Tosa School, Tsuru no sōshi 鶴のさうし, 17th century

Artist: Tosa School

Title: Tsuru no sōshi 鶴のさうし (The Tale of the Crane)

Date: 17th century

Medium: Manuscript, ink, color, and gold on paper

You will not be surprised to learn that a crane features prominently in The Tale of the Crane, but here’s the part you probably didn’t expect: the crane marries a human man.

This odd couple will seem a little less odd if you are familiar with Japanese lore, where narratives of interspecies romance abound. Such stories—known as irui kon’in-tan, or tales of marriage between kinds—appear in Japan’s earliest recorded myths from the eighth century, multiplied and diversified over the years. No generalization can encompass the vast body of irui kon’in-tan that exist today, but more often than not, they end unhappily. Many irui kon’in-tan can be read as a kind of dark funhouse mirror to Western fairy tales such as Beauty and the Beast or The Frog King: instead of an apparent animal becoming a desirable human spouse, an apparently desirable human spouse is revealed to be an animal, and almost inevitably the union dissolves.

The Tale of the Crane bucks this trend, ending with a rare happily ever after—or at least, this is the case for the copy of The Tale of the Crane in the Tress collection. Multiple manuscripts of The Tale of the Crane exist, and despite their shared title they differ significantly, although they can be divided into two lineages that are more or less consistent within themselves. The manuscript from the Tress collection belongs to the three-volume lineage, so named because the tale is divided into three volumes, the last of which concludes with the human protagonist and his crane-wife living in wedded bliss. By contrast, the shorter and simpler one-volume lineage follows the more typical pattern of revelation and separation.

Although the one-volume lineage has strong roots in folklore, it was produced within the upper echelons of society; the original manuscript was illustrated by the court painter Tosa Mitsunobu (1434-1525), the founder of the Tosa school of painting. The three-volume lineage developed somewhat later, with the first manuscripts dating to the early Edo period (1603-1868). Perhaps because of its more complex plot and cheerful ending, the three-volume version of The Tale of the Crane survives in numerous versions, as here in manuscript copy the Tress collection. Some are woodblock-printed books; others are the work of commoner artisans, with bold, simple illustrations; and yet others were created by skilled artists for moneyed audiences. This last is the case for the manuscript in the Tress collection, which was illustrated by an unnamed Tosa-school artist. The paintings are dynamic and detailed, sumptuously ornamented with gold flakes. Finely-made manuscripts of auspicious tales, like this one, became a standard item in the trousseaus of upper-class brides. The copy of The Tale of the Crane in the Tress collection is of unclear provenance, so we cannot make any definitive statement about its intended purpose—but use as a “bridal book” (yomeiribon) is certainly one possibility.

Written by Laura Nuffer
Posted April 6, 2022

Selected Readings:

Kimbrough, Keller, and Haruo Shirane, eds. Monsters, Animals, and Other Worlds: A Collection of Short Medieval Japanese Tales. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

McCormick, Melissa. Tosa Mitsunobu and the Small Scroll in Medieval Japan. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

Nüffer, Laura. “Humans and Non-Humans: Animal Bridegrooms and Brides in Japanese Otogizōshi.” In A Cultural History of Fairy Tales in the Age of the Marvelous, edited by Suzanne Magnanini, 95–118. London: Bloomsbury Academic Press, 2021.