A line of telegraph poles go on parade; a fox betrays a hapless tree and gets his comeuppance from a lonesome earth god; a cello player receives lessons from nature. Kenji Miyazawa's idiosyncratic mixes of fable, children's stories, fantasy, and surrealism are a staple presence in Japan, but little known in English, and any chance to know them ought to be taken up. Once And Forever, a collection of his work in this vein translated into English by John Bester, came back into print last year thanks to the good graces of New York Review Books, and it is a good alternative to his afterlife allegory Night On The Galactic Railroad as your first introduction to Miyazawa. In fact, given how it shows off more sides of the man's talent and personality, it may well be the better all-around choice, despite the limitations of what a translation can convey about an author's work.

The mystic, the fantasist, and the tale-spinner

Drawing parallels is always tricky. To me, Miyazawa could be put next to a few different sorts of folks better known in the West. One is Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, he of The Little Prince, a story whose atmosphere of spiritual yearning hearkens closely to Miyazawa's own aims. Another is Tove Jansson and her Moomin stories, so accessible to children and yet so full of wit and wisdom that anyone can access. (Moomin remains a staple in Japan to this day.) The formula I keep coming back to is "kid's stuff, and yet not kids stuff". These are stories about bears and hares and birds and frogs, but also about life and death, karma and the natural order, the urge to do right and the temptation to get away with something.

What makes Miyazawa's work look superficially like kid's stuff is the ingredients and the run-downs. Many of his works are populated with the talking animals (and talking objects of nature) that are a staple of children's stories. How they play out, though, and to what end, varies widely. When the title characters in "The Earthgod And The Fox" meet and talk (along with a birch tree), the ultimate effect is wistful and knowing — a fable rather than a mere story. When it's the title characters of "The Spider, The Slug, And The Raccoon" all meeting various horrible fates, it's black comedy of the Roald Dahl variety.

The best of the stories have three dominant flavors. The first is the black comedy, as per the story I just mentioned, but also found in tales like "The Restaurant Of Many Orders." There, two hungry hunters find themselves patrons of a special eatery, where the punchline is something of a cousin to the one in the classic SF story "To Serve Mankind". Second is mythological/moral, as in "The Fire Stone", when a hare is bequeathed a rare treasure for a good deed done and finds out all too late it's corrupted him in ways he wasn't prepared to appreciate. Third is phantasmagorical/hallucinatory, where we simply witness something strange and wonderful: "March By Moonlight", where electricity personified watches telegraph poles stepping in unison. And every now and then there's a merger of approaches — e.g., "Down In The Wood", where an owl telling a fable-like like rendition of how the birds all got their plumages finds himself being heckled by a skeptic.

Losing in translation

A significant problem with appreciating Miyazawa's work is how much of it was incomplete or written under adverse circumstances, as Bester notes in his introduction. The man's most completely realized work remains, and probably always was, his poetry — not because poems are shorter (length is deceptive; a good poem is easily as hard to write as any longer work) but also because poetic metaphor was where Miyazawa's imagination was most at home. Many of his more fairytale-like stories have the quality of extended poetic metaphors, but the metaphor is not always brought home as conclusively as it ought to be. Some of that is down to interpretation; when a story like "A Stem Of Lilies" ends abruptly, for instance, that may be less a sign that Miyazawa was nodding and more a hint that the real meaning of the story isn't in what we think it is. But there are many times when his work does seem just fragmented, rather than impressionistic.

Another issue, one that compounds the above, is the way translation can only provide us with so much. The more poetic the writing, the greater the odds against ever finding a way to bring it to a different language's audience. You end up with something that is not the original author, but the translator plus the original author. This leads to a greater problem, which is that we still remain outsiders to the larger cultural significance of the work. Tim Parks discussed this problem and came to a dispiriting conclusion:

... an original we might now say is not so much a perfect text as one that is truly embedded in the culture that produced it. A translation can indeed be creative and “important,” but it is the creativity of astute accommodation and damage limitation, the “importance” of allowing as much as possible of that original to happen in the translator’s culture. To imagine, however, that Henry James could ever be to the Italians what he is to us, or Giovanni Verga to us what he is to Italians, is nonsense.

The same, by extension, would be true for any Japanese author, including and especially someone like Kenji Miyazawa. We can read the words, and even make contextual sense of them, but we can't bottle the feeling Miyazawa gives to a native speaker and pass that along for another to drink.

But that should not be reason to pass up the words when they can be had. The other week I posted a Twitter thread where I ran down a whole slew of things from Japan that are either harder than they should be for Western audiences to find, or entirely unavailable due to the language barrier. Kenji Miyazawa would have been a prominent entry on that list, but he has been treated better than others, if only because his relative output was small but so deeply loved, and stumped for by a select few who experienced his work as a native (Hiroaki Sato) or as an accultured outsider (Bester himself). What with this collection back in print, and so much of the rest of his work (and its associated adaptations) also readily available, there's never been a better time to know him, even if we can only know so much.

Note: The products mentioned here were purchased by the reviewer with personal funds, or watched using the reviewer's personal streaming account. No compensation was provided by the creators or publishers for the sake of this review.

About the Author

Serdar Yegulalp (@GanrikiDotOrg) is Editor-in-Chief of Ganriki.org. He has written about anime professionally as the Anime Guide for Anime.About.com, and as a contributor to Advanced Media Network, but has also been exploring the subject on his own since 1998.