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Japanese literature and mythology

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    Jon Hooper

    This not really a Kurosawa inquiry, but reading Vili’s post about the Noh masks behind the characters in Throne of Blood and then browsing through descriptions of some of the figures in Japanese folklore, I realised that it might be worth my while reading up on figures like the Yamanba (the witch in Throne of Blood) and also the Yuki-onna (the snow woman of Dreams).

    My particular interest apart from movies is literature and particularly literature that deals with mythology or folklore. I have read very little translated from Japanese – I have the Yoshikawa Musashi novel and a couple of anthologies of modern stories from the Showa era and very little else. I wonder if anyone here has done more reading in Japanese literature and knows of any good anthologies (or indeed any novels or narrative poems) that are based on folklore or myths. I seem to remember that Kwaidan is based on Japanese ghost stories but I don’t remember if these are genuine folk tales or not. For me, by the way, older is generally better – my favourite works of literature include things like middle english poems, Dante, The Odyssey, Chengen Wu’s Journey to the West etc. I’d appreciate it if someone could recommend something in translation as I’m not lucky enough to be able to speak Japanese.

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    Jeremy

    the stories in Kwaiden are real folklores from a Greek-Irish writer Hearn, he moved to Japan and absorbed the culture, and even though he is not Japanese, the stories are of Japanese folklore and represent perfectly Japanese culture. Kwaidan is a great movie, but it has many aspects of Kabuki and Bunraku(puppet) theatre so a few things are stylized beyond that of written Japanese folklore, however they dont effect the film in a negative manner.

    I have several stories that if I can find, can give in a .pdf files, however they are all in Japanese, and are poorly translated by me. The only good part of the translation is I didnt use any translation programs because most of it wouldnt work and require understanding why some words are used and their dual meanings and assumed information. So I did my best to translate, however a great deal of the story is lost in translation.

    In Houston, Tx there is a large Houston -Japanese Society festival (which I’ve been apart of on and off for the last 6 years) going down on this weekend, where I know a few native Japanese people that are that teach Japanese culture for university.I will ask them for some advice.

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    Vili Maunula

    Quite a number of Japanese myth and folk tale collections are available in print, begging the question why you are after (if I understood correctly) literature based on Japanese myth and folklore?

    My introduction to Japanese folklore, just like so many others’ has been, was A.B. Mitford’s Tales of Old Japan. It seems to be available at Project Gutenberg, if you are interested.

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    Jon Hooper

    Vili, I’ve had a look through Tales of Old Japan and it looks just the sort of thing I’d be interested in. I’m going to try to get a paper copy though (hopefully through Bookmooch or a similar site) as I don’t like reading books online. I don’t quite understand your confusion between collections of folktales and literature to be honest. The truth is, I often read folk tales and myths in modern retellings, and would be happy to get my hands on something of the ilk for Japanese myth, but I also like to read classics and poetry which use folktale and myth as subject matter. For example, then, I have books which collect various Arthurian myths retold for the modern reader but I also enjoy Mallory, Chretein de Troyes, Tennyson, the Gawain poet etc. As well as an anthology of Japanese tales I would like to know what are considered the classics of Japanese literature, and I say “based on” myth and legend because I love myth and most enjoy writers and poets who use myth, though obviously it’s not a pre-requisite for enjoyment.

    Jeremy, if you could, through the attendees of the Japanese culture festival, give me any other pointers for something to read that is available in English translation, I would be most grateful. As I say, I love folk tales and particularly those which feature ghosts, spirits, monsters etc, and I also appreciate great writing.

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    Vili Maunula

    I don’t really like reading books online, either. And printing out the Gutenberg texts costs too much, too, unless you can use a work printer…

    As for modern retellings of myths and legends, I guess it all depends on what sort of an experience you are after. It is just my feeling that many retellings tend to have fairly strong political or social agendas that were not present in the originals (whatever “original” could mean in the context of myths and legends).

    While this of course doesn’t necessarily make the retellings less interesting or less enjoyable, what I am saying is that they perhaps aren’t always the best sources to use if you are looking to learn about the cultural background to those stories.

    But then again, it is not like many folk tale anthologies can really escape the “retelling” filter, either. There is usually a translator, and at the very least a transcriber, and surprisingly often there is also an editor who is looking to promote his or her own views.

    I once asked a professor of Australian literature to name me a good and unbiased anthology of Australian Aboriginal myths and legends, and her straight answer was that there were none. Australia, of course, is perhaps something of an extreme in this way.

    As for a list of Japanese classics, there is an article that looks like a fairly good introduction to me at Wikipedia (although I am far from being an expert): Japanese Literature.

    From the classics, my personal favourite is probably Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa). Although that, like my other favourite Hojoki, is not really fiction or myth, just an account of observations. In fact, based on my limited knowledge of Japanese classics, it seems to me that most classics aren’t really fictional constructs, but very much based on the writers’ own observations and presented in a highly episodic manner.

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    Jeremy

    Sanjuro, I havent forgot about getting some recommendations from the professor I mention. He is aware of it, and has told me he would email me something this week.

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    Jon Hooper

    Jeremy, I really appreciate your asking about this. Vili, too, I am indebted to you for the tips. I have looked through your recommendations and lists and will try to get the Mitford volume, plus Hearn, and the Kojiki. I try where possible to pick up second hand copies from sites like bookmooch but so far I have had no luck with these three, though I have put them on my wishlists. If nothing comes up in the next few weeks I will order from amazon or play. Thanks again.

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    Vili Maunula

    Sanjuro,

    Abebooks.com seems to have second hand copies of the Mitford book starting from $1. Alibris.com also has several copies, the cheapest currently going for $1.99. Of course, then there is the postage as well. Not quite as cheap as BookMooch, but not all that much more expensive.

    I have actually found that a good place to start a search for second hand books is http://www.usedbooksearch.co.uk/ . It does a kind of an overall search through a number of online second hand book shops.

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    Ugetsu

    Its only tangentially related to this, but I came across this quite remarkable essay by Richard Lloyd Parry the about Japanese concepts of death and how it has psychically effected the survivors of the tsunami. It is disturbing reading, but very gripping. I was surprised to see that traditions like Kwaidan storytelling are alive and well in some rural areas and are a vital way for people to deal with death.

    Certainly for me, the essay illuminates many of the hidden themes of films like Yojimbo (the marebito theory), Seven Samurai, Ran etc.

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    Ugetsu

    Its only tangentially related to this, but I came across this quite remarkable essay by Richard Lloyd Parry the about Japanese concepts of death and how it has psychically effected the survivors of the tsunami. It is disturbing reading, but very gripping. I was surprised to see that traditions like Kwaidan storytelling are alive and well in some rural areas and are a vital way for people to deal with death.

    Certainly for me, the essay illuminates many of the hidden themes of films like Yojimbo (the marebito theory), Seven Samurai, Ran etc.

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    Vili Maunula

    Fascinating!

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