River of Tales: Folktales from Japan
It’s not like I hadn’t heard Japanese fairy tales before. I’ve been absorbed in fragments of Japan’s pop culture for years, and folktales are just one of many other things (how to make your rival your best friend who still hate you, how to add another coin to a full cup of water without it spilling over, the delicate physics of balloon breasts) I catch in my periphery. The thing is, most of the popular tales feel like close cousins to the Hans Christian Anderson and Brothers Grimm stories I grew up with. The stories of Momotaro, the Peach Boy, and Urashima Taro were two I could retell off memory, because of how often they are referenced elsewhere. And my ongoing fascination with youkai and kami meant I was already familiar with Japan’s version ghouls and goblins. I wouldn’t have minded a series packed with stories of heroes and monsters, which is what I had come to expect. What has fascinated me is how little that has factored into the stories told so far. There’s a fair amount of variety in Folktales from Japan, and that’s just one of several aspects that make it such a nice series.
Instead of heroes in the traditional sense- children or knights or princes who defeat monsters- there seems to be a lot more stories about average peasants getting lucky/unlucky. Early episodes have several with basically the same structure- an elderly peasant gets lucky or does good for a magical creature, and gets rich. An envious neighbor sees their new riches, and tries to do the same thing that got his lucky neighbor so rich, with disastrous results. Priests and monks are oddly ignored in Western fairy tales, but in Japan, many of my favorite stories have monks figure prominently. And they aren’t always Wise Old Men- at least two stories have the monks learning to be less of a dick, which is great because children need to learn early that religious leaders are no more infallible than anyone else. The series also has a wonderfully crude sense of humor- there are fair of piss and fart jokes, and even one elaborate dead mother joke. Often, a happy ending in Folktales from Japan doesn’t mean getting rich or finding true love; instead, it means the peasants will live and die in comfort. And more importantly, there aren’t always happy endings. Sometimes the characters make the wrong decision, and lose their happiness because of it. End of tale. All of this combines to make for fairy tales that have a comfortable, earthy feel to them.
Complimenting the simple stories is a lo-fi production that adds to the charm. The cartoons are simply animated, with the occasional wander into more artsy, watercolored territory. It’s also narrated by two voice actors, who both do charming work. This all makes for a production where simplicity is a virtue, not a weakness, giving it the kind of easy charm I normally associate with low budget but big heart productions from PBS.
Unfortunately, I think most of the things I’ve listed here are a turn off for most anime fans. Not only is it a children’s show, it’s an educational children’s show, with morals and stuff. It’s even a “healing anime,” but without any cute girls! But even though I wrote about it before, this series is unique enough that it seems worth reminding people about it again, if only because one of the best/worst ways to get someone to watch something is to pester them into it. So consider yourself pestered, reader. Go educate yourself already.