This week’s fairy tale is from The Wind Children and other tales from Japan, a collection retold by Samira Kirollos, and begins by introducing us to a young samurai warrior called Chõshirõ who has wealth, good looks and against all odds, two perfectly healthy parents, neither of whom are enspelled into the shape of a horse or bricked up inside a wall. More surprising yet, it is also a time of peace. With no urgent need to seek his fortune or save any lost brothers, logic dictates that Chõshirõ should count his lucky stars and hope like hell life stays that way. Instead, he leaves his estate in the capable hands of his parents and goes off on holiday. If the adventures will not come to him, he will go forth and find them.
Before long he comes to a promisingly ominous forest. Other heroes, attempting to mind their own business, would inevitably be set upon by all manner of magics; Chõshirõ, who longs to wrestle with a kappa and be tricked by a fox-woman, swooped on by a Tengu or visited by the ghosts of dead warriors, walks for seven days through dark woods and up a lonely mountain without seeing anything out of the ordinary at all.
On the seventh night, things start looking up, when he gets stranded in the middle of nowhere and comes across the ruins of a ‘spooky little temple’. Even the weather is getting into the spirit of heroic hardship, pelting down rain, so Chõshirõ takes refuge in the ruin. “I set off in search of adventure and have so far found nothing,” he tells himself. “I’d better give myself a good night’s sleep. Who knows what tomorrow will bring!”
Insane optimism is all it takes to overcome Murphy’s Law. At midnight, Chõshirõ is woken by a series of ear-splitting shrieks and yowls, and snatches up his swords to go investigate. Outside the temple, he sees nine white cats wearing hats, flourishing fans, dancing on their tails and wailing a song about the unknowable whereabouts of Shippeitarõ, and how much they don’t want to meet with him. Who is Shippeitarõ? Chõshirõ doesn’t know, but he plans on finding out. Adventure at last! He goes back to sleep contemplating what wickedness may be afoot.
The next morning he spots a path that he does not recall having been there the day before and follows it out of the trees onto a plain. At length, he reaches a mansion on the outskirts of a small village, where the sound of crying draws him inside. The entire household is sitting around one girl, all of them weeping. At first, they brush off Chõshirõ’s offer of help, but when he persists the girl’s mother explains their situation.
A malicious spirit lives in the ruined temple on the mountain. Every year it demands the sacrifice of a young girl, and if denied its prey, sends storms to destroy the crops. This particular girl is to die in seven days time. Undaunted, Chõshirõ reveals that he spent the night in that very temple, and is delighted by the awe of his audience. He asks for maps of the surrounding villages and makes his methodical way around the region enquiring after the identity of Shippeitarõ, without any success. By the seventh day, he is losing confidence. Sitting by a stream to rethink his strategy, he’s astounded to hear that mysterious name being called right behind him. When he turns around, he sees an enormous dog bounding away in answer. Chõshirõ hastily joins its master, an elderly gentleman who turns out to be the local lord, and asks if he can borrow the dog for one night. With some reluctance, the lord agrees.
Chõshirõ then dashes back to the sorrowful household, only to learn that the girl is already en route to her death. He catches up with the sacrificial procession halfway up the mountain and lets the girl out of her wooden coffin, ordering her to go home and hide while he continues on with the empty box. It doesn’t remain empty for long. Chõshirõ shuts the incredibly good-natured dog in there and hides himself in the woods around the temple.
At midnight, the nine white cats return with a tenth as their leader, this one black-furred and enormous. They dance around the box, shrieking in a frenzy. The black cat whips the lid off the box and Shippeitarõ leaps out, knocking the cat to the ground. At this point Chõshirõ joins the fray with his swords, mercilessly slaughtering all ten of the cats. WHAT THE HELL, Chõshirõ, you could not have tried negotiating first?
The grisly victory achieved, he returns to the household to explain the night’s events. He does not propose to the girl he rescued and no one offers her up as a reward, thank goodness. First thing in the morning, he returns Shippeitarõ to his master, then follows the road out of the village onto the plain. One adventure is not enough – there’s a big world out there. He still hasn’t given up on the fox-women.
Well, I hope they continue to avoid him. Anti-cat prejudice is not unfamiliar in fairy tales, with similar superstitions to be found in many parts of the world. That does not make the violent deaths of these cats any more palatable, especially as they do nothing more sinister than wear hats and sing incomprehensible songs. It’s very fourth wall to have a protagonist obsessed with the very stories he ends up falling into, and I’m very pleased that the girl manages to avoid all forms of sacrifice, but anyone who goes around killing cats is no hero of mine.