The Japanese Fairy Tale Series: The Illustrated Books That Introduced Western Readers to Japanese Tales (1885-1922)

Everyone in Japan knows the story of Momotaro, the boy born from a peach who goes on to defeat the marauding ogres known as oni. The oldest known written versions of Momotaro’s adventures date back to the 17th century, but even then the tale almost certainly had a long history of passage through oral tradition. And though Momotaro may well be the best-known Japanese folk hero, his story is just one in a body of folklore vast enough that few, even among avid enthusiasts, can claim to have mastered it in its entirety.

That vast body of Japanese folklore has provided no small amount of inspiration to comics, animation, and the other modern forms of storytelling that have brought many of these folktales to wider audiences — even global audiences, a project that began in the late 19th century.

Their Western popularization has no greater figurehead than Lafcadio Hearn. A Greek-British writer who moved to Japan in 1890, Hearn later became a naturalized Japanese citizen and wrote such books as Japanese Fairy Tales, Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things, and The Boy Who Drew Cats.

That last title, an English version of a Japanese folktale about a child who vanquishes a goblin rat in a monastery by drawing its natural enemies on the monastery walls, was also adapted in a series of beautifully illustrated crêpe-paper children’s books put out by an enterprising Japanese publisher named Takejiro Hasegawa. “In twenty volumes, published between 1885 and 1922, the Fairy Tale series introduced traditional Japanese folk tales, first to readers of English and French, and later to readers of German, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and Russian,” writes the Public Domain Review’s Christopher DeCou.

Wanting to model the books on Japanese anthologies published in the sixteenth century, Hasegawa hired traditional Japanese woodblock printers like Kobyashi EitakuSuzuki Kason, and Chikanobu to illustrate them. And, for the translation work, he drew on the local missionary community to which his own English education had put him in contact. “The earliest volumes in the Japanese Fairy Tale Series really were very much a product of Tokyo’s close-knit expat community,” DeCou writes. A growing Western interest in Japonisme, as well as “Hasewaga’s wheeling and dealing at World’s Fairs” and the good sense to bring the famous Hearn aboard the project, made the Japanese Fairy Tale Series into an enduring international success.

“At a time when publishing houses in London and New York dominated the market,” DeCou writes, “Hasegawa’s press in Tokyo was producing equally beautiful volumes using traditional Japanese craftwork and broadcasting Japan’s culture to the world.” You can see more pages of the Japanese Fairy Tale Books at the Public Domain Review, and complete digitizations at the site of book dealer George Baxley as well as at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the Internet Archive. Like Hearn, Hasegawa understood that Japanese folklore had the appeal to cross temporal and cultural boundaries. But could even he have imagined that the very books in which he published them would still draw such fascination more than a century later?

via Public Domain Review

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Robert Johnson Finally Gets an Obituary in The New York Times 81 Years After His Death

Whether you see it as a good faith effort to correct past mistakes or a bid to distract from more recent fumbles—the New York Times’Overlooked” obituary series has done its readers a service by recovering the bios of “remarkable people whose deaths… went unreported in The Times.” Most of the profiles are of people who were public figures at the time of their death. Some had achieved international recognition, like Alan Turing, and others were royalty, like Rani, queen of the kingdom of Jhansi in Northern India and one of the leaders of a revolt against the British in 1857.

The latest “Overlooked” is an oddity. Its subject may be the most famous person of all to get the belated Times obit since the series began. Robert Johnson’s alleged deal with the devil at the crossroads has become as foundational to U.S. mythology as John Henry’s hammer or George Washington’s cherry tree.

At the very same time, Johnson may be the most obscure figure to appear in “Overlooked.” And the person about whom the least is known. “What is known” about him, writes the Times, “can be summarized on a postcard.”

He is thought to have been born out of wedlock in May 1911 in Mississippi and raised there. School and census records indicated he lived for stretches in Tennessee and Arkansas. He took up guitar at a young age and became a traveling musician, eventually glimpsing the bustle of New York City. But he died in Mississippi [in 1938], with just over two dozen little-noticed recorded songs to his name.

There’s more to the story, but it gets hard to tell where the historical record ends and the mythology begins. Still, the paper of record can be forgiven for overlooking Johnson the first time around. Aside from a small number of Delta blues fans, most of whom actually lived in the Delta, hardly anyone knew who Robert Johnson was in life. By the time news of his mojo started to spread outside Mississippi, it was too late. John Hammond sought to bring him Carnegie Hall in 1938, the year of his death. Alan Lomax looked to record him 1941, only to find out he was gone.

His fame spread in the 1960s when British Blues invasionists picked up on his genius, cited him as a primary influence, and covered and adapted his songs. Bob Dylan wrote in his memoir Chronicles: Volume One that “hundreds of lines” of his derive from Johnson’s influence. The “advent of rock ‘n’ roll would turn Johnson into a figure of legend,” among blues and rock and roll fans in the know. The legend, and recognition of Johnson’s greatness, exploded in subsequent decades.

Johnson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first ceremony in 1986. His posthumous Complete Recordings won a Grammy in 1991. Many more honors followed, including a Grammy lifetime achievement award. By 2003, Rolling Stone could call Johnson “the undisputed king of the Mississippi Delta blues” and place him at #5 on their list of 100 greatest guitarists of all time. How is it possible that an obscurely minor figure in blues history became a founding grandfather of rock and roll?

“The chasm between the man Johnson was and the myth he became,” the Times admits “has marooned historians and conscientious listeners for more than a half-century.” Johnson’s story “is no more or less than the handiwork of the country in which it was written; a country where the legacy of African-Americans has often been shaped by others.” But those others have had good reason for appropriating Johnson’s infernal story and unique musical signatures.

A new Netflix documentary ReMastered: Devil at the Crossroads (see the trailer above) explores in interviews with rock and blues greats how Johnson became forever linked to a myth that stood in for the real circumstances of his short, difficult life. (He can be thought of as the founding member of rock’s tragically elite “27 club.”) Actual deal with the devil or no, “there was certainly a lot of daredevilry in his flouting of standard tempos and harmonics,” writes Rolling Stone. “His records are breathtaking displays of melodic development and acute brawn.”

While the Times, and most everyone else, passed over him in life, in death, he has more than received his due from musicians and fans. Johnson has not been overlooked so much as maybe overrepresented in the history of the blues. Find out why in his belated Times obituary, in the hundreds of tributes to him written and recorded since his death 81 years ago, and by immersing yourself in his own haunting recordings.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Watch Composer Wendy Carlos Demo an Original Moog Synthesizer (1989)

She’s worked with Stanley Kubrick *and* “Weird Al” Yankovic, and helped Robert Moog in the development of his eponymous synthesizer. Wendy Carlos is also one of the first high profile transgender artists–credited as Walter Carlos for Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange but having transitioned to Wendy by the time of The Shining, in which only a few of her pieces were used.

In this brief clip from a 1989 BBC episode of Horizon, Carlos, accompanied by her two cats, explains how she uses analog synths to create electronic facsimiles of real instruments–in this case creating an approximation of a xylophone, sculpting a sine wave until it sounds like a mallet on wood.

The segment also shows Carlos operating one of the original Moog synths, about the size of a fridge and looking like an old telephone switchboard with a keyboard attached. By plugging and unplugging a series of cables, she demonstrates, the sine wave is deconstructed from its original “pure” but harsh sound. Later analog synths were additive, not subtractive, she explains. (It’s one of the few times I’ve seen old tech explained so well and so quickly.)

Along with working with Bob Moog, Carlos studied at Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center alongside two pioneers of early electronic music: Vladimir Ussachevsky and Otto Luening, both of whom would make very challenging compositions and musique concrete.

But Wendy chose both the classical and popular path, creating the Switched on Bach series that featured 18th century music played on the Moog synth and others. It would lead her to Kubrick and A Clockwork Orange’s idiosyncratic score and even more success. Apart from her score for Disney’s Tron, now very much beloved by fans, Carlos turned to more personal, soundscape work later. And in 2005, if you can find a copy, she put out a multiple-CD set of all her soundtrack work that Kubrick never used for The Shining and others.

The description of the entire Horizon episode has a technofear theme: “In Paris, Xavier Rodet has taught a computer to sing Mozart; in Greenwich Village, Wendy Carlos synthesises a classical concerto from electronic tones…In Australia, Manfred Clynes reckons he has discovered a universal human language of emotion. To prove it he creates feelings on tape. What’s left for human performers to contribute?”

This program was at least a decade after the first sampling keyboard, so the anxiety is either late or overhyped. But it also sounds familiar to our current concerns over AI (as seen in these very web pages!). Synths never replaced human instruments, but it did create more synth players. AI won’t replace human decision making (probably), but it will certainly create more AI programmers.

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the artist interview-based FunkZone Podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, read his other arts writing at and/or watch his films here.

The Beatles Release the First Ever Video for “Here Comes the Sun”

It took a half century. But better late than never. Exactly 50 years after the release of Abbey Road, the Beatles have released the first official video of “Here Comes the Sun.” The clip, writes NME, “set to a new stereo mix of the George Harrison composition, captures a gorgeous sunrise illuminating Abbey Road Studios’ Studio Two, where the Fab Four recorded most of the legendary album.” Later today, the Beatles will release the 50th anniversary reissue of Abbey Road. It comes in CD and CD/Blu Ray versions.

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Free: A Professionally-Read Version of the Ukraine Whistleblower Complaint, Released by Penguin Random House Audio

Listen to the Whistleblower Complaint released by the House Intelligence Committee, as read by Saskia Maarleveld. Stream or download it above. Find more of Maarleveld’s narrated books on Audible.

This recording will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

What’s the Key to American Gothic’s Enduring Fame? An Introduction to the Iconic American Painting

The Last Supper

The Birth of Venus

The Mona Lisa

American Gothic, Grant Wood’s celebrated depiction of two Depression-era Iowa farmers, holds its own against those iconic European works as one of the world’s most parodied artworks.

Vox’s Phil Edwards dispenses with that status quickly in the above video for Overrated, a series that unpacks the reasons behind iconic works’ lasting fame.

By his reckoning, American Gothic’s success hinges on the dual nature of its creator, a native Iowan who traveled extensively in Europe, gravitating to such sophisticated fare as Impressionism, Pointillism, and the work of Flemish master Jan van Eyck.

While he didn’t express satirist and cultural critic H. L. Mencken’s overt disdain for his rural-dwelling subjects, his rendering suggests that he perceived them incapable of understanding the appeal of his own rarified pleasures.

As Karal Ann Marling, professor of art history and American studies at the University of Minnesota, writes in The Annals of Iowa:

In the early 1930s, many Iowa farmers suspected that Wood was making fun of them in American Gothic, that he was a pictorial H. L. Mencken castigating a Midwestern “booboisie.” (He had, after all, lived in Paris briefly and even grew a beard there!) But by 1933, when American Gothic was exhibited in conjunction with the Chicago Century of Progress Fair, the painting had become a beloved national symbol, second only to Whistler’s portrait of his mother in the affections of the public.

Wood, who staged the painting using his sister, his dentist and a “cardboardy frame house” typical of Iowa farms as models, admitted that his intentions weren’t entirely noble:

There is satire in it, but only as there is satire in any realistic statement. These are types of people I have known all my life. I tried to characterize them truthfully—to make them more like themselves than they were in actual life.

As the Art Institute of Chicago’s Judith Barter observes in an audio guide accompanying the painting, the dour, overall-clad farmer betrays a bit of vanity, gussying up in a dress shirt and Sunday-Go-To-Meeting jacket while his female companion—Wood never revealed if she was sister, wife, or daughter—accessorizes her tidy apron with a cameo brooch in anticipation of having their likeness captured.

Author Christopher Morley, who first saw American Gothic in 1930, when it won the Norman Wait Harris Bronze Medal at the forty-third Art Institute of Chicago Annual Exhibition of American Paintings and Sculpture, later wrote:

In those sad and yet fanatical faces may be read much of what is Right and what is Wrong with America.

Perhaps we are drawn to the reflection of our own foibles, whether we’re ascetic everyday folks or big-for-our-britches country-born city slickers…

The painting continues to delight the masses in the Art Institute of Chicago’s Gallery 263.

And when in Eldon, Iowa be sure to pose in front of the historic American Gothic House, with props kindly supplied by the adjacent American Gothic House Center.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her in NYC on Monday, October 7 when her monthly book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domaincelebrates the art of Aubrey Beardsley. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Libraries & Archivists Are Digitizing 480,000 Books Published in 20th Century That Are Secretly in the Public Domain

Image by Jason “Textfiles” Scott, via Wikimedia Commons

All books in the public domain are free. Most books in the public domain are, by definition, on the old side, and a great many aren’t easy to find in any case. But the books now being scanned and uploaded by libraries aren’t quite so old, and they’ll soon get much easier to find. They’ve fallen through a loophole because their copyright-holders never renewed their copyright, but until recently the technology wasn’t quite in place to reliably identify and digitally store them.

Now, though, as Vice’s Karl Bode writes, “a coalition of archivists, activists, and libraries are working overtime to make it easier to identify the many books that are secretly in the public domain, digitize them, and make them freely available online to everyone.” These were published between 1923 and 1964, and the goal of this digitization project is to upload all of these surprisingly out-of-copyright books to the Internet Archive, a glimpse of whose book-scanning operation appears above.

“Historically, it’s been fairly easy to tell whether a book published between 1923 and 1964 had its copyright renewed, because the renewal records were already digitized,” writes Bode. “But proving that a book hadn’t had its copyright renewed has historically been more difficult.” You can learn more about what it takes to do that from this blog post by New York Public Library Senior Product Manager Sean Redmond, who first crunched the numbers and estimated that 70 percent of the titles published over those 41 years may now be out of copyright: “around 480,000 public domain books, in other words.”

The first important stage is the conversion of copyright records into the XML format, a large part of which the New York Public Library has recently completed. Bode also mentions a software developer and science fiction author named Leonard Richardson who has written Python scripts to expedite the process (including a matching script to identify potentially non-renewed copyrights in the Internet Archive collection) and a bot that identifies newly discovered secretly public-domain books daily. Richardson himself underscores the necessity of volunteers to take on tasks like seeking out a copy of each such book, “scanning it, proofing it, then putting out HTML and plain-text editions.”

This work is now happening at American libraries and among volunteers from organizations like Project Gutenberg. The Internet Archive’s Jason Scott has also pitched in with his own resources, recently putting out a call for more help on the “very boring, VERY BORING (did I mention boring)” project of determining “which books are actually in the public domain to either surface them on or help make a hitlist.” Of course, many more obviously stimulating tasks exist even in the realm of digital archiving. But then, each secretly public-domain book identified, found, scanned, and uploaded brings humanity’s print and digital civilizations one step closer together. Whatever comes out of that union, it certainly won’t be boring.

via Vice

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

A New Kurt Vonnegut Museum Opens in Indianapolis … Right in Time for Banned Books Week

“All my jokes are Indianapolis,” Kurt Vonnegut once said. “All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I would be out of business. What people like about me is Indianapolis.” He delivered those words to a high-school audience in his hometown of Indianapolis in 1986, and a decade later he made his feelings even clearer in a commencement speech at Butler University: “If I had to do it all over, I would choose to be born again in a hospital in Indianapolis. I would choose to spend my childhood again at 4365 North Illinois Street, about 10 blocks from here, and to again be a product of that city’s public schools.” Now, at 543 Indiana Avenue, we can experience the legacy of the man who wrote Slaughterhouse-FiveCat’s Cradle, and Breakfast of Champions at the newly permanent Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library.

The museum’s founder and CEO Julia Whitehead “conceived the idea for a Vonnegut museum in November of 2008, a year and a half after the author’s death, writes Atlas Obscura’s Susan Salaz. “The physical museum opened in a donated storefront in 2011, displaying items donated by friends or on loan from the Vonnegut family” — his Pall Malls, his drawings, a replica of his typewriter, his Purple Heart.

But the collection “has been homeless since January 2019.” A fundraising campaign this past spring raised $1.5 million in donations, putting the museum in a position to purchase the Indiana Avenue building, one capacious enough for visitors to, according to the museum’s about page, “view photos from family, friends, and fans that reveal Vonnegut as he lived; “ponder rejection letters Vonnegut received from editors”; and “rest a spell and listen to what friends and colleagues have to say about Vonnegut and his work.”

The newly re-opened Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library will also pay tribute to the jazz-loving, censorship-loathing veteran of the Second World War with an outdoor tunnel playing the music of Wes Montgomery and other Indianapolis jazz greats, a “freedom of expression exhibition” that Salaz describes as featuring “the 100 books most frequently banned in libraries and schools across the nation,” and veteran-oriented book clubs, writing workshops, and art exhibitions. In the museum’s period of absence, Vonnegut pilgrims in Indianapolis had no place to go (apart from the town landmarks designed by the writer’s architect father and grandfather), but the 38-foot-tall mural on Massachusetts Avenue by artist Pamela Bliss. Having known nothing of Vonnegut’s work before, she fell in love with it after first visiting the museum herself, she’ll soon use its Indiana Avenue building as a canvas on which to triple the city’s number of Vonnegut murals.

You can see more of the new Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library, which opened its doors for a sneak preview this past Banned Books Week, in the video at the top of the post, as well as in this four-part local news report. Though Vonnegut expressed appreciation for Indianapolis all throughout his life, he also left the place forever when he headed east to Cornell. He also satirically repurposed it as Midland City, the surreally flat and prosaic Midwestern setting of Breakfast of Champions whose citizens only speak seriously of “money or structures or travel or machinery,” their imaginations “flywheels on the ramshackle machinery of awful truth.” I happen to be planning a great American road trip that will take me through Indianapolis, and what with the presence of an institution like the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library — as well as all the cultural spots revealed by the Indianapolis-based The Art Assignment — it has become one of the cities I’m most excited to visit. Vonnegut, of all Indianapolitans, would surely appreciate the irony.


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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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