The Folklore

In case if you missed it, the last blog update included a new featured project Haikucomics, as well as a little write up and illustration about how the project came to be.

Once I found the motivation to make a new comic, the next question became “what story am I going to tell?” Immediately a story that I once read in an anthology of Japanese folklores came to mind. It went something like this (click to enlarge):

Of course, the original story was written much more elegantly. You may find it at your local library if you looked for this book.

The Western reader may be confused at first. I know I definitely was thrown off by the bizarre structure and unexplained details. What’s the wife’s motivation for leaving? What kind of history do the lovers have? What’s the significance of the bow? The bird? And who the HECK was this “human” that the bird turned into? And as Western storytelling convention advocates, if you put a bow in the first act

Yet, despite my inability to break down and analyze the story, I found myself remembering and thinking of it from time to time, and each time I do, the story’s charm has but intensified. In an attempt to solve the mysteries of the story’s magical appeal, I started at something relatively tangible – the symbols.


The Bow

I opened my dictionary of symbols looking for “bow” and hit jackpot. The bow is a very rich symbol, playing important roles particularly in the Greek, Indian, Japanese, and Chinese cultures. It was said that in Japanese folklores, the bow and arrow together form the symbol for love, thus explaining the significance of the arrow-less bow in the story. Not surprisingly, the tandem also projects a strong “phallic-ness”, illustrated by the word “stroke” in the original story, which I have made the point to preserve in my comic translation. Furthermore, the bow has been known to symbolize the sublimation of desire towards spiritual perfection.


The White Bird

The white bird is really two symbols disguised in one. Come to think of it, in a story that didn’t give any details of anything, it was strange that the color of the bird was so particular. We all know that white is a symbol for purity, what we may not know, however, it that it’s also a dual symbol for beginning and end, and thus the concept of death and rebirth.

The bird, on the other hand, is deemed symbol of the link between Heaven and Earth because of its ability to fly, which interestingly corresponds to the pointing-upward-bow.


After reading about the symbols, I have come to an initial analysis of the story: the protagonist’s relationship with the bow is a metaphor for his inner journey through the mourning stages, taking him from the state of sorrow through to that of acceptance, and finally bringing him to reconcile and embrace the memories of his lost love, through the process elevating his frustrated lust towards divine love. As our hero completes this process and his need for the bow diminishes, the bow turned itself into a white bird, symbolizing the protagonist’s spiritual success, as well as the end and beginning of chapters in his life. Meanwhile, that the bird turned into a person implies the death and reincarnation of the beloved wife.

I had always enjoyed the weirdness, the atmosphere, and the colourful symbols of this story, but at this point I realized that another reason I liked it so much was precisely the vagueness and the left out details that open the story up for the readers’ own imagination and interpretation. While simultaneously reading up on the art form of haiku, I came across such a quote: “The haiku that reveals seventy to eighty percent of its subject is good. Those that reveal fifty to sixty percent we never tire of.”* As I read it my eyes lit up and I knew what I needed to focus on next!


*Kenneth Yasuda, The Japanese Haiku, Charles E. Tuttle Company, Inc., 1957, p.6

**The symbol book I referred to is called The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols by Jean Chavalier and Alain Gheerbrant, translated from French by John Buchanan-Brown, first published by Penguin in1962.