A few months ago, a package arrived from Tuttle publishing with a new book to review entitled Once Upon a Time in Japan. Not only is this a collection of multiple tales, perfect for short stints and bedtime reading, but it also comes with an audio CD (which is what took so long to get around to this review – we only listen to CDs in our car and now that we live in Tokyo, we rarely drive!).
Once Upon a Time in Japan is a collection of Japanese folk tales and fables, translated by two scholars – Roger Pulvers and Juliet Winters Carpenter – and illustrated by several Japanese artists. The stories, of which there are eight in all, cover a range of settings and characters. Many have animals as the main characters, while some have a mix of humans and animals. Some of the stories were slightly familiar – such as the tale of the bamboo princess – and some were completely new. Nearly all of the stories lasted about 6 pages, with the final story about the bamboo princess taking up 15 pages (though only a few sentences of text may appear on some pages).
The illustrations for each story are unique and were one of my favorite aspects of the book. The tale of The Monkey and the Crabs was drawn in pencil, with a few colors shaded in. The characters of The Magical Hood by contrast seemed to have faces that resembled puppets. The Mill of the Sea reminded me of a series of Picasso paintings, but I was most taken with the simple but realistic lines and muted colors of The Gratitude of the Crane. Still, the range of styles was exciting for my 5-year-old and she kept commenting on the different faces of characters as we progressed through the book.
The stories are narrated by Ms Carpenter and her unhurried, clear recounting of each tale is enjoyable. She does a credible job of trying out different voices for each character and we enjoyed passing the time on our most recent trip listening to her retelling of these classics.
Children under the age of 5 may not necessarily understand the moral of the story behind each tale but the pictures will probably be the main draw. Elementary-aged children will probably enjoy both and adults will find this an accessible introduction to the morality fables of Japanese culture.