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It’s Thursday and it’s Christmas Eve and I am reading three books to my six-year-old before he goes to sleep. There’s the requisite “Night Before Christmas” and an elaborately illustrated book where a young girl has to wrangle Santa’s reindeer. And then there is a Japanese book I’ve never read before, set in the world of Nontan, the mischievous white cat.
In Nontan! It’s Santa!, Nontan sets out in the snow clutching his Christmas stocking on Christmas Eve, hoping to intercept Santa for an early shot at his heart’s desire: a red toy car. Outside the home of his friends the three rabbits (sound asleep), Nontan sees Santa! But this Santa is a rabbit. Nontan is informed that he must find the Santa for cats, for rabbit Santa cannot give a small cat any toys. Outside the home of his friend the bear (also in bed and asleep), Nontan again runs into Santa. But once more, this Santa is a bear and not a cat.
Little Nontan trudges on in the snow in his pajamas, while clutching his stocking, and soon the heavens are filled with Santas streaking across the night sky. In a delirium of (I assume) hypothermia, Nontan sees a goldfish in a bowl on a sleigh. There is a reindeer Santa, a snake Santa pulled by two other snakes, a Santa for crabs pulled by a turtle, a spider Santa hitching a ride on the human Santa’s sleigh and even a Halloween witch out for a spin. But there is no cat Santa, and soon Nontan falls asleep under a tree, while the snow continues to fall. How cold the world is for a small cat lost in the dark in the snow.
Mall Santas not withstanding, there is of course only one Santa in the west. But my son, raised on a diet of both Japanese and western children’s books, didn’t seem bothered by the discrepancy. It was simply a story. Another kind of story, set in Japan, where one thing was always turning into hundreds of things and where every animal, not to mention every food item in a refrigerator, could always talk and stories did not necessarily proceed in a standard linear fashion. Not for the first time it dawned on me: we imprint on what a story ought to be extremely early in life. Whether we know it or not, our childhood reading—fairy tales in particular—tell us what successful story structure is and is not, and what ought to feel satisfying.
I had a conversation about this with a film director in Japan one time, and he said to me that after his son was born, he had tried to read Curious George in translation. “And I thought,” said the director, “that we would never have a monkey behave like that in a Japanese children’s book. And then I realized—so this is how Americans are growing up. With Curious George.”
* * * *
I’ve been thinking a lot about how we learn our stories. In my twenties, I received a personalized rejection letter from an agent for a manuscript that will hopefully never see the light of day. The letter contained phrases like “becoming a writer takes a long time,” and “perhaps consider going to school.” She also suggested that I read The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler.
The title of The Writer’s Journey is a riff on The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a book by Joseph Campbell published in 1949. Campbell’s book draws on Jungian psychology to demonstrate how all myths are essentially the same story: a protagonist—the hero—overcomes obstacles on a journey to self-knowledge. Embedded within these myths are helpful tidbits of insight into slaying metaphorical dragons, overcoming Medusa (or perhaps how not to become Medusa in the first place) and why you should avoid loving your mother too much). George Lucas credits Joseph Campbell for inspiring him to include a plethora of mythological elements in Star Wars, implying that the story of Luke and the Jedi was more than a Saturday morning cartoon in film format; the science fiction blockbuster had life-changing depth. The Hero With a Thousand Faces spawned a popular six-part TV series with Bill Moyers called The Power of Myth, most of which was filmed at Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch in California. The documentary series helped popularize the phrase “follow your bliss,” which suggested that following one’s true happiness was tantamount to following one’s intended life path. Along the way, one needed to heed the many signposts that appear, and which are recognizable from mythology.
The Writer’s Journey encourages writers to understand the patterns in mythology in order to write fulfilling (not to mention remunerative) stories that connect with an audience. Vogler explains that his book began as an internal memo for film companies, and was one of the cornerstones behind the resurgence of Disney films in the late 80s, a process that began with The Little Mermaid, and which has culminated most recently in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
So I read The Writer’s Journey. I read about The Refusal of the Call (and if you’ve seen the new Star Wars film, you’ll note that the character Rey, too, has a Refusal). I read about the Mentor and the Approach to the Inmost Cave. I read how in successful stories, a hero emerges from his adventures with something Vogler calls “The Reward.” Only when the hero completes his journey do we, as audience members, get to experience what Aristotle called “catharsis,” or a release of emotional energy. A story works, says Vogler, if we, the audience, feel it in our bodies. And so it is that ET goes home, and Rose survives and is forever changed—positively—by her experience on the Titanic.
When Vogler wrote that a successful story triggers a reaction in the body, I knew what he meant. Who doesn’t? Who hasn’t sat and watched a movie that completely transports you on every level? The flip side is that there are movies—and novels—that feel somehow manipulative. For a while, in my twenties, I was really irritated with novels which ended with A) someone dying and B) a baby being born. Everything from Fried Green Tomatoes to Cold Mountain seemed to follow this structure. There must be a baby! I felt very sophisticated whining about how we Americans need our redemption. I mean, I can take Ambien if I want to spend my time on an experience which has been constructed to make me feel a specific way.
At the same time, I don’t want to read a book that feels as though the author has intentionally manufactured the unpredictable. There has for some time been a trend in popular culture for favorite characters to be killed off. Who can forget the outrage of fans of the science fiction show Serenity when a fallen beam unceremoniously impaled Wash? Wash’s death felt less like a necessary part of the story, than the author inserting himself to say: “Look what I can do! I can subvert your expectations!” Of course in 2016 a beloved character like Han Solo must die on screen.
I suspect, if you are reading this essay, you too are at once a cautious but adventurous reader looking for something other than the same experience over and over again. You too are looking for a story that feels like a story, but isn’t necessarily a clone of something you have read before. You want to be immersed and moved. You want real and you want authentic. And you want a story to work.
* * * *
A portion of my childhood was spent in Japan; my mother took me there every summer. While I was allotted two hours of TV a week in the United States (my parents religiously followed movie ratings, which means I still haven’t seen The Jerk), I was allowed to view as much television in Japan as I wanted, under the guise that it would help me with my language skills. And so I watched and watched. Occasionally I would see something on TV that deeply captured my imagination and love, but which sent me into such a fit of tears that my mother would literally spend hours trying to console me over the injustice of a purely tragic ending while she cursed her culture for being irresponsibly sad. For in Japan, stories could be devastatingly, irredeemably wretched. Ghosts could triumph over the living. People also had sex on TV and there were breasts! The stories—life—felt at once more fraught, but more colorful, as if the very act of being alive was more daring on Japanese television than at home. But it wasn’t a fake fraught. Innocent people suffered as a result of living in a perilous if vibrant world.
Over the past two decades, it has been interesting to watch Hong Kong action films and Japanese cartoons, or manga and anime, make their way across the ocean to find a vast audience in the west. So, too, have some novelists in translation become popular, chief among them Haruki Murakami. I think that part of what readers and audiences are responding to is a “fresh” way of experiencing a story.
Take, for example, the animated film Spirited Away, in which the young heroine, Chihiro, is suddenly separated from her parents, and finds herself in another realm, populated by gods and invisible beings, who congregate at a bathhouse. To return to her parents, Chihiro will need to work at this bathhouse, though the way home is far more circuitous than it was, say, for Dorothy trying to return to Kansas. Dorothy gets rid of two out of four witches (the evil witches are ugly, and the good ones beautiful). She also must see the Wizard.
The rules are less clear for Chihiro. While working at the bathhouse, Chihiro encounters the proprietress Yubaba, who with her large nose, oversized head and copious wrinkles seems, at first glance, to epitomize the evil ugly witch made incarnate. But as the movie progresses, it becomes less and less clear if Yubaba is in fact purely evil. When her twin sister, Zeniba shows up, the same features that made Yubaba so intimidating, appear almost grandmotherly; elderly people can, in fact, slip out of one role and into another just as Yubaba and Zeniba do. There is a kind of nimbleness, for lack of a better term, at play in many of these stories from Japan (hence the limitless forms that Santa can take in Nontan’s world) that we in the west are just beginning to experience.
About a decade ago, I stumbled across another book—a good complement to The Writer’s Journey. The Japanese Psyche: Major Motifs in the Fairy Tales of Japan, by Hayao Kawai, examines Japanese fairy tales, and how so many of their ideas and themes feel at once familiar, but strange to western audiences. Kawai is often referred to as the first Japanese psychologist who trained as a Jungian analyst. But when Kawai returned to Japan from Switzerland, he realized that some of the “rules” of interpreting mythology and dreams didn’t exactly conform to Japanese culture. What was more, stories didn’t adhere to expected western concepts of structure.
Kawai addressed the idea that reality is in fact slippery, in the Yubaba-Zeniba way. He writes: “Reality consists of countless layers. Only in daily life does it appear as a unity with a single layer, which will never threaten us. However, deep layers can break through to the surface before our eyes. Fairy tales have much to tell us in this regard.” What lies behind this layer of reality? If you have any familiarity with Murakami’s work, then you know he often explores the reality behind reality; it is perhaps not a coincidence that Kawai is said to have been a great friend to Murakami. Western writers have started to adopt the Murakami/Kawai style of storytelling. Someone like David Mitchell, who lived in Japan, puts a similar twisting and turning through time and reality to use in his book Cloud Atlas.
Kawai also introduces the concept of “the aesthetic solution.” In western fairy tales, Kawai notes, stories often resolve with a conquest, or with a wedding. Examples are numerous: Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, etc. But in Japanese fairy tales, Kawai says, there is rarely this kind of union. Frequently, stories resolve with “an aesthetic solution.” And by aesthetic, Kawai specifically means images from nature. As an example, he opens his book with a discussion of the fairy tale, “The Bush Warbler.”
A woodcutter is out in the woods, when he comes across a mansion he has never seen before. He encounters a beautiful woman, who invites him into her house and asks him to look after the property while she is out—if he promises not to look in any of the interior rooms. As soon as the woman leaves, the woodcutter breaks his promise. He wanders around and finds three beautiful women sweeping. They see him, and glide away “like birds.” Alone again, the woodcutter begins to steal intricate, gilded objects. At one point, he picks up a nest with three eggs. He drops the nest and the eggs break. The beautiful woman returns to the house and chastises the woodcutter for “killing her three daughters.” She transforms into a warbler, and flies away. When the woodcutter comes to, he finds himself completely alone in the woods, with none of the pilfered objects in his possession and with only a memory of beauty.
This kind of ending, says Kawai, is not uncommon in Japan. In a western fairy tale, the woodcutter might have become a prince, and ultimately married the beautiful and mysterious woman. But not so in Japan. Instead, the story is resolved by “the aesthetic solution,” in which the hero is left to contemplate his own existence against the backdrop of a beautiful image. Or maybe I am being too western here. Maybe his existence doesn’t matter. Maybe all we are left with is the beautiful image.
Kawai notes: “In Japan, especially in ancient times, aesthetic value and ethical value were inseparable. Beauty is probably the most important element in understanding Japanese culture. In fairy tales too, beauty places a great role in the construction of the stories.” In fact: “the Japanese fairy tale tells us that the world is beautiful, and that beauty is complete only if we accept the existence of death.” There are reams and reams that can be written about this single observation, but I’ll just say here that it’s a critical piece of understanding so many of the great Japanese novels, like Junichiro Tanizaki’s masterpiece, The Makioka Sisters, and Yukio Mishima’s tetralogy. It’s also something to keep in mind when you read, as you should, what I think is possibly the bravest and most important work being done right now in introducing Japanese literature to western readers: I’m talking here about Monkey Business, the literary magazine edited by Roland Kelts, and produced in partnership with A Public Space. Even if you read just these stories, you’ll get a sense of how our modern world is at once familiar, but might look and feel slightly different to people with a completely different cultural base than our own.
It’s been a while since I read The Writer’s Journey, but I doubt very much it contains “observing a beautiful image but being left with nothing” as “the Reward” for the hero’s quest. And yet, perhaps it is indeed precisely the kind of knowledge a true seeker needs to learn, and accept as she ages. Perhaps it is the bravest lesson of all.
* * * *
Some say that Hollywood stories are becoming too international, and are obliterating other concepts of what a story can and should be. If our stories reflect who we are as people, this would be a shame, because I think other insights—that beauty is an ethical value—are as interesting and valuable as all the metaphoric meanings that come with slaying a dragon. (And incidentally, if you run a low-res writing program, I have a whole syllabus I could teach at your university based on the themes in this essay).
In the forward to the third edition of The Writer’s Journey, even Vogler acknowledges that stories today need to be more complex than they once were. He writes of herophobic countries like Germany or Australia—the latter is naturally suspicious of “heroism,” because its very concept was used to lure islanders into fighting for the mother country, England. He speaks of the introduction of the computer and the Internet and how the latter in particular has changed our need for stories to be linear. There is, he insists, an appetite for stories that subvert the expected structure, and many of these stories come to us from cultures outside our own.
And so how did the story of Nontan end? He falls asleep under a tree, where, close to freezing to death, he is found by… cat Santa. Cat Santa takes Nontan home in his sleigh, though Nontan is oblivious to this privilege, as he is asleep the entire time. In the morning, Nontan awakes to find that his stocking contains a red toy car, and he emerges back into the world to meet with his friends, who are also enjoying their new toys. “If only every day were Christmas,” say all the animals as they feast on strawberry shortcake, the traditional Christmas cake in Japan, for Christmas is now a popular, imported holiday in Japan. And here too is storytelling made anew.