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From The Asian Reporter, V15, #27 (July 5, 2005), page 15.
Pillow talk from Allen Say
Under the Cherry Blossom Tree: An Old Japanese Tale
Retold by Allen Say
Walter Lorraine Books/Houghton Mifflin, 2005
Paperback, 32 pages, $5.95
By Mike Street
Special to the Asian Reporter
Long before today’s standup comics, the Japanese had "sit-down" comics, or rakugo-ka, storytellers who performed onstage while kneeling, often in large joke houses called yose. As with operas and classic Greek tragedies, audiences were familiar with the stories themselves, and thus the entertainment came from how the talent of the rakugo-ka brought the stories to life.
Because they used only their own imitative voices and one or two stage props (often a fan and a towel), and never rose from their knees, these storytellers had to be especially talented to engage the imaginations of their audience. To begin this process, the performance always began with a makura, or "pillow," a short story that got the audience in the mood for the tales to follow, much as a pillow prepares one for a night of dreams.
Allen Say’s latest paperback, Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, tells one of these classic makura, and his own inimitable artwork and subtle storytelling skills are the match of any rakugo-ka, past or present. The story is about a mean, miserly landlord who takes a break one day from squeezing more money from his tenant farmers to eat a bowl of cherries. After accidentally swallowing one of the cherry pits, the landlord wakes the next morning to find a cherry tree sprouting from the top of his head.
Too cheap to see a doctor, he endures the fast-growing tree, which causes much hilarity among the oppressed townspeople, even as he threatens to raise all their rents in retaliation. Furious, he rips out the tree, but this only opens a huge hole in his head, which collects water and soon becomes a fishpond, making matters even worse. His ultimate comeuppance, as he steadfastly refuses to seek help with his increasingly difficult cranial issues, is appropriate, hilarious, and satisfyingly complete.
Originally published in 1974 as From Under the Cherry Blossom Tree, the book features detailed pen-and-ink drawings with a Japanese inflection to them, a style different from the soft watercolors in Say’s more recent works. This fits into the minimalist style of the makura, where the storyteller must make more from less, and Say is more than equal to this challenge. His simply composed scenes are created with tight, tiny crosshatchings, which build the textures, landscape, and mood of the story beautifully. Featuring traditional Japanese dress and village settings, the page layout builds in complexity and dynamism as the tale progresses, adding vibrant villagers and their mischievous children to the figure of the dour landlord.
Say’s text, too, is spare but evocative, making this book a superb read-aloud. Say’s sense of rhythm and timing are impeccable, with enough reiteration of key phrases and concepts to keep kids entertained without boring them with rote repetition. The story he tells is both simple and familiar, even to those who have never been to a yose, and it also deals with a subject of fascination to most children — what happens to a seed that they’ve swallowed.
Teachers will also love the book for its references to Japanese culture and rural lifestyles, and they can point out such details in the artwork as a well’s bamboo dipper or the traditional patterns on the clothing of the peasants. The story begins during the spring cherry blossom festival, which could also be used as a springboard for multicultural learning, along with the tradition of the rakugo itself. The implied moral of the story — the self-consuming effects of greed — is subtle enough to provide excellent material for discussion in the classroom or home.
There is truly something for everyone in this delightful picture book from Allen Say, a resident of Portland. The perfect makura, it will prepare any child for a day of imagination or a night of dreaming. Because the economics of the book industry forces even popular books to get remaindered after five years or so, the original Under the Cherry Blossom Tree had been out-of-print and thus hard to find. Fans of Allen Say, both young and old, will be delighted to see this title available once more, a classic in every respect.