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Reviewed by:
  • The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales ed. by Shirane Haruo
  • Fumihiko Kobayashi (bio)
The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales. Trans. Burton Watson. Shirane Haruo. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.

No one can deny the significance of setsuwa (“spoken story” in old Japanese, or technically, “anecdotes”) in the long history of Japanese oral and literary traditions. In light of literature and folklore scholarship, setsuwa can always tell us about what stories people in ancient and medieval Japan—low and high alike—enjoyed hearing, jotted down, and read. It can also convey, moreover, what worldview (even if it was primitive and fantastic) setsuwa authors applied to the creation of their setsuwa.

Indeed, setsuwa authors skillfully and sometimes awkwardly incorporated the Buddhist doctrine of karma (the cycle of cause and effect) into their works, but most setsuwa reveal surprisingly funny and preternaturally scary stories pertaining to people’s daily lives. The acts of everyday life depicted in setsuwa differed completely from those of hermetic Buddhists and, moreover, of aristocrats living inside courts as described, for example, in The Tale of Genji, a work of the early eleventh century. Reading setsuwa can build a gateway to the voices of people living in ancient and medieval Japan.

In this respect, setsuwa will surely benefit from folklore scholarship, but a language barrier always haunts folklorists. Originally setsuwa were written in old Japanese, a language that differs from modern Japanese in grammar, vocabulary, and writing style. Without special training in reading setsuwa, we [End Page 335] can hardly understand, let alone enjoy, their original texts. However, thanks to Watson and Shirane’s Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, we now have access to “the richness of the fascinating and influential body” of setsuwa (ix). This book really helps us to look at what stories Japanese people enjoyed and to get some sense of the social atmosphere that people experienced during ancient and medieval times.

Watson and Shirane’s book consists of two parts: the first half of the book provides an introduction to setsuwa, and the latter half is setsuwa selected from seven famous setsuwa shū (collections of setsuwa). In the “Introduction to Anecdotal (Setsuwa) Literature,” Shirane defines setsuwa, saying that “setsuwa (anecdotes) … refer to stories that were first orally narrated and then written down” and that “these recorded stories were often retold, resulting in new variations, which were again recorded” (1). In this respect, he points out that “setsuwa frequently exist in multiple variants, with a story usually evolving or serving different purposes over time” (1). This characterizes the powerful driving force of engendering setsuwa from the early ninth century until the late thirteenth century. Shirane also defines setsuwa shū by saying that “the setsuwa shū was a literary form that provided a structured worldview and that categorized that world into different spheres and topics” (1). This structured worldview creates a specific atmosphere for each setsuwa shū. His definitions of setsuwa and setsuwa shū prepare us to understand and enjoy the world of setsuwa.

After giving these definitions, by mentioning three setsuwa shū compiled in different times with different literary tastes, Shirane propounds “three key elements to understanding setsuwa”: “the act of narration (storytelling)”; “the act of writing, which records the spoken story or rewrites an earlier setsuwa”; and “the act of editing, which brings together the stories in a certain order or by topic” (2).

In the introduction Shirane attempts to demonstrate how those three key elements characterize setsuwa and what worldview setsuwa authors created for themselves. However, his explanation of the elements is too concise to indicate clearly any connections between these elements and selected setsuwa in the latter half of the book. Therefore it does not always help us understand how to apply the three elements to all the selected setsuwa available to us. Despite this, the introduction gives readers general information about the place of setsuwa and setsuwa shū in Japanese literature scholarship.

In the latter half of the book we can enjoy reading examples of setsuwa that Shirane has skillfully selected from seven famous setsuwa shū written between the ninth and the thirteenth centuries. This selection helps us to [End...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1536-1802
Print ISSN
1521-4281
Pages
pp. 335-337
Launched on MUSE
2013-10-28
Open Access
No
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