong, there are some good bits.  There’s a terrific “definition” of the fairy tale in there that pretty much sums up how a fairy tale character would see a fairy tale.  There’s also a very amusing and astute observation towards the middle that high school is always pretty much the same regardless of how fantastic the school is.  Also, just the idea of casting fairy tale princesses as snobbish cheerleaders is too fun an idea and I don’t know why more people haven’t played with that.  I also just think that Ostler does a good job of giving a voice to her main character.

To end this odd and uneven book, the last part of it after the story is filled with . . . recipes.  Fairy tale themed recipes.  I’m going to give those another look because I’m a food geek, but it’s very much a strange addition.

I feel like there’s the seed of something good here, but it just didn’t germinate like it should have.  I wish miss Savannah Ostler all the best in her future endeavors and I hope she evolves as a writer.  However, this first book is just too clunky to receive all that much praise.

Well, I guess we can put this story away for now.  We’ll keep it in the locker until further notice.
I will say that all these fairy tale school concepts have gotten me thinking about how fairy tales and high school are alike.  I mean, they’re both trials.  You go through all this stuff.  Trolls and witches and hormones and bullies and all that horrible stuff.  People always tell you it’ll get better.  When does that happen?  Right at the end.  They all graduated happily ever after!

Until next time, I’m the fairy tale geek wishing you all a happy ending.