Remember how I thought Japanese SF writer Shinichi Hoshi was completely unknown in English and how ridiculous and unfair I thought that was? And then I used the power of the Internet and discovered he has entire websites dedicated to him and his work in English? I wish I could say the same about Yumiko Kurahashi. But google her in English and you will find a Wikipedia page, and several pages referring to a book of short stories published in English, The Woman with the Flying Head and Other Stories, with a cover worthy of a place at the top of the bad covers list.
But Kurahashi deserves so much more than this in English. I have only read this one of her books, Otona no Tame no Zankoku Dowa (literally “Cruel Fairytales for Grown-ups”, but if I were translating it, I would totally call it “Grotesque Fairytales for Grown-ups” because I love the sound of the g’s playing off each other. And the fairytales are indeed grotesque at times. I am not just randomly choosing words here. I’m a professional) and I am already completely convinced of this. And as one follower on Twitter pointed out, she deserved so much better in her native Japan as well. Her third novel, Kurai Tabi (Dark Journey), published in 1961 got her accused of plagiarism, and set off a bit of a storm in the Japanese literary establishment and maybe led to a little behind-the-scenes blacklisting. In any case, she ended up being more well known for her translations of famous Western authors like Shel Silverstein (a personal favourite).
Which is probably why I only recently learned of her existence. I fell into one of those link holes the last time I was in Japan. You know, the kind where you are reading one thing and then you click the link and then there is another link to click and then another and another and another until it is suddenly five in the morning and you haven’t eaten in ten hours? I know you do. So somewhere in this link hole, I came across a discussion of Japanese speculative fiction writers, and there she was, Yumiko Kurahashi. (This discussion also brought to my attention Yumeno Kyusaku and I suddenly understood the title of this book by Suehiro Maruo.)
Otona is a collection of twenty-six short stories, based on and styled after Japanese and Western fairytales. She helpfully includes a list of the original stories in her afterword, which I appreciated since I wasn’t familiar with some of the stories and thus couldn’t really enjoy the twists of her version as much (such as “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering”, which to be honest, was already pretty twisted). But many of the stories are familiar and I laughed out loud more than once at the unexpected turn a familiar story took, like in “Snow White”. The story starts out the usual way, evil stepmother, beautiful princess, huntsman, woods, attempted murder. But at the attempted murder part, when Snow White begs the huntsman for her life, pleading that she would do anything, he decides to strip her naked and have his way with her.
Or in “Princess Kaguya”, possibly my favourite in the whole collection, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” unfolds in the usual way, the tiny baby found inside a bamboo stalk grows up into the most radiant and beautiful woman in all the land. And the princes vie for her hand, and all fail, although not for the same reasons as in the original story (Princess Kaguya is not as noble as she seems). And the people from the Moon Kingdom come for her. But she chooses not to return with them and decides to stay on Earth. In her true form. And as Kurahashi notes in the moral at the end of the story: “Princess Kaguya was an alien. And aliens are ugly.”
Kurahashi adds a moral to the end of every story and they are cutting, revealing a grim view of human nature and the world we live in. Like “True love means loving something ugly. Which is to say, it’s impossible.” or “Justice is created by public opinion.” Although some are just straight-up hilarious like “A tanuki will come for revenge.”
Kurahashi’s writing in each of the stories deftly mimics the style and tone of all those fairytales we all grew up reading and hearing. The simple, strong sentences, the lack of overly complicated structures, concise and precise word choices all ring true to the fairytale style, giving the grown-up twists and turns even more impact. You just do not expect to see the words “so she became the paramour of the seven dwarves and serviced them each night” in the rhythm the fairytale style creates.
To be honest, though, a lot of these stories were already pretty grizzly to begin with. I mean, “The Little Mermaid”? That story is grim. But Kurahashi’s approach seems to strip them down to their essential grimness, and zeroes in on the very structure of the world of fairytales. As she herself notes in the afterword:
Fairytales take place in a completely rational world, one that has its own set rules and logic. The system may involve magic, but that magic also has its own rules and logic, and the fairytale world is a rational one. … Consequences do not depend on sympathy or hurt feelings. And in that sense, the world of fairytales is a cruel one. One that is ruled by the principles of retributive justice, rewarding good and punishing evil, and reaping what you sow.
In Otona, Kurahashi adds her own rule to the rational world of fairytales: Nothing ends the way you want it to. And then she carefully and strictly applies it to her chosen fairytales in a way that reflects the cruelties of the real world only too well.