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The vibrant illustrations of Yoshio Hayashi are stories in themselves. Above is the illustration for "Saburo the Eel Catcher."


From The Asian Reporter, V15, #26 (June 28, 2005), page 16.

Adventure trumps morals in book two of Japanese fables

Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Book Two

Compiled by Florence Sakade

Illustrations by Yoshio Hayashi

Tuttle Publishing, 2004

Hardcover, 96 pages, $16.95

By Oscar Johnson

A companion to Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, the aptly titled Japanese Children’s Favorite Stories, Book Two starts off similarly with brief tales intended to edify and awe young readers and listeners. It soon, however, picks up the pace.

Dragons, ocean kingdoms, an eight-year-old boy as king of the jungle, and a red elf just out to make a few friends are just some of what’s in store within its pages.

Unlike the first book, not all of these 16 stories clearly emphasize simple morals and anecdotes. With perhaps a slightly older audience in mind, these fables give way to lively humor, mystical realms, and — in some cases — fast-paced action.

In the 16-page epic "Kintaro’s Adventures," for example, our hero is raised by wild bears, wrestles menacing wolves, and joins with nemesis and reunited kin alike to quell a forest fire, while "Saburo the Eel Catcher" has such a rapid succession of absurd yet fortunate food finds that he is sure to coax giggles even from the shyest of audiences. Classics such as "The Princess and the Herdboy," on the other hand, hint of adolescent romance in telling how the Milky Way came to be in the Sky King’s domain.

Such yarns are not all that sets this second compilation apart from the first. The vibrant illustrations of Yoshio Hayashi are stories in themselves, with expressive facial features and full-page colorful swaths to transport readers to make-believe worlds. The art adds to perkier narratives that leap from the pages to engage youngsters, sometimes even with delightful ditties such as adorably grateful mice singing, "Rice cakes, rice cakes, nice fat rice cakes."

Fans of the first book need not lament a complete lack of moral tales to instruct young hearts and minds. Heavy on the theme of generosity versus greed, the present volume offers tales such as "The Magic Mortar" and "The Singing Turtle"; both, by way of the good-brother/bad-brother comparison, show there are few rewards for the selfish and lazy. Similarly, kindness — especially to animals — is always rewarded in stories such as "The Rolling Rice Cakes" and "The Fairy Crane." And "The Biggest in the World" aims to prove that despite perceived bragging rights, someone is always, well, bigger.

While "How to Fool a Cat" shows that, as long as no rules are broken, it pays to be clever, "Why the Red Elf Cried" seems more a tragedy for children than the lesson in friendship it professes to be.

Perhaps the best gifts these stories offer to young audiences beyond the Land of the Rising Sun are glimpses of Japan’s culture and traditions — from illustrator Hayashi’s picturesque aerial view of a pagoda to talk of yummy cooked eel and how it just isn’t a real New Year’s without rice cakes. Along with the rustic tone of the tales, they’re sure to make an adventurous read for any child.

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