"A library book, I imagine, is a happy book." Cornelia Funke

"Everything puts me in mind of a story." Ben Franklin

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Three Samurai Cats: a Story from Japan

Three Samurai Cats: a Story from Japan Retold by Eric Kimmel, Illus. by Mordicai Gerstein, 2003.

Okay, pulling no punches, I need to tell you that I love this story and its illustrations. It's unusual and it's funny. A daimyo (powerful lord) finds that he has an unwanted visitor who mocks him and does just as he pleases: an obnoxious giant rat. He seeks help from a shrine well known for its corps of samurai cats. He gets the best cat of the best. The cat samurai is very impressive, but he fails to remove the smug rat. Another even larger, well armored feline fighter appears. He leaves in disgrace. So, the daimyo requests one more warrior. This cat is old, broken down and dressed in rags. All he seems to do is eat, sleep and ignore the challenges of the feisty rat. Is it possible that he can succeed where the mightier samurai failed? How can he force the bratty rat to go?

In an author's note, Kimmel explains that this is an example of a story a Zen master might use "to surprise their disciples out of conventional patterns of thinking." The conquering cat is a roshi or Zen master, and he shows that he can beat the rat through stillness rather than violence. The story's original source is Kenji Sora's The Swordsman and the Cat.

Gernstein's humorous illustrations really shine here, because they are a perfect match to the story. They are full of amusing details. The rat bully arrives at the temple with his belongs tied up in a hobo scarf hanging from his tail. He later uses this as a bib as he consumes all the fine food in the place. The slash happy 2nd samurai cat shows off slicing up everything from a bucket to an apple to a butterfly, but he is so absorbed with his form that he just doesn't see that powerful kick coming from Mr. Rat.  The 3rd cat seems barely responsive  most of the time, but as soon as the rat is vulnerable, his yellow eyes are wide open and he is ready.The art was made with pen and ink with oil paint on vellum paper.

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