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Book Review : A Comprehensive Window on Medieval Life of Japan

July 17, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

Japanese Tales, edited and translated by Royall Tyler (Pantheon: $19.95; 340 pages)

The latest volume in Pantheon's Fairy Tale and Folklore Library, "Japanese Tales," is a comprehensive collection of 220 fables from medieval Japan. Some of these stories are only a paragraph or two long; few are more than two or three pages. To the diligent editor and translator's string of adjectives describing them; "curious, touching, disturbing, funny, gross and sublime," I'd add elusive and oblique.

Answering the natural question of "Who needs them?," one could say literary scholars, historians and others who have a deep and abiding interest in national character. They'd be a tremendous help if you were devising a sequel to "Ran" or deconstructing the collected works of Mishima. They're not, however, quite the sort of fairy tales to divert a restless 5-year-old on a rainy afternoon.

Unlike the more familiar folk literature of other cultures, they have virtually no children in them as characters. They're noticeably short on plot, at least in the sense we think of it, as a series of events leading to a definitive resolution. Moreover, they seldom end with the sort of moral or lesson usually found in Western lore. Instead, they just stop; sometimes gradually, like a cherry blossom drifting from a branch; at other times abruptly, like a piece of advanced electronic equipment breaking down.

Subtle, Highly Mutable

The flavor is often so subtle as to be indefinable, as in those clear Japanese soups that leave you wondering if indeed there was a basic ingredient at all. Like tofu, the tales are highly mutable. What you bring to them is what you'll have.

In his disarmingly informative preface, Prof. Royall Tyler offers an essential introduction to Japanese medieval life, explaining the concept of time, so flexible that "year periods did not correspond to the reign of an emperor or anything else easy to describe, and they could stop or start anytime." Although there were certainly craftsmen, merchants and various orders of officials, nothing comparable to a middle class existed. In most of the stories, the characters are aristocrats or monks, with servants and assorted knaves providing the physical action. Animals figure largely in the stories, particularly snakes, foxes, amphibians and fish, but trees, mountains, fruit and vegetables play equally important roles.

Tyler describes the religion, living arrangements, landscape, and manners of the time, supplying the fundamental context for the exceedingly succinct tales themselves. Diviners and seers are crucial, interpreting dreams, signs and portents for the puzzled characters. There were innumerable gods of all sorts, some of whom spoke directly to people, others who communicated through intermediaries. Many themes are drawn from Buddhist legends, particularly the Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra and the Diamond Wisdom Sutra.

Brief Vignette

Perhaps the most direct way to convey the inscrutable nature of this literature is to paraphrase and quote from one of the briefest vignettes. In "One Frog Less," a young monk asks a famous diviner if he could kill a man easily. The seer says no, maintaining that even if he killed a small creature, he would feel sinful. When some frogs hop into view, the monk challenges the great man to kill one. The seer picks up a blade of grass and tosses it at the frog, which dies instantly. "The monks looking on turned pale with fear." With its inconclusive ending and mood of resignation; its seer, monk and animal, the story could be a microcosm of the entire collection.

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