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Sunday, July 27, 2003

THE ASIAN BOOKSHELF

A laconic energy from days gone by

Traditional tales that surprise the new reader


By TIMOTHY HARRIS
TALES OF DAYS GONE BY: Woodcuts by Naoko Matsubara, English translation and annotation by Charles De Wolf, design by Yoshiki Waterhouse. ALIS, 2003, 64 pp., 3,900 yen (cloth).

ALIS (Arts & Literature International Service) is a small Japanese publisher that specializes in illustrated books and acts as a kind of bridge between Japan and the West, particularly England. Japan has its own tradition of illustrated books, but at the outset it was the English tradition of books illustrated with wood engravings that was the stimulus. ALIS began by publishing Japanese editions of the English woodcut engraver Yvonne Skargon's best-selling books about cats, and has since gone on to publish illustrated translations of classical Japanese literature. "Tales of Days Gone By" is a translation of 17 stories from the Late Heian (late 11th or early 12th century) collection "Konjaku monogatari shu," which contains over 1,200 tales.

The choice of both the literary work and the individual stories was made by Naoko Matsubara, a wonderful artist whose work is in many important public collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and the British Museum. Her work is remarkable for its expressive freedom and energy, and she uses the large format of this book to great effect, pouring into her work a variety of techniques. Being heir to the Japanese tradition, she often adopts the unusual and imaginative viewpoint found in the work of Edo Period (1603-1857) artists like Utagawa Hiroshige. Such a viewpoint is used to grandly vertiginous effect, as in the picture of a demon playing the stolen imperial biwa on top of the Rashomon gate as a courtier peers up from below ("A Demon Steals the Genjo Biwa"), or in the picture of a woman transformed into a serpent and flaming with rage as she rushes toward the Dojo-ji temple bell beneath which the acolyte she loves has hidden himself ("The Lotus Sutra Saves Two Serpents").

Surface patterns predominate, and what depth there is in these woodcut prints is created by means of strongly opposed diagonals that create torsion against the picture plane. Or, like the Edo artist Kitagawa Utamaro, Matsubara will use intense close-ups, sometimes rendered more intense by the cropping of the original print, as in the great whirl of movement of the eagle in the illustration for the story "An Infant in Tajima is Carried Off by an Eagle." For the depiction of the battle between a giant serpent and a giant centipede ("Seven Fishermen Come to the Aid of the Serpent God"), the artist isolates the figures on the two edges of facing pages, creating a huge tension between them as they threaten each other across an expanse of white page and text.

Always, it is the sense of movement that impresses, and never more so than in the picture for "An Amorous Priest Hides in a Chinese Chest," where the priest is being bundled by an adulterous wife's ladies-in-waiting into a Chinese chest; the rhythm of this scene is extraordinarily powerful, and beautiful. This last picture is monochrome -- a delicate crimson in this case, the outlines of the figures being left uncolored -- as are a number of others. The artist clearly likes to confine her palette to, at the most, three or four strong colors that are often set in opposition to one another, contributing to the energy of the design. Two exceptions are the lovely abstract designs representing woven silk that accompany the first story. Here the colors crisscross each other, creating a sense of an expanding harmony.

In his translation, Charles De Wolf has chosen to use an archaic style of English that captures the flavor of the stories very well. "Konjaku monogatari shu" is, by professed intent, a didactic collection, where a certain stylization was imposed on the heterogeneous set of stories selected. In most cases a Buddhist moral was attached to the tales, which opened with the formula "Ima wa mukashi" ("In days gone by") and closed with the formula "To nan katari-tsutaeru to ya" ("And so the tale has come down to us").

In his brief introduction, De Wolf tells us that the original stories of "Konjaku monogatari shu" were written in a mixture of wabun (native Japanese) and kanbun (classical Chinese), and that both form and content are "brusquely masculine," a characteristic that his translation certainly possesses. So far only a few selections of the tales have been translated into English, and De Wolf expresses the hope that one day a complete translation of this important work will appear: I feel he should get down to it himself.

The stories chosen for this selection have been put into three categories, "Tales of Women," "Tales of Wonder" and "Tales of Buddhism." For all the didactic intention and the earnestness that De Wolf remarks upon, they are wonderfully various, giving a far more complete portrait of Japanese society than do the court novels and diaries of the early Heian period (794-1185). Like all good stories, they are not reducible to their morals but appeal first of all to the imagination. The compilers (presumably there were more than one) clearly loved and respected their materials, and the earnestness they have felt impelled to impose comes across, on occasion, as a kind of deadpan humor that you feel they could not have been unaware of.

These laconically told stories certainly do not lack art, and you can see from this selection why "Konjaku monogatari" has been so important in Japanese literature as a kind of source book for subsequent writers down to very recent times: Ryunosuke Akutagawa's famous "Rashomon" and "In a Grove," which Akira Kurosawa drew on to make the film "Rashomon," are adaptations of tales from this ancient collection. "Tales of Days Gone By" can be ordered directly from the publisher: ALIS, 7-14-6 Todoroki, Setagaya-ku, Tokyo 158-0082. Tel/fax: 03-5707-2664; or e-mail: alis-jp@mwa.biglobe.ne.jp. See the Web site: www5a.biglobe.ne.jp/~alis/ (Japanese).



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