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.


  1. Intriguing question! I was never all that bothered by Cinderella's passivity, but for those that are, there are countless folkloric versions in which she is more active, or the movie "Ever After" which influenced how I see Cinderella. Same thing with Bluebeard-the Perrault version is pretty maddening, but in several similar tales the heroine is brave and often saves herself, and her curiosity is seen as a good thing.

  2. Would the story of Coppelia, the ballet, count? It's based on two ETA Hoffman stories, which I haven't read. I've actually only ever read Coppelia as a story, I've never seen it onstage. Originally it was never particularly interesting to me, but then I read about a re-imagined version by director/choreographer/dancer Roland Petit which had Coppelius deliberately create the doll to look exactly like Swanilda because he's in love with Swanilda, not just due to convenient coincidence for later plot developments. Creepy, but it made the story less of the "...and then this happened" variety to me. I then found my interest in the story renewed again later on when I thought about gender-reversing Coppelius and Swanilda, just because you don't usually see a female character as the highly intelligent, yet creepy and entitled, villain who objectifies a man (or... man-ifies an object?).

  3. Weirdly I find myself oten subconsciously doing that. Often when I find a folktale, story or or movie (doesn't seem to work with books, most likely because I won't finish them if I really don't like them) particularly unpleasant, my mind will begin to rerite it and when years later someone tells me about how much a certain story blows, I get confused, because in my memoy it wasn't *that* bad.