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
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.