Many tend to forget the folktales and fables they were told when young or at least until they themselves have a child yet it’s often through mystical stories that we first begin to learn about the world and our place within it. Third in a series of documentaries by Ryusuke Hamaguchi & Ko Sakai focussing on the Tohoku region in the wake of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, Storytellers (Utauhito) follows folklore scholar Kazuko Ono of Miyagi Minwa no Kai as she travels the local area visiting friends in order to hear the various stories they remember from their youth.
Yet as she explains during a trademark Hamaguchi backseat monologue in a car he and co-director Sakai are driving, folktales may have different meanings and interpretations to different people and in different eras in their own particular context. As an example she cites the tale we’ve just heard recited by an elderly woman titled The Monkey’s Bride in which a farmer with three daughters unwisely promises a wife to a monkey who agrees to help him with his rice paddy. The first two daughters refuse, but the third agrees because her father made a promise only to trick the monkey, who has been nothing but kind to her, into drowning himself in a lake. As a child, Kazuko like many disliked the story feeling sorry for the monkey who had acted only with humanity and does not seem to warrant being killed in such an unkind fashion. But then she began to reconsider how her grandmother from whom she first heard it may have read the tale as a woman married off at 16 who constantly tried to run away and only wanted to escape cruel treatment at the home of her in-laws. To her the daughter in the story was brave, doing that which she could not in freeing herself from a forced marriage after being sold to pay her father’s debt. Looking deeper again she began to wonder if the monkey wasn’t also a metaphor for the rich landowners who oppressed peasant famers with only poor quality paddies who were often forced to sell off their daughters in return for financial assistance.
Other stories meanwhile speak of the ingenuity of the poor, a little girl rewarded after responding to an ad promising vast riches for anyone who manages to bore the story-loving lord, she managing it quickly by making him repeat a lengthy nonsense phrase at regular intervals. A story apparently meant to encourage young couples to find “clever” ways of sorting out marital disputes similarly finds a husband returning from the city selling his wife’s lover whom she hastily shut in a water jar, getting one over on him and her, getting his hands on 10 ryo, and even getting the jar back too. Such stories tell us something about the world in which they took place, female adultery in this case not so much of problem able to be solved with some comedic shenanigans rather than the point of a sword, while we might equally find it an absurd way to deal with marital infidelity. Then again there are also a series of thematically similar stories cautioning against marginalised members of society who create problems in order to gain fame and fortune through solving them such as two bizarre tales of magical instruments which cause people’s bottoms to sing an absurd and annoying song which only the holder of the object can stop allowing them to leverage their new talents for unearned wealth and status.
Even so it isn’t perhaps the tales that matter so much as their transmission, many of the elderly storytellers recalling memories of their grandmothers from whom they first heard how the shrimp got its curved back or of eagles who tried to fly to the edge of the ocean. Each of the storytelling sessions begins in ritualised fashion, Kazuko and the other party introducing themselves to each other though they have all been friends for years or sometimes decades and already know each other well. As in the story of the girl and the lord, we’re reminded that tales like these expect call and response, an exchange between the storyteller and the listener that transcends the story itself. A now elderly man recounts that he’d forgotten most of the tales his eccentric grandmother had told him before joining the folktale group in his 40s, but also advances that the stories she gave him were intended to foster a sense of wonder in the world along with a confidence and security that would allow him move freely through the darkness. A lesson in oral history in which these ancient tales are shared and retold before reaching new generations is perhaps a sign of hope that something has and will survive in the simple act of speaking and listening even as Kazuko explains that in order to hear the story she must also change herself so she too may keep moving forward .