Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Lost Property Fairy Tales: Ogawa Yoko and Higami Kumiko's Transformations of "The Little Mermaid"

Academic journal article Marvels & Tales

Lost Property Fairy Tales: Ogawa Yoko and Higami Kumiko's Transformations of "The Little Mermaid"

Article excerpt

Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 fairy tale "Den lille havfrue" (The Little Mermaid), combined with the strange creatures of premodem mermaid mythologies, has inspired a rich variety of fairy-tale transformations in Japan since its translation in 1904. In this article 1 briefly outline some Japanese mermaid stories before and after the introduction of Andersen's famous literary fairy tale. I then turn my attention to one contemporary transformation of "The Little Mermaid," written by Ogawa Yöko in response to illustrations by Higami Kumiko: "Ningyo höseki shokunin no isshö" (The Life of a Mermaid's Jeweler, 2006). After analyzing Ogawa's explorations of voice/voicelessness and unreliability and her images of loss of self through death, dissolution, and disappearance, 1 suggest that these elements relate to the pleasures of fairy-tale transformations.

Mermaids in Japan

Many stories of human and fish hybrid creatures came to Japan by way of China. The word now used to translate "mermaid," ningyo (composed of the characters for "person" and "fish"), was recorded as early as the fifth century BCE in China.1 More animal than human, ningyo were included in a list of types of fish in the first Chinese-Japanese dictionary in 931-937 CE.2 Mermaid flesh was long thought to have various special powers, including the gift of eternal youth and incredible longevity for anyone who eats it, as seen most famously in the Yaoya bikuni legend of a girl who unknowingly consumes mermaid meat and lives 800 years (Shida 964). Other mermaid folklore often involves tales of ongaeshi (returning a debt of gratitude) and iruikon (cross-species marriage); for example, a fisherman rescues a mermaid and in return she takes human form and marries him.

Despite Japan's period of isolation from the early seventeenth to the midnineteenth century, some exchange of mermaid culture took place with the West around this time. For example, illustrations of mermaids from mid-seventeenth-century Latin zoological encyclopedias were reproduced in the 1786 Japanese medical text Rokubutsu shinshi (Tanabe 45).3 "Mermaid mummies," actually monkey torsos sewn onto fish tails, were often displayed in misemono sideshow-style exhibits during the Edo period (1603-1868). One such mummy journeyed from Nagasaki to London in 1822 and became the notorious "Feejee mermaid" (Markus 528). From the 1840s onward it was exhibited in sideshows across the United States, inspiring many similar mermaid curiosities.

Stories of grotesque mermaid mummies and edible mermaid flesh present creatures rather different from Western sirens and naive heroines, such as Andersen's mermaid's precursor, Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué's Undine. However, in modem Japan these types of mermaids began to appear more often in illustrations for magazines and books for children and adults, especially from the Taishö "romantic" period (1912-1926) onward.4 A particularly bewitching Mediterranean mermaid represents the allure of the exotic West in an early short story by Tanizaki Jun'ichirö, "Ningyo no nageki" (The Mermaid's Lament, 1917).

Translations of Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tales began to be published in 1888; the first translation of "The Little Mermaid" was published by critic of the arts and scholar of classical Japanese literature Takasu Baikei in 1904.5 Although Andersen's novels and other work also became known in Japan, he is now remembered for his fairy tales, which from early on were admired for their morality and viewed as suitable educational material for children ("Anderusen hen," 56).6 Schoolchildren still encounter "The Little Mermaid" in various collections of world children's stories, and a glance at different publications across the years gives the sense that many retain Andersen's plot. The mermaid's tragic death is not usually censored, although many recent versions seem to prefer to play down overtly Christian messages.

Since the introduction of Andersen's story to Japan, mermaids ranging from grotesque to girlish have found themselves in the pages of manga. …

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