Tales from a Mountain Cave

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Title: Tales from a Mountain Cave
Japanese Title: 新作遠野物語 (Shinsaku Tōno monogatari)
Author: Inoue Hisashi (井上 ひさし)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Year Published: 2013 (England); 1976 (Japan)
Publisher: Thames River Press
Pages: 134

In 1910, the famous ethnologist Yanagita Kunio published the Tōno monogatari, a collection of folk legends from the Tōno region of central Iwate Prefecture in northeast Japan. Although the authenticity of these records is debatable, the collection is extremely important and has influenced subsequent generations of folklorists, including the inimitable manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. In 1975, Robert A. Morse translated the work as The Legends of Tono.

Inoue Hisashi was born in Yamagata Prefecture, which is southwest of Iwate but still in the Tōhoku region. Although famous primarily as a playwright, Inoue is also known for his novels, many of which are humorous and contain elements of fantasy and science fiction. Tales from a Mountain Cave, or “The New Legends of Tono” in its Japanese title, is Inoue’s take on the Tōno monogatari, which he sets in the coastal town of Kamaishi, just east of Tōno.

If you’re not a professional historian or ethnologist, the Tōno monogatari can require quite a bit of study to fully appreciate. Robert Morse’s translation is remarkably well done, and the book is nicely published, but the work is still difficult to read for pleasure. Tales from a Mountain Cave, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The nine stories in Tales from a Mountain Cave are relayed to the narrator, a young man taking time off from college, by an old man named Inubuse Takichi, who lives in a small cave in the mountains behind the sanatorium where the narrator works. Initially drawn to Inubuse by the sound of his trumpet, the narrator forms a habit of spending his lunch break with the old man, who rewards him with a series of stories about his life.

In these stories, which span from the 1920s through the early postwar period, Inubuse describes his hardships, his various forms of employment, his romantic relationships, and the odd characters he’s encountered. Not all of these characters are human, and each of the tales focuses on a supernatural occurrence, many of which are the doing of the yōkai that inhabit the region. Inubuse’s recollections of these creatures are vivid and refreshingly original. To give an example from the second story, “House up the River,” this is how the narrator summarizes Inubuse’s description of river imps called kappa:

According to him, there were several thousand kappa in the Hashino River, but when in the water they were translucent, like jellyfish. In fact they couldn’t be seen with human eyes at all. Once they were out of the river they took the form of children or travelers. In the mountains they appeared as monkeys or phesants. They could change size as well as appearance – a thousand kappa could hide in the puddle of a horse’s hoof print.

Far from being remixed or modernized versions of legend fragments, each story has a clear and compelling narrative arc; and, although they’re all connected, all but the last of the stories (which ties everything together) can be read by itself. The major theme of the collection seems to be the inability of human beings and yōkai to coexist, which can be understood as representing a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between human society and the dangerous wilderness of the Tōhoku region. If you’re looking for the sort of religious messages common in medieval Japanese folktales, they’re practically nonexistent, but Tales from a Mountain Cave does offer plenty of sexuality and earthy humor.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s colorful, charming, and highly entertaining. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history or folklore, you’ll still enjoy Inoue Hisashi’s outrageous stories and charming prose.

Review copy provided by Thames River Press.

Danchi junrei

Title: Danchi junrei (団地巡礼)
Author and Photographer: Ishimoto Kaoru (石本 馨)
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: Futami Shobō
Pages: 176

I learned about this book while doing research on the manga Hot Gimmick, which is about teenage romance and social hierarchies in company-owned danchi housing. If a certain living arrangement exerts such a strong influence on people’s lives that it can determine patterns of everyday interaction, I wanted to know more about what these danchi actually look like.

Danchi are apartment complexes. Unlike the stand-alone manshion apartment buildings found everywhere in the urban centers of Japan, danchi are sprawling arrangements of buildings situated in more peripheral locations such as suburbs and commuter towns. As seen from the windows of passing trains, danchi are almost monstrous, and I’ve always counted myself lucky to not have to live in one. After reading Danchi junrei, though, I’m now jealous of the people who have had the experience of living in a danchi.

In Danchi junrei, or “danchi pilgrimage,” professional photographer Ishimoto Kaoru takes the reader along on his journeys into danchi complexes of various sizes and layouts. His pictures don’t beautify the buildings, but he does give the reader a sense of the charm and livability of the danchi he visits. Although the buildings themselves, which were constructed in the housing boom of another era (usually the late fifties), are often dilapidated, the backyards and balconies and inner courtyards and playgrounds of these danchi are filled with children, pets, greenery, and the evidence of the daily lives of the people who live in the complex, from hanging laundry to bicycles to discarded toys to graffiti.

Of course, this is when there are people living in the danchi at all. Over the course of his pilgrimage, Ishimoto also visits complexes that are nearly abandoned, fully abandoned, or already demolished at the time of printing. Some of these danchi have historical significance, such as a structure in Daikanyama built in 1927 that was one of the first modern apartment complexes in Japan. Some of them, such as the “ghost danchi” in Meguro, are associated with urban legends and famous among people into haikyo, or the exploration of abandoned buildings. Although these derelict danchi are covered with rust and mold, they’re surprisingly well preserved, and one might think that people could still be living there were it not for the rampant, jungle-like plant growth that has filled the open spaces and started to encroach into the buildings themselves.

Ishimoto’s photographs are enhanced by his text. Each photograph is accompanied by an unobtrusive one-line description, and each set of photographs is introduced by a short paragraph of flavor text. What I really enjoyed reading, however, were the one-page descriptions of each danchi, which would usually include the history and occupancy status of the complex as well as any rumors that Ishimoto had picked up from fellow danchi enthusiasts or just people living in the neighborhood of the danchi in question. Ishimoto also describes his own experiences of walking around each danchi, which tend to be particularly interesting when the complex has been abandoned.

Ishimoto is an engaging writer, and the undoctored feel of his photography gives the reader a sense of proximity that wouldn’t be possible with more polished-looking set pieces. Danchi junrei is urban exploration at its finest, and I surprised myself by enjoying the book so much. I highly recommend it to people interested in Japanese cities and architecture. I might also recommend it to people interested in Japanese aesthetics, because you can’t get any more wabi-sabi than a deserted apartment complex slowly going to seed on the borders of Tokyo.

I should mention that Ishimoto ventures out of the greater Tokyo metropolitan area as well. Here are two examples from the end of the book…