BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Once Upon a Time in Japan, translated by Roger Pulvers and Juliet Winters Carpenter, illustrated by Manami Yamada, Tomonori Taniguchi, Nao Takabatake, and Takumi Nishio

Once Upon a Time in Japan by NHK Japan on BookDragonA “cheapskate” who longs for a wife who will work hard but never eat, a greedy young man who attempts to steal his brother’s good fortune, a magic “hood” that allows the wearer to understand animals, a boy whose nap lasts three years, a wily fox who loses his tail, a baby found in a bamboo forest – these are some of the stories found in this magnificent collection of eight traditional Japanese folk tales. “[T]hough I say ‘Japanese,’” translator Roger Pulvers explains in his introductory essay, “A Second Childhood,” “if you strip away those special elements that are tied to Japan – for instance, the myrtle grass bath in ‘The Wife Who Never Eats,’ – there is nothing in these stories that would prevent them from being set in almost any country in the world … [they] transcend geography, era and ethnicity.”

Moreover, “these tales are above all meant to be told,” as co-translator Juliet Winters Carpenter reminds in her own foreword, “A Magic Key to Wonder and Reality”; to provide just that opportunity, the gorgeous book is conveniently paired with an audio CD narrated by bilingual former reporter/anchor Yuko Aotani. “While delighting in fantasy and whimsy, readers (or listeners …) are exposed to all manner of human behavior, and learn to be critical of characters’ choices,” Carpenter writes. “Tales are the starting-place of wisdom, and their lessons are universal.” From envy and greed to kindness and gratitude, indeed these stories both entertain and advise.

The accompanying illustrations, most of all, are what make each story stupendous. The four artists here work in distinctive, complementary styles and mediums: Minami Yamada’s work tends toward comical with oversized body parts in impossible poses, especially highlighting facial expressions to memorable effect; Tomonori Taniguchi captures richly textured surfaces in a more muted palette, save for the delightfully exaggerated bright red noses; Nao Takabatake’s boldly colorful creations are a perfect blend of expressions and movement; Takumi Nishio, whose work graces the book’s cover, is the most ‘realistic’ of the quartet, combining intricate details with ephemeral elegance. Each double-page spread is a marvelous blend of simply resonating text and dynamic wondrous art.

“May the children reading [these tales] see their beauty and wisdom,” Pulvers adds. “And may the adults experience a sublime, if brief, second childhood together with them.” No doubt: Once Upon a Time provides a glorious storytime for all.

Tidbit: Might I point out that I haven’t included a “by”-line here. I’m assuming that since these are such familiar folk tales, no one author is given credit. That said, I can’t remember a single collection/anthology that didn’t have at least an “adapted by …”-attribution. Of course, I want to make sure that credit is given where credit is due, so I’ll add here that the NHK Japan Broadcasting Corporation clearly helped to make this sumptuous volume possible.

Readers: Children, Middle Grade

Published: 2015


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