Sometimes a book can be judged by its cover. Once the raised embossed graphic designs and figures on the cover of Tales of Japan: Traditional Stories of Monster and Magic are touched and seen, the journey to an ancient and mythical Japan has already begun.
Between the covers is a compilation of 15 tales taken from two early 20th Century collections, Kwaidan by Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904), and Japanese Fairy Tales by Yei Theodora Ozaki (1871-1932). Many are familiar with Hearn’s Kwaidan because of the classic Japanese film of the same name, or because of Monique Troung’s recent novel, The Sweetest Fruits. Ozaki is best known for her elegant adaptations of Japanese folk stories into English.
Even after a century, these English versions remain robust and fresh due to the narrative skills of Ozaki and Hearn and their insider’s knowledge of Japan. Any remaining hint of archaic usage or words only adds to the illusion of a distant time and place. Both writers also had a good sense of which Japanese words to keep intact and to explain. Simply, better versions are difficult to imagine.
The title, Tales of Japan is keenly apt, as is its avoidance of the term “fairy tales” and its inherent connotations. These are not the blissfully innocent stories most associate with that label, but rather this collection’s title presages the other-worldly strangeness in some of the stories. As such, parents should screen stories before sharing with little ones.
The selections of stories are all appropriate with the theme of monsters, ghosts and magic. Some will be familiar, such as Momotaro, or the Story of the Son of a Peach and The Bamboo cutter and the Moon Child, but others are far lesser known. The length of each varies, with some only spanning only a few pages and others considerably longer, but all are fascinating and easily consumable. As such, Tales of Japan is a good introduction to the stories, and interested readers can easily find others in readily available full collections, even online.
Given that, why this new edition? Readers will understand once this book is actually in their hands.
The magic of Tales of Japan largely happens because of Kotaro Chiba’s evocative illustrations and the book’s presentation of them. A Niigata-based illustrator, Chiba is superbly fluent in the visual language of manga, anime, as well as traditional Japanese art. Typically, his work strongly leans toward a pop and manga style, but the tendencies here lean toward the traditional. As such, they evoke the ancient, but in a modern new guise. The illustrations’ successful synthesis proves that Chiba is a master of the old and the new, as well as the beautiful and the disturbing.
Like the books from the Golden Age of American illustrators (novels illustrated by N.C. Wyeth come to mind), each story begins with a single mysterious illustration. So powerfully evocative are Chiba’s illustrations that only one per chapter is allocated and more seem unnecessary. As great book illustrations do, they reveal things beyond what most readers can imagine, thus transporting them through the story’s gateway into a faraway world. The marriage of picture and text is harmonious and perfect.
Tales of Japan is a rare book in a digital age, with its craft-like construction of its embossed cover, sewn signatures, ribbon bookmark, carefully chosen typeface, graphic inside covers, with all for an extremely reasonable price. Sized for reading comfort and not oversized for drama, readers will turn its pages with tactile intention with their eyes savoring each story’s rare illustration as their minds spin into fantastic worlds. Tales of Japan is a star performer for the lovers of books and fantastic stories.