Friday, June 26, 2015

Fairy Tale Media Fix: Folktales from Japan.

If my loyal readers have been paying attention, they may have noticed that I have a soft spot for fairy tale anthology shows and comics.  Jim Henson’s The Storyteller is a favorite.  Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics is another.  In terms of comics, Erstwhile is a stand-out.  However, I’d be lying if I said it was easy to find shows and comics like that.  Anthologies are a hard sell.  Sci-fi and horror anthologies aren’t that big either (when’s the last time you saw a network air a show like The Twilight Zone).  When it comes to fairy tales and folk tales, most shows, movies and comics aim more for reinvention and long, serialized single stories with recurring characters.  Grimm’s Fairy Tale Classics and The Storyteller are long gone and Erstwhile is telling its last story as we speak (sigh).  It’s through anthology shows like that I was introduced to some of my more “Secret Stash”-worthy tales.   However, through the magic of the internet, I may have found something almost as good.
The show is called Hometown Rebuilding: Folktales from Japan, but I’m just going to call it Folktales from Japan, for the sake of brevity.  It’s an animated show produced by Japanese animation company Tomason and which aired on TV Tokyo starting in 2012.  Each episode features three shorts, ranging from five to ten minutes in length that adapt traditional stories from Japan.  All the voices and narration in the show are provided by two Japanese film actors, Akira Emoto and Yoneko Matsukane.  The art style varies between each story, but is always somewhat whimsical and pretty much never adheres to what Americans would view as the usual “anime style”.
This show is just a lot of fun.  It gives a good glimpse into Japanese folklore.  As an American, I can say that this show is not what most of us would expect from anime.  The stories are also not what most of us would expect from folk or fairy tales, unless we’re already well-versed in the folklore of Japan and other Asian countries.  Watching the show at first can seem a little repetitive as certain motifs come to light.  For example, there are any number of stories that have that “Tom Thumb” like quality of a couple having a child either adopted or born to them, that is highly unusual or magical in some way.  There are also lots of greedy, antagonistic neighbors who should leave things alone.  There are also a number of stories of less-than-perfect priests and monks.  However, this starts to seem less and less glaring as you get immersed in the show.  Just as the recurring motifs of European folk tales don’t seem as obvious when you’ve grown up with them.

After watching a number of episodes, I’m hooked.  I’ve even got some new favorites from it like “The Pond-Snail Millionaire” and “The Rats’ Sumo”.  However, I’m also going to admit that maybe this show isn’t for everyone.  The art styles can be unusual.  Also, the short running time of each tale might give people the feeling that the stories don’t have enough time to “breathe”.  I’m also going to warn against trusting the translation in subtitles too much.  Some things don’t translate, like puns and plays on words.  Also, the version I saw referred to the tanuki or Japanese raccoon dog (an important, if somewhat strange creature in Japanese folklore) as just a “raccoon”, which isn’t quite true.  Tanuki are more closely related to foxes from what I know.
Aw, so cute!
There isn’t much else I can say about this show.  Either you’ll want to watch it or you won’t.  Where can it be found?  Well, I found it on Crunchyroll right HERE.  But that’s the American version of Crunchyroll.  Other versions may vary.  Someone did post some of it on YouTube, so I’ll link to a video to give you a sample HERE.  Come on, give it a try.  Like sushi, it might not be for everyone, but it’s at least worthwhile to say you tried it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Folk Tale Secret Stash: The Youth Who Went to Learn What Fear is.

You know, sometimes you just have to indulge in some fiction that’s . . . well . . . stupid.

While I am all for intelligent, thought-provoking literature, I’m also a big fan of just indulging in some mindless entertainment.  What season is better for this than summer?  It’s the season to go to the movies and watch big, dumb, splashy blockbusters.  It’s the season to go to comic book conventions and buy up all sorts of comics from the days when comics were disposable literature for kids and teenagers.  It’s the season to lie on the beach and read cheap romance and mystery novels.  In fact, I’d argue that some amount of junk literature is good for you.  Writer Peter Dickinson has even come to the defense of junk literature in regards to its effect on children in his blog post “A Defence of Rubbish”.

Now, it’s a completely different cultural landscape today than it was when folk stories started circulating.  So, I don’t know if folk literature has an equivalent to the dumb summer beach book.  However, if they did, it would probably be some sort of fool story.  Ah yes, the fool!  One of the great folkloric archetypes.  Those unassuming types who succeed through some combination of naiveté and dumb luck.  In folklore, supposedly there are whole villages populated by nothing but fools, like the Polish town of Chelm in Jewish lore or Gotham in Nottingham, England.  Usually these characters sport average unassuming names like Jack, Hans or Ivan when they’re named anything at all.

Now, it’s not to say that a fool story can’t have clever bits to it.  One of my favorite fool stories has a rather clever set-up to send the main character out on his adventure.  In fact, it’s that set-up that earns this story its title: “The Youth Who Went to Learn What Fear is”.  For the record, this one’s another tale from the Brothers Grimm. 

Our story begins with a man who has two sons.  The older son is smart as a whip and capable of a great number of things.  The younger was a fool who didn’t seem to be particularly good at anything.  Now, whenever the older was asked to run any errands after night fell he’d say “No, the darkness makes me shudder”.  Or when people would tell ghost stories by the fire, he’d say “That story makes me shudder”.  Now, the younger son was puzzled by this.  He had never shuddered in his life and was pretty sure he didn’t know how.  The way he saw it, it was some sort of art that he didn’t know how to do.  So, when his father asked him what trade he would like to learn in order to earn his own fortune, he’d say “I would like to learn how to shudder”.

Naturally, his father was less than pleased.  The father explained his troubles to the village sexton.  The sexton told him that he’d put his son to work and teach him to shudder at the same time.  So, our nameless protagonist went to work ringing the bell of the local church.  One night as he climbed up to ring the bell, he saw a figure in white standing near the sounding hole.  It was the sexton dressed as a ghost trying to teach the boy how to shudder.  Now, the thing is that our hero did not take him to be a ghost.  Instead, he figured him to be some kind of thief or troublemaker lurking about at night.  So, the boy shouts to the sexton to identify himself or else he’ll throw him down the stairs.  The sexton says nothing, figuring that he’s bluffing.  The youth asks two more times with no response.  So, what does he do?  He throws the sexton down the stairs.  Then he rings the bell and goes back home.   

The next morning, the sexton is found at the bottom of the stairs with a broken leg.  Our hero’s father is not happy.  He gives his son fifty talers and tells him to hit the road.  Furthermore, he tells his son to not tell anyone where he’s from or who his father is in hopes that he’ll live this down someday.  The son, with what he perceives as his father’s blessing, vows to go off into the world and learn how to shudder.

Now, our hero (antihero?  Maybe we should make that “protagonist”) . . .  Anyway, now our protagonist makes it to a town where he meets a fellow and explains his current quest and how he will give fifty talers to anyone who teaches him how to shudder.  The fellow tells him of a tree where seven criminals were hanged and are still hanging.  He tells him that if he stays under that tree all night, that he’ll surely learn how to 

So, he takes him up on that.  Now, our protagonist doesn’t quite seem to understand the situation of the seven hanged men.  The situation of them being dead, in fact.  So, while he sits cold by his campfire, he figures that the men hanging from the tree must be positively freezing.  So, he decides to take them down and warm them by the fire.  However, once a spark catches on one of the dead men’s clothes, he figures that they’re too stupid to keep from getting burnt and hangs them back up.  The next day he meets with the fellow who tipped him off to the hangman’s tree and tells him that he surely hasn’t learned anything and how he’d never learn anything from people so stupid that they’d let their clothes catch on fire.  So, he left with his wallet still full.

Now, I think this is enough to really communicate our protagonist’s unique character and unique quest.  Believe it or not, this is just prologue.  The real main event comes when he finds out about a haunted castle.  Naturally, the king is offering his daughter’s hand in marriage to anyone who can stay there for three nights.  So, our dim-bulb protagonist, who’s likely more interested in learning to shudder than marrying any princess, decides to give it a whirl.  He does so armed with only a fire, a lathe and a woodcarver’s bench with a knife.  I won’t give anymore away, but you can read the story right HERE.  Okay, maybe I will tell you that a scene like the one below happens.

What I like about this particular fool story is the character’s stated goal.  While most Jack tales and other tales of the sort have a protagonist who is simply going off to “seek his fortune”, this story has a main character with a very specific stated goal of learning something.  This task, though, is of course a fool’s errand.  And while he does learn how to do it in the end, shuddering was maybe not as useful as not shuddering in the grand scheme of it all.

For those who are Henson fans, you may recognize this story in that it was adapted into the “Fearnot” episode of Jim Henson’s The Storyteller.  The thing I love about the Storyteller adaptation, other than just how well told it is, is the facial expressions of the main character.  Half the time, he has an expression that reminds me of an excited Labrador retriever.  So, there we have it.  Our dumb yet kind of clever summer folk tale.  Pop the popcorn and sit down to enjoy the tale in good fun.  Until next time, I’m the Fairy Tale Geek.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Four-Color Fairy Tales: Fractured Fables.

Sometimes, when it comes to books and comics, I have to go back to stuff I skipped for various reasons before and give them a second chance.  Sometimes I pass on the book because it doesn’t interest me at the time.  Sometimes it’s because I simply have too much on my “to-read” list as it is.  Other times, it’s for financial reasons. 

Anyway, that’s the case with this graphic novel: Fractured Fables from Image Comics, first published in 2010.

Why did I pass on it?  Well, part of it was for monetary reasons.  I was buying a lot more comic books at the time and I just couldn’t afford to add an original hardcover graphic novel to my budget for the week this came out.  The other reason is because the title put me off.  You see, the whole fairy tale boom had just started up again in books and comics and people were throwing around the phrase “Fractured Fairy Tales” with a level of gusto that was a bit annoying.  Add into that the fact that they threw the word “fables” in there as if to crib from DC/Vertigo’s popular series and it seemed like a cheap cash-in.  So, I wrote it off as a library loan for another day (a day which happened to come five years later).

Now, for those who don’t know, the term “Fractured Fairy Tale” has a history all its own.  It was the title of a segment on the classic cartoon The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.  In the cartoon, a fairy tale would be depicted with a number of humorous twists added (this will be a “Fairy Tale Media Fix” for another day).  Personally, I’m a big fan of Fractured Fairy Tales, Rocky and Bullwinkle and the various other cartoons associated with show creator Jay Ward.  So, was I a little bit put off by people using the term “Fractured” to refer to any retelling of a fairy tale, nursery rhyme, legend or children’s story with any kind of little twist or deviation from the norm?  Honestly, yes, I kind of was.

So, you’ll be glad to know that I was pleasantly surprised by this graphic novel.  This is because it was actually a worthy follower of the Jay Ward “Fractured Fairy Tales” tradition in that they actually emphasized humor above everything else. 

Fractured Fables is an anthology of short comic stories based on fairy tales, nursery rhymes and children’s songs.  Some of the contributors are those that will be known to comic book fans while many others may be unfamiliar.  By and large, the stories are humorous.  One or two, though, do take a more serious approach.  For example, there’s a take on “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” by writer Marie Cruz and artist Whilce Portacio which plays things pretty straight in terms of tone but recasts the main characters as some Filipino-American kids who are away at dance camp.  Otherwise, we have a “Little Red Riding Hood” tale in which the wolf bites off more than he can chew, a “Little Miss Muffet” who collects spiders and bugs, a “House That Jack Built” that evolves into a raging house party and the trial of Hansel and Gretel among others.
Peter David: Writer of Stuff
One story that particularly caught my attention was a take on “The Little Mermaid” by writer Peter David.  I’ve been a fan of David’s writing for some time.  His blog is one of the ones I awarded the “Very Inspiring Blogger Award” to.  Peter David is known for being able to write humor.  Many people know him as the guy who brought humor to the X-Men franchise with the 1990s version of the comic book X-Factor (though he does have considerable dramatic chops too).  What’s interesting about him writing a Little Mermaid story is that he has some experience with this story.  Peter David was actually the official writer for the Disney Little Mermaid comic book series back in the 1990s when Disney was actually publishing its own comics.  He liked the gig and character so much, he actually named his daughter Ariel (not so strange, I went to grad school with a girl who was named Aurora for very similar reasons).  So, it’s interesting to see Peter David tackle “The Little Mermaid” again from a humorous, non-Disney direction.

Fractured Fables is worth taking a look at if you like humorous takes on fairy tales.  You may find some of the stories funny while others you may not.  That’s the nature of comedy, though.  It’s highly subjective.  However, with so many different writers and artists in this one book, there’s a good chance that you’ll find something that’ll make you giggle.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Fairy Tale Fandom Book Report: Bitter Greens.

Well, I’ve finally done it!  I’ve finally caught up enough with my prose reading to get to read Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth.
This is my library book, there are many like it but this one is mine!
This book has had the attention of the fairy tale fan community for a while now.  It’s only just now that I’ve managed to get through all the other half-started, half-finished and otherwise looming books on my shelf to get to read this.

Ms. Kate Forsyth herself.
What Australian author Kate Forsyth has done is combine historical fiction with fairy tale retelling.  The story tells the tale of Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force who has been exiled from the court of Versailles by King Louis XIV.  Despite growing up a Huguenot, she’s forced to take refuge at a Catholic nunnery where she’s separated from the life and wealth she’s come to rely on.  While staying there, she makes the acquaintance of Soeur Seraphina, a nun who tells her a remarkable story about a young girl named Margherita and Selena Leonelli, the witch who locks her in a tower with no door or stairs.

For those not in the know, Charlotte-Rose de la Force is one of the many writers who has written the story that has come to be known as “Rapunzel” today.  The earliest version was “Petrosinella” written by Giambatista Basile.  Then came Charlotte-Rose de la Force’s “Persinette” and finally the Grimms’ “Rapunzel”.  Forsyth manages to weave the tale and her own historical tale about Charlotte-Rose de la Force into one book that focuses on the different forms of imprisonment someone can find themselves in.  Margherita is locked in a tower and before that an orphanage run by nuns.  Charlotte-Rose is  trapped in a nunnery, but there were also times when the conventions of court life held her captive.  Even the witch is trapped in a way, though it’s mostly in a prison of her own making.  However, as is the case with the “Rapunzel” story, it’s not just a story about imprisonment but about how love can set us free.

King Louis XIV
The book is well-written.  The structure of it jumps backwards and forwards in time a little bit.  I will admit that I was often a little more interested in Margherita’s or Selena Leonelli’s stories than in Charlotte-Rose’s story.  However, that’s probably more indicative of my own tastes as a perpetual fairy tale reader than an indication of anything wrong with the book.  Now, I have to make this clear: this is definitely a book for grown-ups.  There are various racy parts throughout the story as Charlotte-Rose’s various love affairs are detailed.  The curtain also isn’t really pulled on what Margherita and her “Prince” are doing up in that tower.  In fact, there are a couple scenes where I kind of felt like I could use a cold shower afterward.  So, I’d think twice before recommending this book to your mom, your teenage daughter or the wife of your local pastor.

One of the things I found interesting in the book is one of the central themes that appears in Forsyth’s rendering of Margherita/Petrosinella/Persinette as well as various other retellings of Rapunzel.  In almost every retelling of this story I know, there’s this idea that in some way the witch is trying to stop the march of time.  In some cases, it’s only that she’s trying to stop the flow of time for her erstwhile prisoner and in other cases she’s also trying to do it for herself.  This makes sense when you realize that in most old written versions of this story, Rapunzel/Persinette/Petrosinella is imprisoned at the age of twelve.  This means that she’s locked up right at the beginning of her adolescence.  It’s like the witch is trying to keep her from going out into the world and interacting with it as an adult.  It’s reminiscent of the part in Into the Woods when the witch tells Rapunzel “stay a child while you can stay a child”.  Some adaptations also add a more self-serving aspect by having the witch try to stop time for herself as well.  Disney’s Tangled took this route by having Mother Gothel use Rapunzel to stay young.  I don’t want to give too much away, but Selena Leonelli has a similar plan in mind for Margherita.  It’s  just a more sanguinary approach that involves less singing and magic, glowing hair.
One of many Rapunzel illustrations out there.
Bitter Greens is a solid novel.  If you like historical fiction, you’ll probably like it.  If you like fairy tale retellings, you’ll probably like it.  If you like both, then boy are you in luck.  These days it seems like we’ve seen any number of other genres fused with fairy tales, so it’s nice to see another added to the list.  By now, you can probably tell if this book interests you or not.  However, I’d like to finish by giving you a few links.  First is Kate Forsyth’s blog which can be found HERE.  Next is the text of Basile’s “Petrosinella” which can be found HERE.  Sadly, Mlle. De la Force’s “Persinette” does not seem to be on the internet.  Not even the reliable D.L. Ashliman seems able to help me here.  I’m going to have to leave you to find that one on your own.

Anyway, until next time, this is the Fairy Tale Geek signing off.