Fairy Tale Tuesday No.43 – Tokoyo

Fairy tales, or at least those that have survived into the 21st century, tend to favour an air of mystery. They don’t like being pinned down to specifics. This week’s story, from Samira Kirollos’s collection of retellings The Wind Children and other tales from Japan, is a rare exception, cementing itself in the year 1320. According to ‘Tokoyo’, the Japanese Middle Ages were a time of great conflict between rival chieftains. In the year that the story starts, a chieftain called Takatoki banishes the samurai warrior Oribe Shima to a desolate outcrop of islands for reasons he does not see fit to divulge. Oribe Shima leaves behind an eighteen-year-old daughter, Tokoyo, who must now manage on her own.

Tokoyo is in fact very well-equipped to do that. Her father taught her to fence, fight, dive and swim, and she soon decides it’s time to put her impressive skill set to use. “I am not afraid of the sea,” she reasons. “I must also teach myself not to be afraid of anything that could happen to me on land. What I must do now is leave my home here in Ise immediately and set off to save my father.” She sells off a few precious items to fund her journey, packs the essentials and sets off on a journey that takes her across inhospitable terrain in unforgiving weather. She must walk every step of the way even when she is so exhausted that it feels like she might die before she gets anywhere near her father.

After weeks of travelling, she finally reaches the sea. On the beach, within sight of the islands where her father is imprisoned, Tokoyo allows herself to rest. She wakes up to the sound of the local fishermen arriving and explains her situation to them, asking for someone to point out which island is her father’s prison, and once she’s been told that, for help in getting there. The fishermen laugh in her face. “Do you think we are a bunch of fools here?” one of them demands. “NO ONE is allowed on any of the Oki Islands…Find your own way of getting there. Don’t turn to us!”

They go out to sea without giving Tokoyo another thought. Which is stupid, because Tokoyo is not the sort of person who gives up easily. When the fishermen return that night, she waits for the village lights to go out, then steals a boat and rows herself out towards her father’s prison. It takes her a full day to get there. Reaching a small rocky bay, she lifts her boat onto the shore and collapses at last into sleep.

In the morning, she finds herself another fisherman and asks for directions to where Oribe Shima is being kept. At least this one is polite, but he can’t help her either. “My child,” he explains, “if Lord Tameyoshi, the lord of this island, hears that you are here he could put your father to death for this, and you yourself would be in great trouble.”

Tokoyo tries again with other islanders and receives the same shut-down each time she mentions her father’s name. Eventually she retreats to a Buddhist shrine that is sheltered from the fierce sea wind, prays for help, and curls up to sleep. She is soon woken, however, by the sound of a girl crying. When she gets up to investigate she sees a priest standing at the edge of the cliffs with his hands on the back of a terrified fifteen-year-old girl, preparing to push her over into the sea.

Tokoyo quickly intervenes, dragging her back and shouting furiously at the priest. “What kind of man are you? Why are you trying to kill her?” It turns out that the girl is a sacrifice to the terrible monster Yofuné Nushi, who sends savage storms to devastate the island if he is not placated by the annual tribute of a beautiful young girl under the age of fifteen. So, carnivorous and creepy. “It is sad that a girl has to die every year,” the priest says calmly, “but I am sure you understand that if one girl can save the lives of many fisherman, she must die.”

Tokoyo understands no such thing. She listens to everything the priest has to say and then, before anyone can stop her, she jumps off the cliff in the other girl’s place. This isn’t a sacrifice, though; this is a plan. She has her dagger between her teeth and when she hits the water, she swims, searching for signs of Yofuné Nushi. When she catches sight of a man in the mouth of a cave she flies at him with her dagger before realising that it is only a statue. Not that this lessens her desire to destroy it, because she recognises it as a statue of Takatoki, a different monster in her life. She resists the impulse to break it, deciding to try and return it to whoever the sculptor is instead.

As she swims upward with her new burden, however, the water churns violently and the real Yofuné Nushi appears before her. He is half dragon and half snake, a vast creature covered in white scales with horns and a long moustache. He is floating towards her, sure of his success after so many easy kills. Tokoyo waits for her chance and when he is close enough, she puts her dagger through his right eye. Blinded by blood, he is too slow to escape her – she stabs him through the heart and drags his body to the surface to show the islanders that he is really dead.

The priest and his ex-sacrifice have been waiting on the cliffs to see what will happen. They spot Tokoyo struggling in the sea, weighed down by a statue and a corpse, and hurry down to help her. Soon a crowd gathers to see their island’s saviour. The exhausted Tokoyo is whisked away for some well-deserved coddling, and the news continues to spread, eventually reaching the ear of Lord Tameyoshi.

He, in turn, reports it to Takatoki, who is interested for reasons of his own. He has been very sick for a long time, his doctors unable to help, but as soon as the statue of him was dragged out of the sea he was immediately cured. When he hears the story of Tokoyo he realises that the statue must have been made, and drowned, by another prisoner on the island. By bringing it to the surface, Tokoyo accidentally lifted the curse. Though I’m sure she wouldn’t have done so if she’d actually known, Takatoki rewards her anyway, announcing Oribe Shima’s release on the spot and sending the samurai home with his remarkable daughter at his side.

Of course, there seems to be nothing stopping the unknown sculptor from carving himself another curse. But that, presumably, is another story.

MADE OF AWESOME. I’m sorry, it’s very difficult not to talk about this story in capitals. If I one day compile a list of my top ten favourite fairy tale heroines, and let’s face it, the odds are good I will, Tokoyo will be hanging out near the top with Princess Blue-Eyes and Tatterhood. She is an indefatigable, unstoppable force of justice, and to crown off her general extraordinariness, she does not get married. I love this story, but it makes me sad too, because Tokoyo is the sort of fairy tale character we don’t hear about very often. It isn’t that amazing heroines like this don’t exist; it’s that people don’t choose to remember them, or celebrate them.

That needs to change. Next time someone tells you that fairy tales are all sexist archetypes, tell them about Tokoyo.

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3 thoughts on “Fairy Tale Tuesday No.43 – Tokoyo

  1. I like plenty about fairy tales, but I don’t necessarily like the sexist archetypes. I try not to perpetuate those. I sure like Tokoyo. She may make the top 10 with me, too.

    • I’ve always felt that most fairy tales (with a few notable exceptions) are only sexist if they’re badly told. What startles me is how often modern retellings don’t bother giving their female characters real respect, or feel they have to totally change the original story in order to do so. I’d both love to see a movie version of ‘Tokoyo’ (epic underwater knife fight!) and kind of dread what would be made of it.

      • I’m afraid I’m having trouble imaging it as a Disney. Mulan keeps interfering. Perhaps Aardman would do a good job.

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