This mukashibanashi is a lurid story of revenge and violence starring a tanuki, a Japanese raccoon, as the antihero. The main conflict is between Tanuki and our heroine (or rather shero) Usagi, a rabbit. Also the common jiisan (grampy) and baasan (granny) old folks that frequently appear in the genre have got a brief appearance in the rather lurid opening scene...
Mukashi mukashi, once upon a time, there was a tanuki who frequently raided a vegetable plot, stealing vegetables and spoiling the rice pads in his wake. The old folks who owned the plot did use all their wits to try catch the bloody coon, and imagine their joy when the husband finally caught the bloody vermin in a trap!
So before he went tilling the rice pads, he tied the raccoon's four legs to a beam inside the cottage and entrusted the beast to his old wife. Now they didn't know that a tanuki is really shrewd and can be really wicked if he doesn't have his way. So once her hubby's away, the old lady, who is grinding rice with a mortar and pestle, hears the poor thing crying and wailing and begging to set her free... she's got a heart of gold, so she frees the tanuki and... THUD!! As soon as the coon is on the ground with his feet relieved from the strain of the rope, he takes up the machete and off with her head! Then he turns into a likeness of the old lady, cooks up the real old lady in a stew, and sits down waiting for her husband to come, for both of them to have supper together.
At dusk, the old man arrives and, not knowing everything that's taken place in his absence, greets the one he takes for his wife, thanks her for the surprise of preparing a scrumptious pork ragoût, a luxury for such poor farmers, for supper to surprise him (a stew which allegedly also contains "that scoundrel of a tanuki")... And they eat the stew, they eat the real old lady together. Her spouse and the raccoon who has stolen her identity. Then, for the coup de théâtre, the tanuki resumes his own beastly form and tells the old man: "YOU JUST ATE YOUR WIFE!!!"
Then the tanuki scampers back to his li'l den in the hills, while the old man takes the ancestral sword of his once great forefathers and throws himself upon it.
That was Act One, friends and readers. Gory, even cannibalistic. Now comes Act Two, the Revenge.
Now the old man and the old lady had no children of their own; their best friend was a bunny who kept her burrow near their cottage but, unlike the raccoon, never spoiled their plots. Imagine the despair of our usagi, or rabbit, when she heard about her human friends' tragic demise. So she took upon her shoulders the burden of avenging the old man and the old lady.
The weather is fair and off Usagi goes to Tanuki's den. She finds him still there, curled up in the dark, for the scoundrel doesn't dare to show himself in public after such a dastardly deed.
"It's a shame we don't go out together on such a sunny day, isn't it? A perfect day for picking firewood", our bunny says, and the coon agrees. After all, who can suspect a cotton-tailed, soft, huggable white rabbit that looks so adorable and so trustworthy? (There was nothing like Monty Python and the Holy Grail in those days, which made Tanuki trust Usagi even more!)
At dusk, they return home from their firewood-fetching trip, each one of them to their own den, shoulders laden with firewood sticks, the raccoon in front and the rabbit behind, when suddenly the latter takes out a flint and an iron ore, lets some sparks fly, and sets fire to Tanuki's load of wood. And the flames, as flames are wont to do, crackle. Which leads to this exchange:
TANUKI: What's that crackle?
USAGI: Nothing... just a sign that we're approaching Mount Crackle.
The raccoon suddenly perceives the smell of smoke and a searing pain on the back: the fire has even burned off the fur there!! OWWWWW!!! And off he runs to his den, where the bunny finds that bastard bedridden, lying on his belly. And she thinks of this:
"Third-degree burns, surely lethal... no, no, no; death is too good a punishment. I must concoct a fate worse than death for one worthy of such torture... Aha!" So Usagi goes home to her own burrow and makes a wasabi ointment before returning to the raccoon's.
USAGI: You must bear it, for it's a wonderful medicine even for those third-degree burns. Without the ointment, you would... yes indeed, you would die.
TANUKI: Well, what are you waiting for!? Apply it at once!!
But no language can describe the agony as soon as the wasabi had been pasted all over his sore back. He rolled over and over and howled loudly. The rabbit, looking on, felt that the farmer's wife was beginning to be avenged.
After a month of convalescence, Tanuki's burns have healed, but Usagi is not yet satisfied with her vengeance. So off she goes to the coon's den and goes: "Oh how fine you have recovered!! Isn't it a lovely fishing day? The ocean is smooth, the breeze is just right..."
So they agree to go catch fish in the ocean, but, while the rabbit's got a little wooden boat of her own, the raccoon's got to make his own fishing boat. And, for some unexplainable reason (which maybe had to do with the trauma of the firewood on fire and the wasabi poultice... or maybe because he was much more of a landlubber?), he decides to make it out of MUD. Just plain mud, dried in the sun instead of a kiln.
So, when they go sailing and fishing, the mud boat begins to dissolve and soon the tanuki is flailing about with hands up in the air, for he cannot swim. And even though he screams desperately and begs the rabbit to give him a helping oar, she's just fine to watch him drown, gloating and glaring, only dashing the oar against the raccoon's head to knock him out... which means that, once he is unconscious, it takes far less time for the water to fill his lungs.
And that was the end of the tanuki. The bunny rowed shorewards and pulled her wooden boat on the beach. Then she sets off to her own burrow, finally at peace, at ease, after justice had been done.
MUKASHIBANASHI I HAVE DONE SO FAR AND THOSE LEFT TO TELL:
Benizara and Kakezara
Kaguyahime (Princess Kaguya)
Momotaro (Peach Taro)
Grampies with Wens (Kobutori Jiisan)
Grampy Blossom (Hanasaka Jiisan)
The Hatted Jizos (Kasa Jizo)
The Tengu's Cloak
Mount Crackle (Kachikachiyama)
The Macaque Vs. the Crab (Sarukani Gassen)
REMARKS ON THIS TALE
The opening of this mukashibanashi, with the cannibalistic ragoût, recalls the Grimms' Juniper tale and its literary variants (Atreus, Tereus, Tantalus, Titus Andronicus, Sweeney Todd), but the first time I heard it (in that version, both the husband and wife were the step-parents of both children) as Peret i Marieta (Peterkin and Little Mary), a folktale from my own region, at the tender age of four, I had never imagined that magic tales (in this case, type 720) could be so jarring. This was one of the incidents that scarred my childhood.
Worthy of notice is that general, in most of the type 720 tales mentioned, including Kachikachiyama, the dupe who unwittingly eats the flesh of his own loved one happens to be male (The exceptions being Tamora in Titus Andronicus and Demeter in the story of Tantalus and Pelops). This provides truly, in the realm of gender and orality, some serious food for thought.
The second half is even more graphic, with a sadistic bunny rabbit giving the raccoon, who is often depicted in Japanese lore as a trickster and/or a lush with oversized testes, a taste of his own medicine. It seems that the sole purpose of this tale is to elicit schadenfreude: it also recalls Kurosawa films and Shakespearean revenge tragedy à la Titus or Hamlet...
Now let us pause and think for a moment of the story. It begins like a good Tarantino flick, it ends with a revenge fantasy that makes me think a bit of classic revenge tragedies. In Hamlet, for instance, the plan to kill the titular prince devised by the usurper Claudius is ostensibly a Morton's fork: "If he isn't hurt with his opponent's poisoned sword, Hamlet is to die when drinking poisoned wine to quench his thirst. It all backfires: Laertes himself is wounded with the poisoned rapier, the Queen drinks some of the wine, and Claudius is forced to quaff the rest of the poisoned grape juice. Nevertheless, the crown prince dies himself, having been fatally wounded in the swordfight." But the snag is that not only Hamlet dies thanks to the flaws in the ostensibly perfect backup plan. The tanuki here appears to be as twattical as Claudius. And the rabbit... nobody suspects a fluffy bunny rabbit of committing deeds of violence (at least if they don't remember Monty Python and the Holy Grail), right?