Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Marie Mutsuki Mockett Guest Post: Japanese Fairy Tales

Fairy tales cast a spell on the mind. And not just because they often feature magic cauldrons or evil witches. We imprint on fairy tales when we are young. We learn about brave men on dragon-battling-quests and women yearning to get out of towers. Over time, the predicaments of these princes and princesses don’t seem too far from the psychological reality of the real world.

Something else happens too—we learn to expect certain things from stories. They will unfold in a certain manner. We will encounter danger, but this tension will resolve. And even though the modern novel has come a long way from ending either in a wedding or a funeral, I think there’s still something in our culture that looks for and yearns for this kind of conclusion: the prince and princess end up together, or we will find redemption despite loss, or even death.

My mother, who is from Japan, tried to teach me her language. I resisted, but she had a powerful arsenal: Japanese fairy tales. Seductively, she’d pull out the story of “Kaguyahime: The Bamboo Princess,” who was discovered by a poor bamboo cutter inside a fat bamboo stalk. The baby grew up to be the most beautiful and accomplished woman in Japan. Men came from all the corners of the island to try to woo and win her love. Except, unlike a western fairy tale where someone would eventually succeed, no prince ever managed to capture the bamboo princess’ heart. The story takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when Kaguyahime reveals her true identity—she is from the kingdom of the moon—and flies away, leaving everyone broken-hearted. Something about this accomplished but unattainable woman always captivated me. My mother and I would sit together and she would read a line in Japanese. Then I would read a line. Then I would read a page. On we would go until we were finished, and then we would begin again.

A couple of things happened as a result. I have a crude but efficient ability to read Japanese; I speak it much more fluently. This means I’m lucky enough to go to Japan and to be able to converse with friends and family and, more recently, interview people for stories and essays. On a practical level, it also means I’m never hungry in a restaurant, and never completely lost. It means I’m not afraid to travel and certainly not scared to try out new languages. But something else happened too. As much as my brain was programmed by the western fairy tales I read with my father, I know I’m also wired to feel comfortable with stories from Japan. And by this, I don’t mean novels written by westerners about Japan, or how they think Japan might be, but stories that actually originate from the culture itself.

If you are at all familiar with Hayao Miyazaki, or anime and manga, or even Haruki Murakami, then you too know that Japanese stories develop in unexpected ways. Inanimate bjects spring to life. An apparently linear narrative will veer in another direction.

Evil things don’t necessarily stay evil; fans of the movie Spirited Away can recall the moment when Zeniba, the big nosed sorceress whom the audience thinks is responsible for turning the parents of Sen, our heroine, into pigs, invites the little girl to sit down for tea . . . and becomes benevolent.

Recently, a friend who had read and loved my novel, Picking Bones from Ash, asked me to come visit her college class. She’s teaching a course on fairy tales, and she thought it would be fun if I discussed the first chapter of my book with her class. And then I thought: why not also teach her students something about Japanese fairy tales?

I’d spent some time thinking about Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan, and its very animistic sensibility, and how this lingering sense that anything can be alive permeates everything from a beautifully designed toilet seat, to Hello Kitty. I put together a forty-five minute talk. I’ve given the talk twice, and what’s impressed me is how easily kids understand it. The world of anime and manga and even video games has made an aspect of contemporary Japanese culture very accessible to this new generation. As an artist, I find this flexibility, this openness to a new way of telling stories to be tremendously exciting.

Now I want to get them reading. This is a very open-minded generation. It's going to be interesting to see what they create--and what they accept as art.

Some writers shy away from anything having to do with fairy tales, seeing them as childish, obsessed with the supernatural and overly simplistic often. I see their point of view. The beauty of adult fiction is that it offers us richness and a complex and often more conscious reflection of the world than we were able to apprehend as children. Not all fairy tale/fantasy derived work can do this. However, my favorite writers are aware of the lasting impact of fairy tales on their own art, and on our culture. And I like to stand with them.

Perhaps I’ll see you on November 30th, at the Hillside Club in Berkeley, for an evening of Japanese fairy tales, and religion and storytelling and more.

PS--Obviously, the lecture isn't just for kids. It's just that, if you have a kid inside you, you might like it more.


  1. Hi, Marie,
    Japanese was the 2nd language I learned to speak, but it is my first written language. I learned to sing in Japanese and the pull of the mukashibanashi is still strong in me. The endings don't necessary make sense in the way children's fables do in the West. The endings are enigmatic, making me wonder about their significance throughout my adult years.

    So good to meet you in NYC and here on Aggie's The Well-Read Donkey.

    Belle Yang

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