Otogizōshi (御伽草子 otogi-zōshi?) refers to a group of approximately 350 Japanese prose narratives written primarily in the Muromachi period (1392–1573). These illustrated short stories, which remain unattributed, together form one of the representative literary genres of the Japanese medieval era.
This type of short prose narrative from Japan is often considered a transitional genre, which bridges the gap between the courtly literature of the Heian period (794-1160) and the more plebeian kanazōshi (tales written in kana) and ukiyozōshi (tales of the floating world) of the Edo period (1600–1868). The stories were originally recorded in both illustrated scrolls or booklets (Nara-ehon) which link the picture scrolls of the Heian era with the woodblock print books of the Edo period. This suggests that otogizōshi were meant to be read aloud, with the illustrations serving as reference guides.
Because the stories were frequently recited before an audience, many narratives are simple, with little description, depth, or development. Others, however, are more poetically allusive, suggesting composition by literati. Many of the tales are straightforward quest narratives, often revolving around a single heroic figure. In order to advance the plot, the passage of time is swift, with characters sometimes aging years or decades in the space of a single sentence.
The vast topical range of Otogizōshi discourages easy generalization. The subject matter includes worldly concerns (love, marriage, family); spiritual matters (the pursuit of enlightenment, encounters with manifestations of the Buddha); martial adventures; farce, and supernatural fantasy. While some of the stories exhibit a clear didactic agenda, most otogizōshi appear to have been composed primarily for the sake of entertainment.
Categories of otogizōshi
Otogizōshi have been broken down into multiple categories: tales of the aristocracy, which are derived from earlier works such as The Tale of Genji, The Tale of the Heike and Taiheiki; religious tales; tales of warriors, often based on the The Tale of the Soga and Gikeiki (The Tale of Yoshitsune); tales of foreign countries, based on the Konjaku Monogatarishū. The most well-known of the tales, however, are retellings of familiar legends and folktales, such as Issun-bōshi, the story of a one-inch-tall boy who overcomes countless obstacles to achieve success in the capital.
Origins of the term otogizōshi
The term otogi literally means "companion", with the full name of the genre translating to "companion tale". This designation, however, did not come into use until 1725, when a publisher from Osaka released a set of 23 illustrated booklets titled Shūgen otogibunko (Fortuitous Companion Library). As other publishers produced their own versions of Shūgen otogibunko, they began referring to the set of tales as otogizōshi. Gradually the term came to describe any work from the Muromachi or early Edo period that exhibited the same general style as the tales in Shūgen otogibunko.
History of otogizōshi scholarship
Otogizōshi came to the attention of modern literary historians in the late nineteenth century. For the most part, scholars have been critical of this genre, dismissing it for its perceived faults when compared to the aristocratic literature of the Heian and Kamakura periods. As a result, standardized Japanese school textbooks often omit any reference to otogizōshi from their discussions of medieval Japanese literature. Recent studies, however, have contradicted this critical stance, highlighting the vitality and inherent appeal of this underappreciated genre. The term "chusei shosetsu" (medieval novels), coined by eminent scholar Ichiko Teiji, attempts to situate the tales within a narrative continuim.
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