Keller Kimbrough and Haruo Shirane (editors), Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales, Columbia University Press, 2018. 464 pgs.
Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales is a timely collection of stories, which is able to respond to and comment on the current political and cultural atmosphere in a world caught up with borders. It is a book of inter-relations and intersections. Editor Haruo Shirane explores the different themes and tropes shared by the stories of The Three Worlds Worldview (Sangoku) of India, China and Japan, which serves as “the topographical foundation for late-medieval discourse.” The Three World Worldview is extrapolated in the story “The Palace of the Tengu”:
[W]hen the heavens, the earth and the four directions are all iron walls, you hold a dialogue with yourself. When we hear that the thousand teachings are one, it means that there are no fences in the Three Worlds, no boundaries to the Six Realms, no two dharmas within the dharma and no two buddhas among buddhas. This is what it means to hold a dialogue with yourself.
Self-knowledge is to have a deep understanding of the world around and beyond oneself. Throughout the twenty-five tales of this collection, duality and opposition and integration are explored and extrapolated in various ways. There is not one way of looking into things, each being bears a mask, and there are plenty of avenues for reform, reinvention and redemption. The collection also contains glimpses of a time and society that was still learning what lay beyond the boundaries of their socio-political world and found it in nature, spirituality and imagining/imaging the unexplored. The limits of the imagination found in borders of meaning-making and politics also lead to ways with which it can be pushed to the utmost extent of possibility.
Through careful curation the collection gives further depth and insight into aspects of Japanese thought and culture, especially in religion and society, some of which have been reduced to short-hand associations. These tales may open further thought and discussion on the folktale as cultural critique. This book is important reading material for scholars and enthusiasts alike. The combination of narrative, derived from roadside culture and the performances of traveling storytellers, image and poetry make for a dynamic reading experience.
Image and text, whose basis can be found in the experience of nature and the comedy of human life, explore the different meanings of liberation and binding. The tales and their accompanying scroll illustrations present the reader with narratives tackling the balance between freedom and duty, risk-taking and self-preservation. Characters have to deal with their inner nature by regarding everything around them—family, their masters or lords, their loves, places and sites, the sentience and wisdom of animals and the revealing power of subterranean worlds and unseen realms. In every adventure and conquest is also the search for one’s truest self (which is not always pure or heroic), which, as these tales attest, can be found through the most unexpected guides, like the tengu (anti-Buddhist bird-men that often mislead people), or circumstances, such as in “The Tale of the Mouse.”
Tales featuring the deviant tengu challenge our views and perceptions of an enemy. In “The Palace of the Tengu,” for example, the protagonist Yoshitsune, having practised Zen Buddhism and explored the 1700 koan, is guided through an otherworldly realm by a tengu, and this tour leads him to making an important, life-changing decision. In “The Tale of the Mouse,” the mouse Gonnokami, after a life of melancholy goes on a monastic journey and finds an unlikely companion in the Cat monk. Among the heroic tales, including “The Tale of the Dirt Spider” and “The Demon Shuten Doji,” attention is rather invested on characters initially perceived as antagonists: a spider monster capable of devouring humans and the demon Shuten Doji. It is rather interesting to note that in these tales, monsters and animals possess more charm and wit (and are infinitely far more fascinating) than their heroic counterparts.
Beauty is not a necessary qualifier for greatness or true love, as read in “The Stingfish.” Replete with flowery language tipping the border to parody, the tale follows the story of a mountain god who falls in love with Princess Stingfish, “a lady of unrivaled elegance. Her face resembled that of the gurnard or the rockfish, with prominent bones, bulging eyes and a wide mouth.” The mountain god and some scholarly cephalopods are vying for her love. The only character who seems to possess an untainted view of the princess’ looks is the river otter who tells the mountain point blank that the princess is in fact extremely ugly. Princess Stingfish marries the mountain god and lives with him in his realm. Apart from the story’s comic relief, a point of interest also lies in the liminal space of the mountain where the border between the mundane and the otherworldly blur. The eventual union of the mountain god and Princess Stingfish, a meeting of the mountain and the sea, can also be loosely interpreted as nature’s regulating forces of balance and integration. A combination of opposites (mountain and sea, passable looks and extremely ugly) yields harmony; two similar elements (water and water, the stingfish and an octopus scholar, for instance) results in excess. In a somewhat similar vein, in “The Crone Fleece,” a fleece shawl that renders its wearer into an unattractive crone serves as protection for a young maiden. Among these tales of interspecies affairs, the regulating and resolving power of love and attraction can be seen.
Beyond the mysteries and intrigue found in each story, the tales are also endearing and hopeful. As a student of both art history and literature, I found the collection an exciting and illuminating read. It encourages the exploration of every face and phase of person and space and how these elements interact and inform the creative thought and intellectual history of a society. Multi-faceted, the righteous and deviant co-exist, boundaries between humans and non-human animals blur, as they become entangled in each other’s colourful and insightful affairs. In reading this book, we share feelings of anticipation and awe, humour and exasperation with the makers and old listeners of these stories. We see a world of endless curiosity and possibilities, other lives we could or may have lived, even when the social body is kept behind borders and walls, held back by laws that restrict. Then, as now (we hope), the mind is liberated by all forms of art and literature. May pursuits in these fields never fade in time or be destroyed by wars.
Zeny May Dy Recidoro is a scholar and writer taking up an MFA in Art Writing at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. She was born and raised in the Philippines.