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Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan

by Rui Umezawa; Mikiko Fujita (illus.)

When it comes to traditional tales – folk and fairy alike – much has been lost to the Disneyfication of our culture. While the animated features are frequently charming (who can resist a calypso-singing crab?), they bear little tonal resemblance to the original materials from which they are drawn. The ineffable strangeness and dreamlike semi-logic of the stories are lost in whitewashed lessons and happy endings.

9781554987238_1024x1024Such endings aren’t an issue in Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan from Toronto writer and storyteller Rui Umezawa. Drawing on recollections of Japanese folk tales the author first heard in childhood, Umezawa has crafted a selection of eight revisions.

Umezawa resists the urge to update the tales: the historic settings are crucial for stories like “Snow,” in which a woodcutter’s mother is murdered during a winter storm, the murderess swearing the son to secrecy in exchange for his life. When a mysterious woman enters the picture, the woodcutter’s own memories come into doubt. The hero (I use the term loosely) of “Paradise” is a fisherman with a taste for sake whose father drowns. He is drawn into an undersea wonderland (complete with a beautiful woman) after rescuing a sea turtle. True heroism is on display in “Honor,” which is part ghost story, part vengeance tale, but rooted in both the loving relationship between two samurai and the depths of the honour by which they live. It’s a beautiful, eerie story,
by turns emotionally resonant and unsettling.

Umezawa deftly captures the inherent strangeness of these tales, the odd suspension of logic that has drawn writers like Angela Carter (whose groundbreaking collection, The Bloody Chamber, revisited traditional European tales) to similar source material, without any pretense to imposing crisp meanings or blatant morals. The stories in Strange Light Afar are populated with magical creatures and fallible characters; the frisson between them creates vitality and vibrancy.

Perhaps most significantly, Umezawa (with powerful assistance from Mikiko Fujita’s restrained illustrations) is able to maintain the amorphous approach to audience that has always characterized stories like these. While we think of fairy tales as being intended for children (and this collection is published and marketed as such), the stories themselves defy such easy categorization. Strange Light Afar can be read, with much delight and thoughtfulness, by adults, and the inclusion of narratives that feature genuine peril and murder seem more suited to an adult readership.

And yet, these stories – and others like them – have been read (or told) to children for centuries. There is much to be gained by sharing them with younger children (though, perhaps not as bedtime stories). These tales would serve as an effective antidote to the glossy allure of movies and screens, and could, potentially, open a child’s eyes to worlds we are in peril of losing.