I first saw the news about this book being published a while ago and knew I had to pick it up. Issunboshi by Ryan Lang is an “epic graphic novel retelling” of the Japanese fairytale of Issunboshi, one of the most famous versions of ATU type 700. The publishing and printing were funded through Kickstarter. It took a while to get my hands on a copy, but here we are!
This retelling gives Issunboshi a more elaborate backstory. The gods used the Ame No Nuhoko, the Heavenly Spear, in the creation of the world. Afterwards, the spear was broken into four parts: the shaft, mount, blade, and spirit. One day an oni came across a piece of the spear. Gaining its power, he began collecting the other pieces and gathering a demon army with the goal of conquering the entire world. The spirit of the spear, searching for a way to stop things, found a childless couple who wished for a son even if he was only as tall as a thumb. The spirit took physical form as the tiny son they wished for, and they named him Issunboshi.
The story proper starts with Issunboshi, now a young man six inches tall, living with his parents in their village. Although tiny, he’s stronger than most ordinary humans, and segues between riding on a pet owl or toting heavy buckets around. The story sets up Issunboshi’s feelings of inadequacy (he is approximately as tall as a toothbrush, after all) and his parents’ steady encouragement that he can be great. Then Issunboshi is kidnapped by a tengu or crow demon. Finding himself in the monster-haunted wilderness with only his old needle-sword for protection, he is rescued by a group of warriors who fight monsters and are preparing for a war against the Oni. Issunboshi’s new mentor tells him of his true past and begins training him for an epic confrontation. Issunboshi, small as he is, is the only one who can stop the oni from bringing on an apocalypse.
This was a quick read with a simple, straightforward story. There are no big surprises from the plot, and characters don’t get a ton of depth or development. It’s tropey, or archetypal, or whatever you want to call it. There was some comic relief, but the jokes didn’t really land much. I did have a minor quibble with the theme. The book’s message, stated very clearly several times, is that even someone small can do great things (like save the world, fight a giant monster in a hand-to-hand battle, etc.). Although Issunboshi is small, he has near-godlike powers. His mentor tells him immediately that he’s the key to defeating the oni. Training montages and a stumble on the journey help offset this, but still feel quick or even rushed (a larger issue with the middle of the story, between a good beginning and ending). The message comes across okay, but it might have hit harder if Issunboshi wasn’t the amazingly strong incarnation of an all-powerful weapon, but just… a little guy.
Ryan Lang is an animator and visual development artist who's worked at Disney and Dreamworks, and you can see that style strongly in his art here. Although everything is in grayscale, the characters are all very vibrant and expressive with unique designs. It also feels very cinematic, and the panels and word bubbles aren't always very dynamic, leaving the effect of storyboards or screenshots from an animated film. However, it is very pretty. There are lots of full-page splashes and spreads, showing off beautiful art. The book is advertised as epic, and it definitely pulls that off.
The fairytale of Issun-boshi stands out among thumbling stories; it’s a coming-of-age tale, where Issun-boshi moves out of his parents’ home, finds a wife, and literally and metaphorically grows up—unlike most Western thumbling narratives, where the hero remains a child. I would say that Issun-boshi is, narratively speaking, one of the strongest and most compelling examples of ATU 700. Lang's graphic novel keeps the coming-of-age theme, but is focused on Issun-boshi’s clash with the oni. Instead of a chance encounter near the end of the story, this is a battle Issunboshi was always destined for. The book includes some pieces of concept art at the end, including one that looks like early drafts might have skewed closer to the original fairytale, with Issunboshi meeting a young noblewoman. There’s no romance or equivalent to that character in this retelling. Another big difference is replacing the magic hammer (uchide no kozuchi) of the fairy tale with the spear from an unrelated Shinto creation myth. There are echoes of some typical thumbling motifs, such as when Issunboshi is carried off by a bird or rides on a horse’s head.
Overall, it was great to see a new adaptation of one of my favorite thumbling stories. While the story could be stronger, it’s still enjoyable and the art is fantastic. Definitely worth checking out.
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Researching folktales and fairies, with a focus on common tale types.