Saturday, 16 November 2013

The Adventurers

1972 was the year that  Watership Down by Richard Adams was published. I remember how, once it came out in paperback, almost everyone seemed to be reading it. In Japan another animal adventure story came out in the same year, and was likewise very successful:  冒険者たち ガンバと15ひきの仲間 (Boukenshatachi ganba to 15hiki no nakama The Adventurers, Gamba and his Fifteen Companions) by  斎藤惇夫 (SAITOU Atsuo, born 1940) with illustrations by 薮内正幸 (YABUUCHI Masayuki, born 1940). The book is a prequel to Saitou's first book, グリックの冒険 (Gurikku no bouken, Grick's Adventure,  1970). I haven't read it; but apparently its main character is a Japanese chipmunk, Grick. A minor character in the book, the rat Gamba, was so popular that Saitou decided to make him the main character in his next book. There's also a sequel, ガンバとカワウソの冒険 (Ganba to kawauso no bouken, The Adventure of Gamba and the Otter, 1983). The Adventurers was made into an anime series, ガンバの冒険 (Ganba no bouken, The Adventures of Gamba, 1975), and then into a film, as were the other two books in the series (グリックの冒険, released as Enchanted Journey 1981; 冒険者たち ガンバと7匹のなかま, 1984; ガンバとカワウソの冒険 1991).

Gamba's name is short for Ganbariya, "Battler"; but at the start of the story his fighting spirit is only shown in taking food from the larders of houses that other rats have occupied and keeping them out of his (the other rats think "Thief" or "Robber" would be a better name, but since Ganba is stronger than them, they don't press the point). He is taken out of his dull but easy life by his friend Manpuku, "Fullbelly", who wants to go visit the sea (and taste the imported delicacies to be found in the harbour). At a party in a dockside warehouse, Gamba drinks, fights, dances and brags with the ship and harbour rats who are enjoying the warehouse goods. Suddenly the party is interrupted by the appearance of a hungry and terribly wounded rat, Chuuta, who has escaped from an island where a large group of weasels has almost wiped out the rats living there. He is looking for help to save his family. One rat had already experienced the peculiar terror of these weasels, the Noroi clan, led by the charismatic and terrifying white weasel, Noroi. Despite his warning that the fight is hopeless, Gamba and fourteen others set off to fight the weasels.
Children need role models
Animal wars have often featured in children's books, for instance in Richard Jefferies' Wood Magic (1881) and Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows (1908). In Japan, こがね丸 (Koganemaru, 1891) often said to be the first children's story, tells of a dog avenging his father's death; and INUI Tomiko wrote several children's books with animal heroes, such as  ながいながいペンギンの話 (A Long, Long Penguin Story, 1957). I haven't read Koganemaru; but of the books I have read, the most similar is probably Watership Down. Common points are the distinctly adult protagonists and the epic scale. In Watership Down that is achieved by Tolkien style world building, with an invented mythology as background and a foundation legend based on the Aeneid and the legend of Romulus. The Adventurers feels like it is looking more towards samurai films for its model. In particular the reader is almost inevitably reminded of the plot of Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai. Like in Kurosawa's samurai films, the action is short but intense, and much of the drama comes from eloquent speeches in debates of the heroes.

The actual fight with the weasels starts in the last third of the book. But the journey to the island and the search for the survivors is itself full of adventure; and Saitou very effectively builds up our dread of the weasels. He also very skillfully deploys his large cast. It helps that a few are only characterised by one capability revealed in the name (e. g. Tenor, Bass, Jump, Holedigger); but he manages to make us feel like we know a surprising number of characters and to give many of them a personal story that interacts with the larger story. Early in the book we are given warning that not all the companions will survive.

One other aspect the book shares with Watership Down is that it is a distinctly masculine story. All the fifteen companions are male; and Gamba shows an expectation that even in a fight for survival, it is only the males that will be fighting. At least the one named female character, Shouji, shows some impatience with this attitude. As in other Japanese children's books that I have read, the hero is boastful (in a positive way) and not very introspective, except towards the end of the book as the burdens of his responsibility start to weigh on him.

There is no English translation, but it seems to have been translated into French by Karine Chesneau: Gamba et les rats aventuriers (2012).

1 comment:

  1. This is a classic book adapted to manga and anime series with 26 episodes. The mice with Ganba are: Yoisho, Bobo, Chuta, Shijin, Gakusha
    and Ikasama. Defeating the weasel Noroi is this mission. Directed in some chapters by Osamu Dezaki for Tokyo Movie Shinsha in 1975.