Monday, January 4, 2010

the tongue-cut sparrow, revisited

In 1981, Miura was asked to write a script for a play which would explain the gospel message in a way that even young children could understand. It was to be performed at the Asahikawa Shimin Kurisumasu (Asahikawa city's annual Christmas event) later that same year. It was the first, and as far as I know only, play that Miura ever wrote. She based the plot on a folktale that every Japanese child knows by heart: Shitakiri-Suzume (The Tongue-Cut Sparrow). The illustrations posted here are ones that I drew to accompany Miura's version of the folktale. I have used them kamishibai (story-board)-style at many Christmas events over the years.

Perhaps you are familiar with the original tale. It involves a kindly old man, his bad-tempered wife, and a sparrow. The old man nurses an injured sparrow back to health, but the sparrow infuriates the old woman by nibbling at the flour paste she has prepared for starching the laundry. She decides to punish the sparrow by cutting off its tongue with a pair of scissors. When the old man learns of this, he is mortified, and runs to the forest to look for the sparrow so that he can apologize.

The sparrow community responds to the old man's love and concern with a banquet. At the end, he is given a choice between two gifts, one packed in a large wicker case, and the other in a small one. Without knowing what is inside, he chooses the small case, explaining that he is old and the large one would be too difficult for him to carry home. After he reaches his house and tells his wife all that has happened, they open the wicker case and are astounded to find it filled with gold, silver, and other valuables.

The greedy old woman schemes to visit the sparrow's home for an insincere condolence call so she can bring back the large case for herself. Half-way home, she opens the wicker case, and is scared witless by the ghoulish creatures that burst out from it. Moral of the story: Greed is bad.

Miura's script gives the familiar story an interesting twist and a bit of humor. Her version begins where the old man has finally tracked down where the sparrow lives. It happens that a Christmas party is in progress at the sparrow community home. The old man has never heard of Christmas before, so the sparrow explains that it is a celebration of the birth of a man named Jesus. The sparrows invite the old man to join the party and they have a wonderful time.

As the old man prepares to return to his home, the sparrows tell him that Santa has a gift for him. The old man chooses the smaller of the gifts offered. When he finally reaches home and opens the package, he finds a book inside. The book's title is "Bible." The old woman is incensed. "A book like this isn't even useful as toilet paper!" she says. So she makes a visit to the sparrow's home to demand the larger of the gifts. And, of course, she opens the package before she is half-way home. Out comes goblins and other ghoulish creatures. Her legs fail her and she falls to the ground calling for help.

Then Jesus appears. The old woman says, "Whoever you are, please save me from these goblins!" and Jesus replies, "Look carefully. Those aren't goblins you see. That is the condition of your own heart." The old woman snorts, " What kind of joke is that?" Then Jesus explains each of the ugly creatures, saying, "This is your greedy heart. And this is your meanness. And that one over there is your stinginess."

The woman denies it for a while, but the more she thinks about it, the more she realizes that Jesus is right. She confesses that she is full of sin. Jesus explains to her that all people are sinners. All people, young and old (the actor points at the audience) care only for their own happiness. They want to get into better schools and get better jobs than anyone else. They want to be rich. They hate those who do better than them. They all want the larger wicker case.

The old woman says, "By the way, who are you anyway? What is your name and your job?" Jesus replies, "My job? Well, I guess it's to help people with their heavy burdens. I carry the heavy burden of sin for them, so they don't have to." Startled, the woman says, "Even my horrible sin?" Jesus assures the woman that her sins have been forgiven, and he lifts her heavy wicker case containing all the ghoulish creatures onto his own back.

Some time later, the old man comes to the forest looking for his wife. He meets Jesus and realizes that this is the man whose birthday was being celebrated at the sparrow community center. "By the way, Mr. Jesus," he says. "Fortunately I'm not like my mean and greedy wife, or like that murderer you forgave just now. I've lived righteously, without having committed a single sin in my life. And that means you won't have to carry more burdens on account of me."

"Is that right?" Jesus says. "But there is not a single person in the world who is righteous." The old man protests, "What about me? Everyone knows that the old man in the story of Shitakiri-suzume is kind and pure-hearted. I don't have any sin." "Then what's that behind you?" Jesus asks. When the old man turns around, he comes face to face with a long-nosed Tengu goblin, the symbol of arrogance. "This is the true condition of your heart," Jesus tells him. "To say that you have no sin is a very serious sin indeed. As bad or worse than anything your wife has done. If you recognize it, you can repent. Otherwise, the sin remains."

After a great deal of soul-searching, the old man replies, "I feel like I've woken from a dream, and I can see what the truth really is. I've always thought of myself as a good man, but all these years, I've secretly scorned and ridiculed my wife." The old man receives Jesus' forgiveness and Jesus adds the long-nosed goblin to the load he already bears on his back. He laboriously walks up a hill to a wooden cross, and the stage lights dim. A narrator explains why Jesus had to be crucified, and directs the audience to the Bible for further explanation.

While preparing this blog post, I learned that a picture book titled Shitakiri-Suzume no Kurisumasu (The Tongue-cut Sparrow's Christmas), based on Miura's script, was published in December 2008. 5000 copies were printed, and unless they are sold out, it can be ordered from the CHEA JAPAN website (Japanese only): for 1680 yen.