Tale of the bamboo cutter (10th century)

I got a lovely, yet distorted and imperfect, peek into Japanese culture by reading the “Tale of the bamboo cutter.” It is a mystical folk tale from the tenth century. It was retold, i.e. set into modern Japanese language by Yasunari Kawabata, then translated to English by Donald Keen. I called my access “distorted and imperfect” because of the double filter of the multiple translations the story reached me. That was the smaller problem in the access. The bigger was my lack of cultural reference. Before fully understanding this story (even its modern English version) I should have studied Japanese culture, including that of the 10th century. Without that it just remains a story.

But a thoroughly exciting, thought provoking and charming a story. It centers around a woman, a princess, who was found and brought up by a humble bamboo cutter. She is mysterious and her beauty is known through the land. She however is not willing to marry and her long time suitors slowly abandon the idea to get her. Except five. Each of them are named including their high ranks. Upon he father’s insistence she gives them challenges, promising to marry the one that accomplishes it. But they are quite impossible. Could you get the stone begging bowl of the Buddha from India, a jewelled branch from the Paradise, the robe made of the fire-rat fur of China, a jewel from the dragon’s neck or the “easy-delivery charm” of the swallows? I didn’t think so. Neither could I.

Nevertheless the dignitaries set out and return one by one saying that they have done what they were asked to do so. They all cheated thought one way or another, so she remains single. Next though the emperor wants her and sets up an elaborate scheme to get to her. He manages to meet her, but not go get her hand. As the full moon approaches she unveils her arcanum that she was cast off from the Moon for a past sin, but now her penance is over and she can return. The emperor’s soldiers try to prevent it, but fail.

This is the story in a nutshell (or bamboo reed if you prefer) but the beauty of story is hidden by the summary. It is the poetry and the allegories that make the book exciting and suggests themes that are waiting to be unpacked. Messages and riddles in rhyme flying back and forth between the characters. Each chapter purports to uncover the origins of a particular folk saying by attributing it to elements in the story. These are untransferable by a simple review/reflection as mine.

I have to mention though that the visual design of the book I was reading was phenomenal. Masayuki Miyata‘s illustrations seemed both modern and ancient at the same time, fitting perfectly the edition I was perusing. The bilingual book contained the Japanese text on the left, including for the preface, written by the translator and the whole text. There is a 17 page long Japanese only text at the end, which I assume is the original version of the tale. This is followed by a brief profile of the modernizer, translator and illustrator; again I both languages. It was a joy to hold and read this book.

The book @ Amazon.com

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