Postmodern Retellings 102: Yumiko Kurahashi’s A Mermaid’s Tears
Postmodern Retellings 101 focused on modern interpretations of fairy tales that dated from the 1960s or the 1970s. Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, and Angela Carter were some of the first authors to tackle this task and ended up developing a great legacy for the new writers to come.
As time passed, philosopher Jacques Derrida’s 'deconstruction' remained the main focal point and gender studies surrounding the role of women in society continued to influence greatly. Nevertheless, new retellings started focusing on other motifs or themes in addition to developing new narrative strategies. The boundaries between genders are blurred and the mythopoeic qualities of the original tales are challenged. The meta-folklore is necessary to raise awareness about previous readings of fairy tales and provide the original characters with a voice of their own. Thus, this series will focus on retellings from the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s.
This series will be divided as follows:
1. Postmodern Retellings 102: Deconstruction in Fairy Tales
2. Postmodern Retellings 102: Yumiko Kurahashi’s A Mermaid’s Tears
Postmodern Retellings 102: Jeanette Winterson’s Twelve Dancing Princesses
Postmodern Retellings 102: Gillian Cross’s Wolf
Postmodern Retellings 102: Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose
Postmodern Retellings 102: Michael Cunningham’s A Wild Swan
Postmodern Retellings 102: Yumiko Kurahashi’s A Mermaid’s Tears
Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid (1837) has been one of the most adapted and retold tales in history by traversing multiple cultural borders. This phenomenon has allowed writers from all over the globe to leave their mark on the story which has shown “the cross-cultural accessibility” of the Danish tale (Fraser, 2014, p. 247). In particular, Yumiko Kurahashi, one of the most critically acclaimed postmodern authors of Japan, wrote A Mermaid’s Tears (1985) which is a re-telling based upon Andersen’s tale and that introduces a new kind of mermaid body. Kurahashi’s story is built around the inversion of a series of binary opposites which lead to the distortion of insurmountable mental and spiritual limits surrounding the well-fixed ideas of self (Fraser, 2017).
As Marina Warner (2014, p. 63) states, “Fairy tales have no more sense of nation or native tongue than swifts or butterflies” and, thus, they slip across national boundaries. In this case, the interculturality of The Little Mermaid lies in two distinct factors: on the one hand, the figure of the mermaid has been a literary icon since Ancient Greece with its brief appearance in the Odyssey and, on the other hand, the main character of the story must grow up and learn how to develop in two different contexts, the aquatic world and the human realm. In the Western tradition, the mermaid has been depicted as a femme fatale who pursues the downfall of her lovers. For instance, in medieval Europe, mermaids were seen as a cause of undoing and temptation, a vision which was perpetuated by pre-Raphaelite painters in the nineteenth century. It was not until the publication of the Danish tale that the trope of the gentle and kindhearted mermaid appeared, which was strongly influenced by the “naïve water nymph” featured in Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué’s Undine (1811) (Fraser, 2014, p. 247). In Japan, the Western siren was incorporated into the traditions coming from China along with other creatures with human body parts (Fraser, 2014). At first, Asian stories involving these beings portrayed rather disturbing creatures with grotesque features and edible flesh which were far away from the seductive mermaid of Western tradition. However, The Little Mermaid’s impact on Japanese culture promoted the emergence of a more girly and genuine kind of mermaid (Fraser, 2013). In addition, the tale’s morals and didactics met great success from professors who approved of the main character’s self-sacrifice (Fraser, 2014).
In A Mermaid’s Tears, Kurahashi closely follows the arc of the original tale and maintains Andersen’s characters: the prince, the witch, the prince’s new wife, and the mermaid. Concerning the plot, the mermaid rescues the prince after seeing him for the first time and falling in love with him. Then, she decides to leave the ocean for him until he gets married to another girl which makes her return to the sea. Finally, a new metamorphosis takes place, that is, the mermaid acquires a new androgynous form (Fraser, 2017). Kurahashi’s narrative style is utterly different from Andersen’s, whose tales are renowned for their sentimentality and their descriptiveness (Tomoko, 1994). Hence, A mermaid’s Tears is a brief and straightforward re-telling that reduces the emotionality and liveliness of the original (Fraser, 2017). For example, the author substitutes the vivid beginning of Andersen’s story depicting the sea palace with “the bottom of the deepest ocean” detaching the narration from any real historical period or place (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 173).
Nevertheless, Kurahashi’s most important alteration of the tale is the mermaid’s anatomy which has a lower human body and a fish upper body (Fraser, 2017). The author was heavily influenced by Belgian painter René Magritte’s series of mermaid paintings which depict creatures with these exact features as the re-telling describes: “she was covered from her head to her chest with the most lustrous and exquisitely well-formed scales” and nobody could compare to “her long and shapely legs.” (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 173). Despite being unpleasant, the author portrays the mermaid as graceful looking although she does not perpetuate the balance between human and animal appearance. By not holding this equilibrium, the mermaid seems “doubly animal” since the human part of her body no longer conserves the head, the voice of reason, or a heart which is the symbolic emotional center (Fraser, 2017, p. 179). Instead, the mermaid’s human half represents the lower part of the body linked to basic needs and sexual desire. Both Andersen’s and Kurahashi’s stories place great significance on the body since it is a “canvas” on which authors can depict social and moral values (Yamato, 2017, p. 296). In the original, the little mermaid takes part and contributes to standard beauty standards in the aquatic realm as well as in the human world, that is, her hybrid form does not prevent her from displaying her refinement. In this way, Kurahashi empowers the mermaid since she is not represented as a beautiful and perfect girl, but rather as a full-fledged being with imperfections, that is, the mermaid is not an object of the male gaze, but she turns her “powerful gaze onto others” (Fraser, 2017, p. 181).
According to Sakaki (2001, p. 303), Kurahashi’s fiction is notable for a “genderless” narrator that remains ambiguous and distances itself from the protagonist, which ultimately gives her autonomy. Her gaze is often highlighted rather than her being seen. For instance, when she looks at the prince for the first time, her desire is represented through her gaze and ignoring the possible glances addressed at her body. She “cannot take her eyes off the handsome prince” and forgets she is a mermaid (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 174). A mermaid’s Tears seem to draw from Ancient Greece’s Medusa who was another hostile-looking woman with a deadly gaze. French philosopher Hélène Cixous (1976, p. 885) affirmed this myth was an excuse introduced by men to prevent women from delving into their potential and, therefore, when not perceived by the patriarchal gaze, Medusa is “beautiful” and “laughing”. Hence, Kurahashi also refutes the male gaze and focuses on the dreaded and rejected mermaid considered to be hideous.
By subverting the mermaid’s appearance, not only does Kurahashi challenge the patriarchal gaze from the original tale, but she also makes a statement about the role of women in Japanese fiction. In postwar Japanese literature, women were always the object of the men’s actions and they were constantly depicted as bizarre empty beings, such as corpses, ghosts, or mermaids, among others. The ultimate stereotype was that of the devil-woman who represented a fallen female figure unable to meet the acceptable standards of her gender and owner of a great sexuality that menaced men (Cardi, 2013). The devil-woman adopted the form of a mermaid as one of her shapes and Kurahashi appropriates the misogynist figure in her re-telling by using Andersen’s tale as a template. Unlike the Danish one, Kurahashi’s mermaid does not need to sacrifice herself or lose her voice to be human (Fraser, 2017). Moreover, once she is human, one of the forms that better declares her dissatisfaction with society is her rejection of clothing which leads her to spend the day in bed: “it seemed quite natural that she should spend more time lying naked in the arms of the prince than she did wearing the gorgeous dresses that she had until so recently longed to wear.” (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 176).
Eventually, Andersen’s tale is a story of abnegation with a Christian message: the mermaid sacrifices her soul in exchange for a human body “with the opportunity to win her soul back if the prince will love her more than life itself” (Fraser, 2017, p. 182). In the end, the prince marries another princess and she decides to sacrifice herself again and let him live in peace by becoming sea foam and a “daughter of the air” (Andersen, 1984, p. 105). In contrast, Kurahashi’s mermaid is not limited either by moral rules or magical demands imposed by the witch. Once the prince marries another woman, she shows her mermaid body to humans which causes a tremendous storm and, instead of saving the prince again, she drives him to the bottom of the ocean. Finally, the witch joins the mermaid’s lower human half with the prince’s upper body to join them forever (Fraser, 2017).
With such an ending, Kurahashi could be considered to be referring to the Greek philosopher Plato’s theory of the three sexes. This premise suggests that there were three human genders at the dawn of humanity: female, male and the blend of the former (Groneberg, 2005). This theory announced by Plato in the Symposium serves as a questioning of gender binarism which is also a recurring factor of Kurahashi’s narrative in which the boundaries between female and male seem to fade (Fraser, 2017). As Sakaki (2001) notes Kurahashi “de-genders” her story writing which leads to her characters’ gender being deceptive and is up to the reader to reconstruct the discourse. However, not only does the re-telling address gender binarism, but The Little Mermaid’s literary tradition is also involved in this topic. In the original story, the mermaid desires to abandon her animal essence and embrace her human identity which is the one that feels right for her. A transgender reading of the tale suggests that the mermaid can only be happy and find true love if she performs an identity that others do not acknowledge as inherent to her (Spencer, 2014).
The mermaid’s rejection of her “physical being” has drawn a wide range of authors from different cultures (Yamato, 2017, p. 295). Her transformation is intrinsically determined by her “gendered body” since she is the Other in every sense of the concept: a stranger for the human realm and men (Fraser, 2017, p. 12). Her otherness is the ultimate element that marks her destiny and her persona throughout the narrative. In the end, she continues being the Other because she acquires an androgynous body, but she finds happiness because she is reunited forever with the prince: “we’ll be able to live as one until the day we die” (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 177). It could also be argued that the author was again influenced by Plato’s theory of souls in which the philosopher divided the soul into three parts located in several regions of the body: reason, spirit and appetite (Campbell, 2021). According to this perspective, the prince’s upper body part represents the reason, the state leader, whereas the mermaid’s lower half represents the appetite or desire. Nevertheless, Kurahashi does not portray this relationship in a negative light since “the two souls continued to communicate” (Kurahashi, 2008, p. 177).
In conclusion, Kurahashi’s re-telling is deeply influenced by an intertextual dialogue of Asian traditions, fairy tales as well as Greek myths and philosophy. Her story embodies the intercultural relevance of tales and privileges action over descriptive narration. The plot focuses on unusual binaries that subvert the traditional conventions of Western thought, in particular, the presentation of the upside-down mermaid and the emergence of an androgynous hybrid that challenges the conception of gender. Being a 1980s writing it follows the line of other re-tellings by addressing women's power, but introduces new themes such as gender blending and doubts about identity. In the end, for Kurahashi, male and female forces “combine and correspond within the bounds of one body” (Fraser, 2017, p. 183).
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