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Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2000

Childish reading for kids and adults

TALE OF THE BAMBOO CUTTER, by Kawabata Yasunari, translated by Donald Keene, illustrations by Miyata Masayuki. Kodansha Intl., 1998, 177 pp., 2,300 yen.
SOMETHING NICE: Songs for Children, by Kaneko Misuzu, translated by D.P. Dutcher, Japan University Library Association, 1999, 146 pp., 2,500 yen.

These two delightful books are both bilingual, reasonably priced and suitable to give as presents. Adults would enjoy them, but they will appeal especially to children.

"The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter," or "Taketori Monogatari," is not only Japan's oldest tale, but also its most frequently retold and perennially attractive. As Donald Keene observes in the preface to the story, its origins go back over 1,000 years, and its author is unknown. The version of the tale that he translates, in this soft-bound boxed edition, is a retelling by the novelist Kawabata Yasunari, Japan's first Nobel laureate in literature.

The tale is sometimes also known as "Kaguya-hime," or "The Shining Princess," after the name of its protagonist. It tells of an extraterrestrial princess of great beauty, who refuses all her earthly suitors before returning to her home on the moon. She is discovered one day as a child by the bamboo cutter, her tiny form resting in a hollow stalk of bamboo. Thinking her abandoned, he takes her home, and he and his wife raise her as their own. This brings riches and good fortune to her newfound parents and her beauty wins renown.

As a grown woman, the Shining Princess is then besieged by suitors. To discourage their attentions, which are unwelcome to her, she sets impossible tasks for five of the most ardent. Their adventures, and each one's separate undoing, make up the central portion of the story. Following these episodes, the Emperor himself comes to beg for her hand -- or even for a glimpse of her -- and is frostily refused. He finally contrives a meeting with her, but she remains intransigent.

The story, as Keene explains, can be read on different levels. In the first place, it is simply a good yarn, one that children will enjoy. Beyond that it is also a fairy story, with at certain points the deep psychological reach of myth and legend. And finally, though its origins remain obscure, it seems likely that it was written as a satire, mocking certain figures of the time. So it is a work, like "Gulliver's Travels," that adults can return to for a second look.

The first cumbrous translation of this story, by F. Victor Dickins and also in a bilingual edition, appeared in London in 1888. The following year, another one, by Rothesay Millar, came out in Tokyo, only in English, but beautifully illustrated and bound with string like a traditional Japanese book. Since then there have been numerous versions, each with its own special flavor.

The volume under review offers one of the most faithful and readable versions of the story, vividly illustrated with "kirie," or cutout pictures, by Miyata Masayuki. The Japanese and English texts are printed on facing pages, the former with "furigana" for easy perusal and the whole supplemented at the end with a more ancient text, this time only in Japanese. Adult readers might want to explore Keene's scholarly appraisals elsewhere.

About 50 of the poems Kaneko Misuzu (1903-30) wrote for children -- the Japanese equivalent of nursery rhymes -- were published in three handwritten notebooks of her writing unearthed in 1982. These contained over 500 poems, which were then edited and published to considerable acclaim.

Most bookshops in Japan now carry several editions of this poet's work, often in smaller selections than the large collected edition on the shelves beside them. Books are being written about her poetry as well, and she has been the subject of a television drama. The joy and wonder in her poems has proved an inspiration to many of her readers.

The poem with which "Something Nice" begins is discussed in approving terms in one of the books about her, by a Buddhist priest. The poem is called "Me, a Songbird, and a Bell." In two short verses, Kaneko looks at the different thing that each of them can do, and concludes:Bell, songbird, and meAll different, all just right.Keen attentiveness and generosity of spirit are fundamental to her outlook.

In every one of the 64 poems in this book, Kaneko looks at the world with the bright-eyed alertness of a child. All the poems are short, rhythmical and in wonderfully simple language, as they must be for children to enjoy them. They tell stories about birds and flowers and the experiences of childhood, sometimes with a gentle moral or a twist. Besides rejoicing in what she finds around her, the poet is sometimes perplexed by it as well.

Doesn't that big haul of fish celebrated on the seashore mean there is sadness out there underneath the sea? It is the ingenuous and disarming question of a child, and if is disarming because, in its simple directness, it is profound:Out of the mudBlooms the lotus.It's not the lotusThat does it. . . .("Lotus and Chick")It's weird howShiny silver raindrops fallFrom black clouds. . . .("It's Weird")The ends of these poems suggest, ever so lightly, that much more is going on than what we see.

Ideally, the world should be all joy and blessing, as in the poem that gives the book its title, and which ends with these lines:Places whereI once did something nice,I feel goodEach time I pass.But life unfortunately isn't always like that, as children learn to understand:If dreams were real and real things dream,Wouldn't it be nice?In dream nothing's settled for good,So wouldn't it be nice? . . . ("Dream and Reality")

Beyond her smooth and skillful use of words in the verses quoted, Kaneko has a genuine imaginative grasp of things:Boats that reach portAll have sails black with age,And boats far off shoreOnly bright, shining white ones. . . .("Sails")The big clock by the old harborHad six o'clock at the top.For some reason its two handsWere moving counter-clockwise . . .("Strange Harbor")

Verses in "Sky-Blue Flowers" remind us slightly of the young Shining Princess in Ichikawa's film:Dawn to dusk the blue skyShining in her eyes,They turned one day to little flowersThat even now watch the sky.The next verse says:If what I say is right, why,Flowers, you must knowMore about the real true skyThan wise professors do.Which is indeed something to consider.

Kaneko Misuzu (whose real name was Teru) grew up in Senzaki, a small fishing port on the Japan Sea side of Yamaguchi Prefecture. When her father died, she helped her mother run a small bookshop and later ran one of her own in Shimonoseki. This gave her access to the magazines in which she published poems. A note in the book says simply that after that she died, at the age of 26. In fact she was married briefly and divorced. On losing the custody of her only child, she committed suicide, which is something not so nice.

In her range and themes, Kaneko Misuzu is a sort of cross between Emily Dickinson and Beatrix Potter. Her fluent, accomplished and quirkily engaging poems have been much admired, but there is a hint of sadness in them too -- not least when we think of her short life, and the unfulfilled promise of her talent. This is the second volume of her work in English, the first, called "Rainbows on Eyelashes" and also from JULA, being mainly notable for its lovely pictures.

This new hardback selection is another pretty volume. D.P. Dutcher's versions do not precisely match the original forms, but their rhythms become apparent when he reads them, as he does on the CD that accompanies the book. Japanese and English appear once more on facing pages, and it is only a pity that the Japanese was not recorded too. A child conversant with either language will find this book rewarding, as will anyone who wants to try reading simple poetry in Japanese.

The address of Japan University Library Assn.: 3-3-22 Takada, Toshima-ku, Tokyo 171-0033.

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