Saturday, 12 October 2013

The Fox's Window

AWA Naoko (安房直子, 1943-1993) was a writer of fairy tales. The collection that I've read,  きつねの窓 (The Fox's Window), brings together stories from the late sixties and early seventies. You can read a discussion of  an earlier collection that it shares several stories with here. A selection of Awa's stories has been translated into English, The Fox's Window and Other Stories, translated by Toshiya Kamei, University of New Orleans Press 2010. I haven't seen this, but from looking at the contents page online, it seems to be a different selection from the one I've read, sharing only three stories, the title story and 夢の果て and 鳥. There's a blog review here.

The invention of new fairy tales is something I associate with the nineteenth century in Europe, particularly Hans Christian Andersen and Oscar Wilde; unfortunately the moralising of such stories often irritates me more than the retellings of traditional stories. Japan had several inventors of fairy tales in the twentieth century, such as MIYAZAWA Kenji and NIIMI Nankichi in the twenties and thirties. Awa's stories have a modern setting. In some, modern objects are at the heart of the story; in others there are only a few casual mentions of things like radio, plastic bags, electric lights, and the story would be the same if you replaced them with a more ancient equivalent. Compared to the writers mentioned above, Awa's stories are more delicate and insubstantial, often centering on some particularly strong image. Humour is very rare; and the mood is often one of mild melancholy.

I've put a little incomplete description of the stories below, so you can get an idea of them.

The Fox's Window, きつねの窓
A hunter misses his path and comes to a magical field of blue bellflowers. He catches sight of a white fox cub, and follows him, hoping to catch the cub's mother. Instead he finds a dye shop and the cub transformed into a boy (Japanese foxes can transform into people and create illusionary buildings).
"You know, sir, dyeing your fingers is just wonderful," he said and held his hands opened out in front of my eyes.
The thumbs and index fingers of his little white hands were dyed blue. The boy brought his hands together and made a diamond shaped window with the four blue dyed fingers. Then he held the window up above my eyes.
"Come on, just take a little look, please," he said enthusiastically.
"Umm," I said, not really on board.
"Oh, just a little. Just take a look, please."
So I peered, reluctantly, into the window. Then I froze in shock.
In the middle of the little window made by his fingers, I could see a white fox, a magnificent mother fox. With her tail sweeping gently to and fro in the air, she was sitting quite still. ...
"Thi-, what on earth ...." I was so astonished I couldn't say more than that.
The fox replied with a sigh, "This is my mother."
Sanshokko, さんしょっ子
The spirit of a pepper tree is a little girl, Sanshokko, watching another little girl, Suzuna, who plays beneath the tree with Santarou, a boy from the neighbourhood. Suzuna grows up into a beautiful woman and is given in marriage to a rich man in a nearby village. The boy, incompetently running the village tea house for his sick mother, watches her leave silently. Sanshokko tries to be his friend; but she has not realised that she has become only a green light and a voice. That voice sounds like Suzuna.

The End of the Dream, 夢の果て
A girl buys eyeliner and finds that it brings her a dream of running through fields of flowers. She senses that on the far horizon someone is waiting.

An Hour that Nobody Knows, だれも知らない時間
A turtle dreams of a girl in a jar beneath the sea and waits for the long years he must live to end.
He shares some of his time with a young man in exchange for sake. Every day he gets one extra hour that only he can experience, in which he can practise his taiko drumming. Then one evening the girl from the turtle's dream comes to his house.

Incidentally the story mentions the turtle's experience of being fed sake by fishermen and sent out to sea again. In 母のない子と子のない母と  (Children with No Mother, A Mother with No Child) by TSUBOI Sakae (壺井栄), there's an episode where just this happens. Perhaps it's a common custom.

Green Skip, 緑のスキップ
In a cherry grove an owl finds a little girl in a pink kimono. She is cherry blossom shade and must disappear when the cherry blossom is gone. The owl keeps watch over the grove and tries to protect it from anything that can harm the blossom. But the spirits that bring leaves to the world are coming.

The Land of Evening Sun, 夕日の国
A young girl shows a boy a magic way to go to the land of evening sun. But each visit can only last for a few moments.

Snow on the Sea, 海の雪
Snow is falling. A youth comes to a seaside town, looking for his mother. He finds a nearly deserted town. One girl shares her umbrella with him.

The Deep Well the Mole Dug, もぐらがほった深い井戸
A young mole finds a coin and buys a tiny square of land. He delights in having real property, as far up in the sky as he can see and as far down as he can dig. For years he digs a well, but as he does so he becomes selfish. Others ought to pay, if they are to enjoy the benefits of his work and his property.

Miss Sally's Hand, サリーさんの手
A young woman lives in a cheap apartment overlooking a noisy railway. Even in the dead of night there sometimes seems to be a special train passing. She works in a doll factory, sewing the hands of a doll called Miss Sally; but she comes to feel that the hands she is sewing are like strange plants and the endless identical Sallies have no life to them. Then one sleepless night, she decides to watch for the train that she sometimes hears.

Bird, 鳥
A young woman visits an ear specialist with an unusual problem.

"Something's got into your ear?" he asked.

The girl with an incredibly sad face, said, "It's um, it's a secret."

"A secret." The doctor looked at her sternly, "We can't have secrets. Or we can't cure it, can we?"

The girl became even more glum, "That's what I'm telling you: it's a secret. A secret's got down into my ear."

This is the only joke I noticed in all the stories. (It's a good one though, isn't it?) This story is also unusual in its narrative style. The ending is prepared with a series of clues, like a little mystery story, although in other respects it is no less of a poetic fairy tale.

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