Saturday, 29 June 2013

A Long, Long Penguin Story

I worry sometimes that if I only read detective stories, I may develope a lopsided vocabulary, so that I end up knowing the Japanese for 'dismembered', but not for 'cat'. Children's books have a lot of the vocabulary that everybody needs to know.  And for reading, they have another advantage: the kanji are almost all provided with furigana, so that you can know the pronunciation of any new compound you meet. (I've sometimes found that I've learnt a word wrong reading detective stories, when the meaning is clear from the kanji, but it's an unusual mix of on- and kun- readings.) Some things get harder, though: children's books tend to use fewer kanji, so that sometimes you're looking at an endless string of kana and trying to work out where one word ends and the next begins. And of course, the language of children's books is not necessarily especially easy.

But ながいながいペンギンの話 (Nagai nagai pengin no hanashi, "A long, long penguin story") by いぬいとみこ (INUI Tomiko) is an easy book to read.  The cover of my edition says that it's suitable from the third or fourth year of primary school (age eight or nine). INUI Tomiko (1924-2002) was a editor of children's books when she wrote it. It was published first in installments in a doujinshi (an amateur literary magazine) from 1954 to 1956, and came out in book form in 1957.

INUI explains at the start that this is not the story of a long, long penguin, but a long, long story about Ruru and Kiki, two Adelie penguin children growing up in the Antarctic. According to the page on the book on the website of the (now disbanded) International Institute for Children's Literature, Osaka, shorter stories were typical for younger children at this age. It is still not a very long book (177 pages), and the story is divided into three self contained parts, all focusing on the more adventurous of the two brothers, Ruru.

Adelie penguins (from Wikimedia Commons: Hans Grobe, Creative Commons 3.0)
As an animal story, it tends towards the less realistic end of the spectrum. The penguins and other animals talk and think much like humans and their actions are not always realistic. But the penguins' real nature always provides a basis: their enemies are skuas and their food is krill. An episode in the middle has some curiosity value for western readers, with a visit to an Emperor Penguin colony used as the occasion for a satire of an excessively militarised society, which looks like a reaction to the military goverment that had led Japan into the war. It's a very readable book, with an optimistic and irrepressible hero, striving towards independence. Sadly the only translation seems to be in Slovenian ("Tučniačatá puk a kuk", I think, though the cover shows emperor penguins). The only book that seems to be translated into a language that I speak is 木かげの家の小人たち (Kokage no ie no kobitotachi, "The little people of the house in the tree shadow") which has a French translation, "Le secret du verre bleu".  It's a very interesting fantasy book aimed at slightly older readers, and I might write something about it later.


  1. Did you know there's an animated movie inspired by this book?
    I think the movie is quite different from the book. But I do not have the book and I can not read Japanese, so I do not know the details.

    1. I think I remember coming across this film when I was writing the post (two years ago). The book isn't credited in the IMDB or Wikipedia pages on the film:
      From the plot description on Wikipedia, I suspect that the Japanese scriptwriters borrowed bits and pieces of the book to make the film without crediting it. After two years, I know I've forgotten some plot details, but the book goes roughly like this (spoilers follow). Ruru (not Roro or Lolo) is the more adventurous of two newborn chicks. He wanders off and is attacked by a skua. He escapes and is rescued by a friendly sailor from a Japanese whaler, who takes him to his ship, planning to take him back to Japan as a pet. The other penguins come to get him back, to the alarm of the humans, who hand him over to his parents. Ruru and Kiki run off again and drift out to sea on a small chunk of ice. They make friends with a whale. They come to an Emperor penguin colony, with a militaristic society. Ruru defeats a killer whale (if I remember right). The two return to their home. Penguin school: Ruru plays truant. Mass skua attack: Ruru warns the others and is saved himself by an adult penguin. Finally the whole colony sets out into the sea on a larger iceberg.
      Inui's later animal adventure, 'Hokkyoku no muushika miishika', was made into a film known in English as 'Adventures of the Polar Bear Cubs'.