Octopus's Garden: Japanese Bedtime Stories (Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Embrace Death)
Something rather strange happened to my son on the way to bed the other night. Something quite peculiar and somewhat disturbing.
Imagine, if you will, the story of Bambi, the same story of the cute little deer and his friends that we all loved so much growing up. Imagine the book, not the movie. But imagine it with one small-but-significant change from the version you knew as a child. Specifically, imagine a final page that literally shows Bambi being served up as a delicious-looking venison steak.
Now imagine that this ending is not intended to be sad in any way. In fact, it's supposed to be happy... and rather mouth-watering. Well, you've now got an idea of the Japanese bedtime story my son was exposed to just the other night.
Brought by a friend from Japan as a gift, this picture book features an octopus and a squid and shows all the amazing things these two magnificent creatures of the deep are capable of. On one page we see their incredible camouflage capabilities, on the next we see how they can both shoot ink. And, as you might expect, with each page we slowly grow more and more fond of our new underseas friends.
It's a joyful, heartwarming book, full of some great photography and lots of fun facts.
And, so, there we all are enjoying this great bedtime story - I'm even commenting on how lucky my son is to have received such a wonderful present - when... we turn the final page and see our two oceanic heroes, the stars of our tale, diced, sauteed, grilled and ready for eatin'. In other words, dead! No forewarning, no slow-building message about the hard truths of life, no message at all. Just our two heroes served up as rather delicious-looking dishes of Japanese cuisine.
I don't know who was more shocked, me or my son, who, understandably, immediately bombarded me with all sorts of questions, trying to make sense of what was going on with this book of horrors.
As I answered these questions I had to try hard not to laugh - because it had to be a practical joke, right? I mean, there's no way someone actually created a book for kids that attempts to build up the heroes to such great heights only to have them slaughtered on the last page. A David Lynch or Quentin Tarantino film might do that, but not a kids' storybook.
Extreme Cultural Disparity
It should be noted that there was one person who wasn't phased in the slightest by this storybook ending. And that was, of course, my wife, Sonoko, who simply said "Oishiso!", or "That looks delicious!"
Having grown up in Japan, I guess she was used to this particular literary device. But we Canadians just aren't that tough. Someone should have warned us that such endings were possible.
I mean, this book, this book... it'd be like Wilbur getting fried up as a plate of bacon and a few pork chops as the "happy ending" of Charlotte's Web... and then Charlotte getting eaten by a bird, for good measure.
It'd be like Hansel & Gretel getting baked in the oven and served up for dinner.
It'd be like Pinocchio getting burnt as firewood as kids roasted marshmallows over his burning body and sang campfire songs over his final horrific screams of excruciating pain.
Seriously, I'd hate to see the Japanese version of Cinderella, in which, I'm guessing, Cinderella isn't able to make it home by midnight and is subsequently attacked by a bunch of goons and degenerates in a back alley.
"Oh, come on, it's just reality. Animals get eaten. That's life!", I hear the knee-jerk defenders of the Japanese method of putting kids to sleep exclaim. But, call me an idealist, I just don't see getting kids to fall asleep a bit quicker due to intense exhaustion brought on by deep sorrowful bouts of crying to be all that great child rearing.
I mean, I really don't think that that sort of reality is what's needed at bedtime: Building up the marvels of a particular animal only to have it killed and served up as a tasty dish on the last page of the story.
But, then again, perhaps I'm just old-fashioned.
Mike Cowie (Oredakedo)
Thursday, April 16th, 2009
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