In my recent state-of-the-blog address, I grumpily whinged about my problems in sourcing review copies, but (as every long-term reviewer knows) the truth is that the publisher isn’t always the one at fault. You see, a couple of years back, one of my favourite suppliers of East Asian writing, Columbia University Press, wrote asking whether I’d be interested in taking a look at a collection of mediaeval Japanese stories, and (of course) I said I’d love to. Sadly, two years later, the book was still sitting on a shelf in my personal J-Lit library, staring reproachfully at me every time I picked up something shorter and more contemporary…
I’m sorry. But I did get there eventually.
The title of Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales (edited by Keller Kimbrough and Haruo Shirane) says it all, really, as that’s exactly what you get from this book. Included are twenty-five translations of otogizōshi, traditional entertaining tales that are a category apart from the more standard monogatari, not least for their inventive content. Shirane’s informative introduction explores the origins of the format, stressing its visual nature, with the tales usually accompanied by images, whether they be integrated manga-style, occasionally inserted into a (scroll) text or simply shown during an oral performance. This volume takes one existing text as the source for each translation, and the reader is treated to several images to supplement the stories (sadly only black and white – you can’t have everything).
The editors divide the pieces into three thematic sections, each focusing on a slightly different kind of tale. The first is called ‘Monsters, Warriors, and Journeys to Other Worlds’ and features some of the most memorable tales, and characters, in Japanese fiction. The stars here are often the villains, such as a seven-foot-tall rebel with six body doubles, or a spider that can shape-shift, taking on the form of a beautiful woman. Chief among these is Shuten Dōji, a demon whose demise is chronicled in one of the first stories, and just in case you thought prequels were the exclusive property of Marvel superhero movies, a later piece actually explores the origins of the gigantic demon king.
Another feature of the stories in the first part is the use of actual historical figures as protagonists in (hopefully…) fictional tales. Both the spider and Shuten Dōji are brought to justice by Minamoto no Yorimitsu, a well-known aristocrat, and Minamoto no Yoshitsune, one of the heroes depicted in The Tale of the Heike, has even more fun here. In ‘The Palace of the Tengu’, he meets the king of the legendary Japanese creatures and visits all 136 Buddhist hells in his company, while ‘Yoshitsune’s Island Hopping’, a story with strong echoes of Gulliver’s Travels, sees him visiting many strange realms in his search for a set of legendary scrolls.
There are religious aspects to most of these stories, but this is more explicit in the middle section, ‘Buddhist Tales’. Here, the storytellers do their best to scare sinners back onto the straight and narrow by showing what happens to those who go astray. For example, in ‘The Tale of the Fuji Cave’, a man is given a guided tour of Hell, with careful explanations of what’s happening to those unlucky enough to be trapped there:
Several demons were stuffing a seven-foot priest into a “dragon-mouth” water-spout. They squeezed six and a half quarts of greasy fat from his body in a single day. “This man became a priest, but he couldn’t read and he knew nothing of the sutras and sutra commentaries. He never offered incense or flowers to the Buddha; instead, he spent his life caring for his own family alone. People like him are doomed to suffer in this way for nine thousand years.”
‘The Tale of the Fuji Cave’, p.208 (Columbia University Press, 2018)
In truth, this story is not for the faint of heart as it delights in graphic descriptions of what awaits sinners, with women particularly at risk of millennia of damnation…
Of course, the flip side of this is that those who do behave properly are suitably rewarded. ‘The Crone Fleece’ is a sort of Cinderella story (with Kannon as the fairy godmother), in which a beautiful young woman is shielded from unwelcome attention on a perilous journey thanks to a magic cloak (and is then found out by a mediaeval Japanese Prince Charming…). Meanwhile, the main character of ‘The Tale of the Handcart Priest’ shows that if you are devout enough, nothing can perturb you, even if a horde of mischievous tengu decide that it’s time for you to be taught a lesson or two.
In truth, though, with the rather repetitive and scholarly nature of this middle section (the footnotes, always expansive, seem to reach their peak here), I was glad to move on to the final part, ‘Interspecies Affairs’, for some more light-hearted pieces. These stories focus on animals and their interactions with humans and other creatures, and there are actually several where the affairs are of the physical kind. ‘The Tale of the Mouse’ has Kannon taking pity on a devout rodent and helping him to make a (short-lived) marriage with a human wife, while ‘The Tale of Tamamizu’ sees a fox (often a malevolent force in Japanese folktales) falling in love with a woman and transforming into a beautiful handmaiden, simply to be next to his beloved. A less poignant take on this interspecies marriage theme is provided by the events of ‘The Stingfish’, in which a mountain god falls in love with a rather unattractive fish, much to the astonishment of all concerned.
Perhaps the best fun here is to be had in one of the most famous stories, ‘The War of the Twelve Animals’. Most readers will have heard of the twelve creatures used in the Chinese Zodiac (happy Year of the Rat, by the way), but I suspect that fewer will have thought about the jealousy they inspire in other animals. Never fear – this story shows what happens when the legendary dozen quarrel with a tanuki (raccoon-dog), whose anger leads to a full-blown conflict:
A force of over three hundred warriors gathered in a fortress on the tanuki’s mound, and they all deliberated and took counsel. From among them, the impetuous wolf came forward and said,” In order to achieve a victory in this matter, the best thing to do is as follows. It goes against the grain to let this month pass fruitlessly. However, the first day of the ninth month is an unlucky day. Let us advance on them on the evening of the second, toward the end of the hour of the dog, and make a night attack.” When he said this, all of them agreed.
‘The War of the Twelve Animals’, pp.394-6
Alas, the best laid schemes of foxes and wolves gang aft agley, and it’s clear from the start that the rebels are in for a hiding. Well, when your opponents can rustle up a few dozen dragons at a moment’s notice…
With its copious footnotes and the occasional obsession with Buddhist scriptures (and hells…), Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds probably isn’t for everyone, and it’s definitely a book to be savoured over a long period rather than devoured. However, there’s a whole lot to enjoy here, including the many pictures accompanying the text, and even if not all of the stories are wonderful, there are plenty that are thoroughly enjoyable, and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, too. Demons, animal wars, warrior fan-fiction – what’s not to like? If that sounds like your kind of book, then I highly recommend it 😉
The stories were translated by:
Kristopher L. Reeves – Matthieu Felt – Keller Kimbrough – David Atherton
Charles Woolley – Raechel Dumas – Tamara Solomon – Paul S. Atkins – Rachel Staum Mei
Melissa McCormick – William Bryant – Laura K. Nüffer – Sarah E. Thompson
Many thanks to everyone involved 🙂