Astounding fairytale illustrations from Japan
A collection of images and a dazzling introduction to the mythical world of Japanese fairy tales.
Fairy tales tribal stories— are more than childish tales. Such fictions, the characters of which inhabit our earliest memories, aren’t just literary works with an aesthetic and pleasant purpose. They’re also the bearers of mythologies, archetypes, and legends which convey the ancestral wisdom of human populations. This is in part because their continued existence is due to oral transmission. Each culture has its own fairy tales, characters, and plots. But they all have one thing in common: a life lesson, a didactic element, and in many cases, a moral.
Among the most fascinating elements of fairy tales are the characters. Not always human, and often of fantastic characteristics, of course illustrations brought them to life in our imaginations. In the end, fantasy is frankly visual, and imagination is simply the act of releasing our ability to constitute such imagery. Among the best examples of fairy tale aesthetics is to be found in the drawings below. These come from an old collection of Japanese fairy tales.
Takejiro Hasegawa (1853–1938) devoted much of his work as an editor to the dissemination in the West of fairy tales from his native Japan. Hasegawa was responsible for the creation of this collection of books which encouraged the popularity of some of the strangest and most delightful narratives (and illustrations) of which children’s literature can rightly boast.
The resonance of Hasegawa’s work is due not just to his skill and care, but to the time when he lived and worked. The late 19th and early 20th centuries saw a fascination with the Far East, alongside a golden age of illustrated children’s books. It’s one that’s enriched our imaginations even down to today. Though almost all those books, publishers, and illustrators came from well-known publishers in Europe and the United States, it was at this same time that Japan opened its doors and eyes to the West. Having been born in Tokyo, Hasegawa came to run Kobunsha, one of the most important publishing houses of his time.
From a family of merchants who imported Western books into Japan, Hasegawa was sent by his parents to English schools. His contact with European culture was nurtured and he was able to see the need in Japan for foreign textbooks. His initial project included the introduction of non-Japanese language educational materials. But with the passage of time and the commercial success of his illustrated books of short stories, Hasegawa began to move away from the local market to focus on foreign buyers dazzled by the careful manufacture of the books he made using the legendary ukiyo-e technique.
The collection of fairy tales edited by Hasewaga combined the delirious world of Japanese myth and legend. Illustrated by Japanese artists, it contained with the work of Western writers and translators. Published between 1885 and 1922, the collection consists of some 20 volumes and would eventually be translated into multiple languages.
Hasegawa began with a model of Japanese traditional narrative collections in which, since the 16th century, anthologies of stories had relied heavily on illustrations due to high rates of illiteracy. The results of such a practice were dazzling in aesthetic terms. The stories in Hasegawa’s anthologies, for their part, are drawn from multiple sources, from stories of mythical Japanese heroes, tales from Buddhist tradition, to ancient fables with animals.
For the printing of his books, Hasegawa used multiple traditional Japanese papers. Among them were mitsumata (a creamy, robust and heavy-looking stock like crepe paper) and chirimen (a type of handcrafted paper of a texture resembling fabric and giving it an aged appearance). His Western audience, deeply touched by Orientalism, saw his books not just as anthologies of short stories, but as art objects in and of themselves. Hasegawa eventually participated in book fairs not just in Tokyo, but in cities like Chicago, London, Paris, and Turin.
A child born from a peach, dragons who are kings, an evil rat-elder chased by ghost cats, and gift-bearing sparrows: these are just some of the characters illustrated in Hasegawa’s books. The work eventually took on a double value. An era which carried the tradition of the myths and legends of Japan within objects of art forward then saw that same tradition open an unknown and remarkable universe to a new borderless audience.
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