Postcard from Japan: Fly High, Grasshopper by Tashima Seizo

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2011

Greetings!  It’s been awhile since I’ve posted largely because I made the move back to Canada this month.  I had many great adventures while in Japan and especially enjoyed my discoveries of childrens’ books in the country.

One of my  discoveries was the work of Tashima Seizo whose Tobe Batta or Fly High, Grasshopper (Kaiseisha, 1988) I read for the big July reading event hosted by the Tongari Boshi Mother’s Reading Group held at my daughter’s elementary school in Nishinomiya, Japan.  Fly High, Grasshopper is a picture book for young children, ages 4 and up.  It’s a short but brilliant little tale about a timid grasshopper who finally overcomes his fear of predators by taking a risk with his life and jumping out into the open, where he can be seen by all.  Immediately, he is attacked by a praying mantis and a snake.  However, the grasshopper jumps with all his might and lo, he discovers something about himself — he has wings!  And with these wings, he flies off into the distant horizon, his life changed forever.

Although a simple story, Fly High, Grasshopper is about overcoming one’s fears in life and taking risks.  And what better way to illustrate this deeper truth about life than to depict it with insects?  Theirs is truly a fearful world — and Tashima pulls no punches in illustrating it as such.  Yes, poor little grasshopper is afraid, but who wouldn’t be with little shredded up corpses of other grasshoppers half-devoured by other predatory insects lying about around you?  It takes more than a little bravery to make a decision to expose oneself in this world, and yet that is exactly what this grasshopper does.  I liked that this story clearly illustrated the insect world with all its dog-eat-dog proclivities in a bold and distinctive style of drawing that is uniquely Tashima’s.   It is a book that I will long remember, not just because I read it aloud (in Japanese — talk about taking risks!) to a group of children in Japan, but also because of its story and perspective on the very human decisions we sometimes make in a world that might otherwise seem hostile and inhospitable to our lives.

Poetry Friday: Postcard from Japan

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

 Speaking from my current abode here in Japan, I’d like to introduce a short bilingual book of haiku I discovered recently at my local picture book library.  Haiku no Ehon or A Picture Book of Haiku by Toshio Suzuki (Rin Rin Kikaku, 1993)  is a wonderful book of haiku by well known poets Basho, Buson, Issa, Kyoshi and Kyorai.  The illustrations of the poems are quite stunning — traditional images done in sumi-e ink with some very colorful embellishments.  The book was produced post-humously; Suzuki was suffering with cancer when he worked on the paintings done for this book.  Suzuki belonged to a group of painters who are referred to as ‘juvenile painters.’  Juvenile painting is a kind of illustration done for childrens’ stories and songs.  Suzuki challenged himself as a juvenile painter by trying to illustrate classically known haiku in a way that he felt would be accessible to children.  I think he succeeded admirably!  

And speaking of Japanese poets, fellow PT blog contributor Corinne, sent me this link to a post with video by Sylvia Vardell on her blog, Poetry for Children, about a recent poetry book by Tanikawa Shuntaro whose work I wrote about a while back for Poetry Friday for PaperTigers.  Check it out!

Andromeda is hosting today’s Poetry Friday at A Wrung Sponge – head on over…

Postcard from Japan: The Song of the Cicada — An Ainu Story

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

I stumbled upon this wonderful picture book (with some timely resonances) at my local picture book library.  The Song of the Cicada by Ainu artist, poet, and storyteller Shizue Ukaji (Fukuinkan Shoten, 2008) tells the story of an old woman who prophesizes  about a tsunami in which the waters of the sea will overflow and meet waters overflowing from the mountaintops to create one gigantic wave that will destroy everything.  Night and day, the old woman sings this song of doom and peril.  One village listens and moves their residences high up; the other village does not and gets swept away.   Among the swept away is the old woman herself, but she is not without some grit and resources.  Calling out to the sea god, she tells him that the fields of the sea will stink of the smell of their deaths unless he does something.  Enraged by this taunt, he sends the woman to a ‘sixth’ hell.  Luckily for her, a protector goddess who is also a weaver has thrust the end of her spindle right down to this hell.  The old woman climbs out onto the earth, emerging as a cicada, thus it is that the book is called Song of the Cicada.

What I found particularly compelling about this picture book aside from its tsunami references, was the beautiful textile work of  Ukaji who illustrated the entire story using old kimono fabrics (known as kofu in Japanese) and colorful embroidery thread to create the various scenes.  Traditional Ainu patterns and motifs are evident in some of the embroidery work. Herself an Ainu born in 1933, Ukaji moved to the capital and worked her way through school.  She subsequently was married and had two children.  It was only until she was in her sixties that she had the wherewithal to enjoy creating stories and artwork about her Ainu heritage.   Song of the Cicada is the second published work of Ukaji.  I hope that this wonderful Ainu artist’s books can be someday translated into English!  For more on Ukaji and Ainu textile artwork, check out this video of a recent exhibit held in Osaka.

Poetry Friday: Postcard from Japan

Friday, May 27th, 2011

 It’s been awhile since I’ve done a Poetry Friday post, but then I’ve been away for awhile from my home digs in Canada.  Right now I’m in Japan for a couple of months — however, being here hasn’t kept me away from good books for children in English as there are plenty of such books to be had here.  One great short little book I was introduced to by mothers in a reading group for my daughter’s elementary school (see my Postcard for Japan post on this group) was this book A Friend by Japanese poet, Tanikawa Shuntaro (Trans. by Arthur Binard, illus. by Wada Makoto, published by  Tamagawa University Press, 2004.)    The original edition (Tomodachi) in Japanese contains pithy sayings by Tanikawa about the nature of friendship like “A friend is someone you think about even when you’re not together” or “Even if you speak different languages, a friend is a friend.”  The simple and  plain illustrations of Wada Makoto supplement the statements nicely.  At the end of the book, the statements philosophically expand their horizons.  For example, by showing a photograph of a disabled child in a wheelchair, the book asks “A friend might be someone you  haven’t yet met.  How can you lend a hand to this friend?”  or showing a child in a tent-city squatting in the sand, the book asks “Is there anything you can do to help a friend faraway?”  The book ends with a poem by Tanikawa on the nature of friendship and on how it essentially removes one’s notion of self-centeredness to create an awareness of the other in a way that is truly compassionate.  I enjoyed reading this book aloud to both my children — teenager and child alike — and found them nodding in agreement to many of the statements.  The woman who lent the book to me  told me she read the Japanese version to her daughter when she was in elementary school, and then bought the English version for her when she was in junior high school and just beginning to learn English.   Both books provide thoughtful meditations on the nature of friendship that are not always so obvious but true nontheless — it was certainly not surprising to me that it was penned by one of Japan’s more well known contemporary poets, Tanikawa Shuntaro.

Poetry Friday this week is hosted by Heidi at My Juicy Little Universe.

Postcard from Japan: Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum

Wednesday, May 18th, 2011

This past week, my teenage son and I had the chance to visit the Osamu Tezuka Manga Museum located in Takarazuka city.  Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as the ‘father of manga’ and is highly revered by manga artists in Japan.  His most famous works include Astro Boy, Black Jack and Jungle Emperor Leo.

The museum was opened in 1994 and contains items from Tezuka’s life like his numerous sketchbooks and writings, as well as an animation studio in the basement, and a screening room for films.  There is also a library, shop and cafe on the upper floor.  On our visit, the exhibition hall was filled with panels from Tezuka’s manga series Buddha, which is about to debut as a full-length animated film this May.

My son and I enjoyed touring the museum.  In the animation studio, we drew our own little two panel animations where we could see our drawings in action on backdrops of our own design.  I think my son’s favorite part of the museum was the library where there were multilingual editions of Tezuka’s most famous manga.

While he read, I watched an interactive media program about Tezuka’s life.  Born in 1928, the oldest of three sons, he took to drawing at an early age.  As a youngster, he was often bullied and took much solace in his imagination.  In particular, he was inspired by the world of nature, especially insect life.  In fact, Tezuka took his pen-name from an insect called the osamushi.  He continued with his obsession of drawing cartoons, even during the war years, when such activity was considered frivolous and unpatriotic.  While young, Tezuka had a serious swelling in his arm which was cured by a doctor; Tezuka then wanted to become a doctor himself and pursued medical studies in university.  However, he continued with his drawing of manga, and eventually, on the advice of his mother, pursued his one true passion as his sole profession even though, at the time, such a career was considered precariously unstable.  And the rest, they say, is history!

700 manga later, with Tezuka immortalized by the Japanese as the god of manga, it is unfortunate that so few of Tezuka’s work are available in English.   Hopefully that will change in the years to come.

Postcard from Japan: Tongari Boshi Mothers’ Reading Group

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

I’ve just had the pleasure of joining a volunteer group of mothers at my daughter’s elementary school who read children’s books aloud in the library every Tuesday morning.  The group call themselves Tongari Boshi, or The Pointed Hat Circle.  Every Tuesday, chairs are set up in the library and a mother reads books aloud to children who come into the library during recess time.  This week’s volunteer, Kaori Nagami, read two books: Dorobo Gakko or “School for Robbers” by Satoshi Kako (Kaiseisha, 1978) and Tomodachi Ni Naroyo or “Let’s Be Friends” by noted musician and singer Hirotaka Nakagawa, illustrated by Saeko Hirokawa published by Alice-Kan.   I’m not sure if these books have been translated into English but some Japanese childrens’ book publishers such as Kaiseisha have English websites for English readers to peruse.  Alice-kan does not yet appear to have an English website but they have a colorful web presence in Japanese so I have linked to them.  Check out their author index page and click on the doors for a fun discovery of authors/illustrators and their works.  I’m looking forward to Tongari Boshi’s next meeting to find out more about Japanese children’s books so do stay posted.  There’s a wonderful world of books out there waiting to be discovered!