Paperback, 227 pages
Published June 16th 2010 by Uno Press
Source: Personal Copy
Naoko Awa’s collection of stories, translated by Toshiya Kamei, gives a glimpse of the tales Japanese children grow up hearing and reading. In his introduction to the collection, Kamei talks about his own childhood and how Awa’s presence, through her stories, made her seem like a “second mother” to him. The following review will dip into some of these stories and attempt to get across the general feeling these short tales evoked without getting into too much detail.
Having experienced collections of Grimm’s fairytales and collected works of Hans Christian Anderson and Perrault, I was prepared for didactic stories which were heavy on the morals. I was surprised when what I got was anything but. In the titular story, “The Fox’s Window,” a hunter comes across a shape shifting fox who (in his human form) dyes the hunter’s fingers blue and creates a window for him to look through. When the hunter looks through this window, he sees the people he has lost contact with and those who are no longer able to be with him. Unfortunately, he washes his hands before he realizes that the dye will wash off.
There are no obvious morals to the stories nor do they attempt to be even remotely didactic. There are several tales that end quite happily even though the protagonist has misbehaved or has not kept a promise. Other tales provide a merging of the mystical and the mundane. For example, a lonely old woman who makes up tales about a son, his wife and three children is visited by tanuki, badgers who assume human forms to be with her. They provide her with happiness and she, even knowing their true forms, dotes on them. There is a gentleness to the stories that is starkly missing in the European fairytales.
Some of the tales do not have any obvious beginnings and they peter off without having a definite end. I believe they are meant to give a peek into someone’s life and then retreat. But there are also other stories which show the triumph of brave young protagonists who use the wisdom passed down from their elders to extract themselves from sticky situations. One such tale is “The First Day of Snow” which tells the story of a young girl who gets caught in a long line of snow rabbits who bring first snow to the world. It’s only by the use of her cunning and her grandmother’s advice that she is able to move out of her place in the line and return home. Another of my favourite tales, “Wind Chime in Autumn” is one where cosmos write indignant postcards complaining about a wind chime that disrupts their growing.
Awa’s collection of stories does not just provide an escape into fascinating worlds where sunflowers fall in love and fish grant wishes, it also gives a hint of the rich Japanese culture which gave genesis to these tales. The gentleness of the stories, the lack of didacticism and preaching will make this novel a favourite with any child. Fairytales, as noted by many theorists, can provide the initial venues through which children assimilate culture. One wonders how Western children would turn out were they told Awa’s stories instead of the much darker, more didactic European tales.