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THE 'KOJIKI' FOR KIDS

New look for Japan’s oldest book

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THE KOJIKI, edited by Yoshinobu Hirata, illustrated by Yuko Mori. Tokyo: Kumon Shuppan (5-bancho, Chiyoda-ku), 2004, 160 pp., 951 yen (cloth)

“The birth of Japan. The gods give us a story of love and violence.” Thus is introduced this Japanese-language manga-illustrated edition of the “Kojiki” (Record of Ancient Matters) dating from 712 and Japan’s oldest book. The publication is intended for primary-school children and all of the kanji comes with its furigana for easy reading.

For some foreign readers, perhaps unable to read Japanese, the major interest will lie in observing the considerable violence with which the conventions of eighth-century Japanese narrative collide with those of our 21st century.

The text has been edited by a Yokohama National University professor and made more suitable than it actually is. The original has the very first woman, Izanami, burning her genitals when she gives birth to the fire god. Later, various gods are born from her vomit, feces and urine. Her own child, Susano’o, defecates in the sacred hall of his sister Amaterasu and then strews the feces about.

None of this is illustratable, even by the standards of modern manga, and so the celebrated result of such misbehavior — the retreat of Amaterasu into her cave — remains largely unmotivated. It is nonetheless pictured and the lascivious dance of Ame-no-uzume that draws the goddess from her retirement is shown. It was apparently a hula-like affair with one breast chastely exposed.

Susano’o is punished for his behavior by being made to get a shave and a haircut before he is banished. His new look turns him into a hunk (looking much like one of the SMAP all-boy singing team) and he makes his way to destroying a dragon, providing more of the violence and some of the love promised.

From an adult standpoint the interesting aspect of this edition of an ancient classic is that not only has the diction been modernized, but so has the personification.

All the characters are caricatures — contemporary manga types. They all have large round eyes, the girls are cute, and so are the boys, and all are given as much to onomatopoeia as to language.

In addition, they move about like manga people. Since these “comic strip” narratives are arranged in the form of story boards, the story becomes the only focus of interest — characterization is invariably sacrificed and atmosphere belongs to the special-effects department.

Whether this benefits the “Kojiki” or not is a matter for consideration. It has been maintained (by Donald Keene among others) that the original work is contradictory, prolix, and lacks “unity even in relatively brief narratives.”

One thing you can say about manga is that it is never prolix and its nature imposes at least a visible unity. And so this collection of myths, stories, anecdotes and political propaganda is newly unified by the conventions of contemporary pop manga.

One might also argue, however, that the unity is achieved at some cost. When you read type you are troubled to imagine the scene. This is, of course, the delight or reading, but if you are lazy I suppose you could come to resent it. If you read pictures, the scene is already there and you do not have to imagine it. One whole step is left out between comprehension and appreciation. In a way, manga is more efficient. In another way, of course, it is not. You are not really spared exercising your imagination. You are merely using someone else’s.

The cost is one of quality. When I originally read about Amaterasu watching from her cave I did not envision a cute little kogal who had been to Hawaii. Nor did my imagined Susano’o look like SMAP-guy Takuya Kimura, or the dragon he sliced up like liverwurst. But then I was only using my own two-horse-power imagination. I was not online with manga mass media.

Yet, as Umberto Eco has observed, mass media insist upon repetition, redundancy, and iteration, as well as obedience to a schema. When you’re online you don’t need your own imagination. Everything is spelled out for you. And that is what this mangafied edition of the “Kojiki” does. It makes for “easy reading,” and can teach any youngster to neglect his or her imagination.

In addition to the “Kojiki” the publisher has now issued a manga version of most of the classics: The “Genji” and “Heike” stories, even “The Pillow Book.” And now I hear a voice from the back of the hall: “But surely it is better to have schoolchildren aware of even a mangafied classic than not aware of any classics at all.” No, I am not sure of that.