sábado, 3 de junio de 2017



Now when was the last time I posted a mukashibanashi? This one features an unlikely hero on a mission, a rock or island full of ogres, a trio of Eastern zodiac animal allies, rice-ball-induced befriending not different from Pokémon catching (expect to see "NN has joined your party!" every now and then, as well as some convenient Pokémon to fill the roles of the animals and the ogres!)...

Mukashi mukashi, once upon a time, on the outskirts of a certain hamlet on the island of Okayama, there lived a woodsman and a washerwoman, husband and wife and well-descended into the valley of years. Now some of you may raise a hand and wonder if they were childless. Of course they were; it appears to be conditio sine qua non for muggle foster parents, and muggle foster grandparents, across the multiverse and through the ages; from the earliest examples like all of those Old Testament childless couples (Abraham and Sarah, Samson's parents, Samuel's parents...) or those in classical lore (Faustulus and Larentia, for instance, or Polybos and his queen Periboea in the Oedipus cycle). And the washerwoman who adopted Sassi (in the tale of Sassi and Punni), and Princess Kaguya's guardians, were childless as well. Of course these humble and aged Okayaman peasants had been married for decades without having any children or even grandchildren, no matter how many their prayers for one that would bless them with much needed help and comfort. 
Until... Until... one hot summer day, they took their leave of one another in the morn as usual. The woodsman went into the woods, axe on his shoulder, to fetch firewood, while the washerwoman, holding a basket full of the local nobles' fine silks, went down to the riverbank to wash them by hand. Nothing new under the sun, it seemed that day. Until, when the midday sun beat down and the washerwoman stopped for a rest, to hang the laundry she had washed and snack on some rice balls, she noticed something round and large and rosy bobbing downstream. As the object was borne closer and closer by the stream, she noticed it was a peach. An oversized peach, right about the size to hold a human infant within its stone. Such a large piece of fruit only floats downstream towards us once in a blue moon, she thought. This evening, what a surprise my hubby will get when we share this peach for dessert!
In spite of the frailty of her aged frame, our washerwoman picked, fast as lightning, the oversized fruit right before the stream carried it out of her reach. It must have had something to do with the fact that she had been a kunoichi, a female ninja, in her younger years, before she retired, married an equally retired shell-shocked samurai, and both of them had settled down in that thatched cottage.
And there she came at sunset, the peach carefully hidden under all that freshly-sundried laundry, as her husband arrived, his back bent under a load of firewood, and, after supper, she pulled the laundry away to reveal the oversized piece of fruit.
"Surprise!!", she must have said.
The astonished woodsman reached for his axe and clove... cleaved... is it a regular or irregular verb? Anyway, he split the peach in half to share it with his wife, and, lo and behold, the fruit was split right in half, stone and all, and inside one of the halves of the split stone, instead of a peach seed of size to match the rest of the fruit, there was a human newborn!
"It's a boy!!" they exclaimed, having checked between the infant's legs. And this was a far more positive surprise than the peach itself, making them shed tears of joy. At least their prayers for a grandchild had been answered! And, since they had always said that, if they ever had a boy, they would call him Taro... that was exactly the name they gave their baby.
Our hero Taro, known to his friends and family as Peach Taro because of his unusual birth, grew for each year in strength, bravery, wit, and good looks... no matter if he did not descend by blood from those retired warriors, he might as well have been. Furthermore, throughout his childhood and adolescence, life was peaceful. Sleepy, humble, unchanging except for the seasons, but peaceful at heart.
Then everything changed when the ogres attacked.
At first they raided coastal villages, butchering the adults, whisking the orphan children and maidens away to use as workforce or even as sex toys, and taking everything of value they could find, no matter how paltry, to their fortress island in the middle of the Pacific. Soon, the news of ogre attacks spread inland like wildfire, and, even though Peach Taro's remote home shire was peaceful, the impending threat hung over it like a storm cloud... what would become of his friends, and of Grandfather and Grandmother, when the ogres advanced someday further inland? Little by little, the worry grew in his thoughts like a kudzu weed until there was a point when he could no longer hold it...
"I'm off to Ogre Island!!" Taro said, resolute, on the morn of his eighteenth birthday, asking his foster grandfather for the verdigrised ancestral armour and rusty ancestral katana (the better when the plate or blade sinks into ogre flesh, he thought!) that the aged samurai kept as a memento of his younger years. And soon, the helmet, breastplate, and plates for the limbs were shielding the corresponding parts of Taro's frame, and the sword hung in a scabbard on his back, the pommel popping up from over his right shoulder.
A worried Grandmother, drying up her tears on the stripling's sleeve and thinking of the safety of her only grandchild (would Taro be slain in battle during his endeavour?), had packed a few freshly-made riceballs in his knapsack as he merrily and confidently set forth, his aged guardians drying up their tears upon their sleeves until the young man disappeared into the horizon.
As he passed through his friends' village, a spitz dog, of Akita breed, hopped in his path across the street and began to sniff his knapsack.

"Ruff!! Ruff!! (in Japanese, that would be Wan! Wan!)" Wanko (literally, Woofy) barked, as the youth stopped to take out a rice ball, place it in his cupped hand, and feed the spitz. "Ruff!!" Wanko barked once more, after nomming on his scrumptious treat, by Taro's side. "I'm off to Ogre Island... and I could use a pup like you to befriend and protect me!" And, these words being said and a third bark from the spitz replied in approval, the lad and his dog set forth into the open countryside, for the coast and the nearest port, where they would hopefully board a boat and set sail.
As Peach Taro and Wanko were climbing the slope of a volcano whose crater served as a hot spring, they came up to the steaming freshwater, surrounded by the last unthawed snows of last winter, to find a macaque lounging in the middle of the pool. Getting up, his fur dripping with hot water, the monkey came closer to the dog and the boy, climbing up the latter's back to open his knapsack and snatch a treat. "Kii-kii," the macaque chortled as Taro became aware of the little form climbing up his back towads his shoulders...
The spitz snarled in rage, as the young man unstrapped the pack on his back to help the monkey to a rice ball. Food offered with courtesy always tastes better than stolen goods. Swallowing the soft odango and then smacking his lips, our little ape was offered to join the party to Ogre Island. And the end of it was that a human teenager in armour, a now more reassured dog, and a dripping macaque descended down the slope together, all three.

As they passed through a forest not far from the coast, and stopped to rest and snack together on the rice balls they had left in a woodland clearing, our friends suddenly saw a male pheasant (and they knew it was a male because of his brightly-coloured plumage) swoop down and land in the middle of their circle: "Squawk!!"

Offering their new feathered friend a seat at their circle, and Taro feeding Squawk another rice ball, the pheasant was invited to be part of their campaign to Ogre Island... Of course the pheasant nodded in agreement. 
And soon, a boy, his dog, his ape, and his bird reached, all four together, the seaport where they asked for a junk to Ogre Island. The fisherfolk didn't dare to sail so far into the ocean, and they chided the stripling for daring to set off on such a dangerous voyage... losing so many friends and family members, not to mention fishing boats when the ogres started storms for fun with their lightning powers, had made those old salts resign themselves to their fate.
"But won't there be peace at last if someone defeats the ogres!?" Taro turned against the old salt who had tried to dissuade him, a loud background noise of barks, squawks, and macaque howls filling the air as well. Sighing, the fisherman lent the little party his junk-boat and looked on as the quartet set sail and smoothly crossed the waves, until they disappeared into the vast horizon.
Water, water everywhere, not a drop to drink. Like Pi Patel, our hero was sailing the vast open Pacific with a motley animal crew and beginning to lose hope for finding land. Being a landlubber himself, the grandson of a woodsman and a washerwoman, this was his first time as a ship's captain. Suddenly, the pheasant, the lookout of the crew (assigned that slot because he could fly, of course!), took to the air and saw a large rock and seagulls in the distance. Ogre Island was closer and closer for each and every instant...
Ever remember that Grimm story which had this dragon with the damsel in his lap? Said dragon lived in the middle of the ocean in "a rock," "ein Felsen" in the original German. Ogre Island was "a rock" as in that kind of setting, yet of far vaster extent, and it would gladly have equalled a dozen "Felsen", each and every one with a European dragon's den. A vast wasteland of barren obsidian, not even able to support the hardiest of Pacific Island crops and chickens --hence the raids upon the coasts of Okayama--, met the crew's eyes; as well as a fortress in the heart of the island. Something like "a fortress in the heart of the island" in the illustrations below. Just that same kind of cold, dark keep in sinister settings in a secret, remote inland location.
"Ogre Keep..." Peach Taro gasped, drawing steel in advance.
"Maybe it's only a model, -kii!" the macaque replied.
However, as the fortress came closer and closer into view, it was true that it was the real Ogre Keep. When they came to stand right before the walls, the pheasant flew over the battlement and saw the ogre guards dozing to left and right of the gate, empty bottles of sake at their feet, their snoring sounding like thunder and echoing off the walls. Swooping down, the keyring in his talons, he thrust the right key's end into the keyhole and opened the self-assured, unconscious keep from within, in true Tywin Lannister style. The other three heroes entered to hear the ringing of everything the twilight had to offer; snoring guards who assumed that no enemy would dare to storm their keep, the ringing of officers' drinking songs and the clink of sake cups from the keep. In the castle itself, a red and a blue ogre wrestled one another to amuse the rest of the garrison.

Upon an obsidian throne in the middle of the feasting table, sat a large golden tiger-striped ogre, laughing heartily, helping himself to sake from human cupbearers whose cleavages he drunkenly groped. This fellow, the largest of all the ogres, was surely their leader, Taro thought. And, dear readers, you should already have guessed he was right.

The sun set over Ogre Keep as the leader lay, gutted like a fish by Taro's katana blade and clutching his eviscerated abdomen, in a pool of brimstone-reeking ogre blood in the middle of the feasting hall. All the other ogres, some missing fingers, or eyes, or wearing torn and blood-stained robes, bent the knee before the young human and his three animal companions. The ogres could not find the right words to thank Taro, since their warmongering leader had been the true monster among them all. As a token of the fact that he shared their feelings, Peach Taro raised his katana and deftly severed the ogrelord's head.

 After resting in the ogre leader's bedchamber for the night, the four brave heroes, now sailing a large warship full of freed prisoner children, and maidservants, as well as golden koban, precious gems, and magical objects which the ogres had recommended to bring them (not to mention the enemy leader's severed head was also part of the spoils of war), were swiftly cruising off to Okayama. Ostensibly normal trinkets, these items held power to make the land and the tide alike thrive --and, for that reason, the ogrelord had kept them shut away to have his ogres raid other islands just for the excitement of what war felt like--.
At first, the old salts in the seaport shuddered, fearing that the brave heroes had either been slain in battle or shipwrecked in a storm on their way to the enemy... but imagine their elation and their surprise when Peach Taro, his crew, and the prisoners of war landed all at unison! This old fisherman embraced his nephew, this one a pair of missing daughters that were presumed dead, and one of the maidens ran up to her fiancé to dry one another's tears on their sleeves... Long story short, the dashing young man, now in a far fancier (even gilt!) suit of armour, flanked by an ape and a spitz, with a pheasant perched on his gleaming helmet, took the tour of the whole island of Okayama leaving treasure and estranged loved ones in every community along the coast -not to mention showing off the ogre leader's severed head, to much rejoicing and acclaim- before wandering inland, to let the old man and old lady, and his human friends, know of the whole successful adventure. Word had already spread to his native landlocked shire when Peach Taro showed up on their threshold. The old woodsman who had been a samurai, and the old lady who had been a kunoichi, could never have been prouder of their boy. 
The ogrelord's head hung from their wall as a keepsake and a trophy.
And the dog, the macaque, and the pheasant stayed at the little cottage as pets to that family. Later on, they would accompany Peach Taro during peacetime as well as during his further adventures, most of which involved confronting other ogre tribes... But those are other stories, and perchance they should, as Ende says, be told another day.

This is yet another of the most renowned fairytales in Japanese culture, being told as sci-fi (with a starship en route for Ogre Planet), epic fantasy, and even militaristic propaganda, with the ogres representing Westerners/foreigners ("gaijin", literally "ocean-folk," as in "folk from across the ocean"), whose features differ a lot from those of Asians. Ogres (oni in Japanese) are depicted as tall, blond, red-skinned, big-nosed, strong-smelling (note the Occidental features) brutes; and the tiger skins they wear are a reference to the cardinal direction of the Eastern zodiac tiger.
During the Second World War, propaganda animated shorts and storybooks depicted Momotaro and friends in World War-era uniforms battling against US American ogres on air-base-like Ogre Islands, and, of course, defeating them. 
But my favourite retelling is in the anime Doraemon, in which idiot hero Nobita gets the role of the hero, with spoiled brat Suneo as the dog, bully with a heart of gold Giant as the ape, and girly girl Shizuka as the female pheasant. The ogre, in that version (there is only one ogre), is a Dutch castaway waiting for a ship back to the Low Countries. Looking for food on more fruitful islands nearby, he frightened the local peasants (we're talking about rural islands in an eighteenth-century feudalism that shut the Shogunate off from the outside world), and thus, it came as no surprise that they took the tall, blond-bearded, egg-headed, blue-eyed, sunburned red, strong-smelling European, who didn't speak their language, for a fearsome monster. In the end, they get along with the "ogre" and show a passing-by Dutch ship where to rescue him and bring him back home. A far more peaceful and heartwarming ending, isn't it? Feel free to watch this version, which I warmly recommend, here.
If you wonder why Taro Urashima is a namesake of this Peach Taro boy? Taro is the Japanese equivalent of Jack in English folklore, ditto Juan in the Spanish-speaking world and Ivan in the Slavic tradition: the trademark name of the lowborn yet kind-hearted folk hero.


Benizara and Kakezara
Kaguyahime (Princess Kaguya)
Taro Urashima
Momotaro (Peach Taro)
Grampies with Wens (Kobutori Jiisan)
Old Man Bloom (Hanasaka Jiisan)
The Hatted Jizos (Kasa Jizo)

The Tengu's Cloak
Mount Crackle (Kachikachiyama)
The Macaque Vs. the Crab (Saru Kani Gassen)
Lord Ricestraw
The Lucky Kettle (Bunbuku Chagama)
The Crane Maiden
The Axe in the Pond

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