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.