October 20, 2015

Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan

by Rui Umezawa
Illustrated by Mikiko Fujita
Groundwood Books
144 pp.
Ages 10+
September 2015

Because Rui Umezawa’s eight Japanese folk tales all include some element of the supernatural–ghosts, monsters, magical creatures, or spirits of the dead–these stories are a perfect read for the month of October and Halloween when all things creepy come to reside in the media and in classrooms.  But these tales have several additional key elements to which educators and readers in general will be drawn.  First the stories are firmly embedded in a Japan of fishing villages, cherry blossoms, Buddhists, and mountains, alongside samurai, kimonos and kawauso, lending opportunities to examine an ancient civilization and another culture with which most of us are unfamiliar.  Secondly, these eight stories focus on important life lessons and avoidance of the deadly vices including greed, envy, wrath and sloth.

The first story is called “Snow” and recounts a terrible night when a young boy and his mother are trapped in a snow storm and visited by a Snow Woman who spares the boy’s life on the promise he would never reveal what he’d seen.  It is his betrayal of this promise many years later and without malice that turns his world upside down.  Another supernatural creature appears in “Trickster”, a story in which a peddlar who attempts to cheat his customers with an elixir of questionable efficacy is himself tricked.  Similarly, a young man attempts to keep a beautiful immortal with him by stealthy kindness in “Captive.”

While “Honor” includes a samurai’s horrific death by chopstick, it is an ethical tale of two warriors who take mutual vows of brotherhood and honor each other even after death.  On the other hand, “Envy” examines sibling rivalry in which a jealous brother uses violence to deal with a brother whose goodness repeatedly provides him with wonderful surprises.

In the final three stories, the young men suffer the pains of their own vices, never acknowledging their own roles in their downfalls.  “Vanity” has a young man who feels he loves far too easily given the gift of returning to the time of Buddha to witness his teachings.  In “Paradise”, a lazy, drinking man is given a chance to live in an underwater paradise with a beautiful woman, and though he is wise and compassionate enough to help an abused turtle,
When an animal knows there is no hope, it smothers its own will to survive.  Otherwise, life becomes too painful to bear. (pg. 121)
he is not wise enough to help himself.  And, in “Betrayal”, a married man poisons his wife when he begins to see her as less than perfect.

Each story brings the reader to the fishing villages or festivals or town of a Japan of another time, and Mikiko Fujita’s black and white pencil drawings convey this same other-worldly atmosphere impeccably.  But it is Rui Umezawa’s emphasis on the lessons to be learned and the enlightenment to be had just for reading that will beguile the reader.  The scare factor is minimal–usually associated with the appearance of supernatural beings–but useful in teaching caution, suggestive of the dreadfulness that could arise for living lives of selfishness and wickedness.

Delve into another time and place with these eight stories in Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan, and teach and learn life lessons that are guided by other-worldly entities who may or may not wish to frighten.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds lovely: thank you for adding it to my TBR list! If I don't squeeze it into this October, I will make a note for the next one!