Before I begin, let me note that Where the Wild Things Are is a masterpiece. If it does indeed have its roots in Japanese folk tales, that doesn’t lessen its impact or quality or importance at all. This is just a little comp lit, not a suggestion that Sendak did not create a wonderful, astonishing and original work because he certainly did.
First, let’s summarize the plot:
Boy takes boat to island over-run by strange creatures. Boy subdues them, rules them briefly. Returns home.
This is the story of Momotaro or Peach Darling, as retold by William Griffiths in his 1887 book “Japanese Fairy World.” Here’s the description of the strange creatures:
And another folktale features these creatures:
the funniest little green _kappas_, or creatures half way between a monkey and a tortoise, with yellow eyes, hands like an ape, hair clipped short on their heads, eyes like frogs, and a mouth that stretched from ear to ear.
Curious creatures are the tengus, with the head of a hawk and the body of a man.
Now, look at Griffiths’ word choice for the actions of Onis: they “ate up the people.” Just like Max wants to “eat up” his mother and the wild things offer to “eat up” Max.
Momotaro sets off for the island in a magical boat that seems to need no guidance, just like Max’s boat. He arrives and quickly subdues the creatures.
Now, Momotaro subdues the creatures through violence — not at all like Max. But Kintaro seems to win them over by tapping into his own wildness:
He rompedwith the little bears — when the old she bear would come for her cubs to give them their supper and put them to bed, Kintaro would jump on her back and have a ride — having no children to play with, he made companions of the wild animals of the forest — He was prince of the forest— Among his retainers were the tengus, though they were often rebellious and disobedient, not liking to be governed by a boy.
Once the creatures are tamed:
Rather than making him King of All Wild Things, they “acknowledged Peach-Prince as their master.” Upon his departure they bow to him.
There you have it. Of course, I have omitted may things that don’t fit. For instance, Momotaro has animal companions that come with him to the island and help fight the demons and win treasure. Max has no need of help and no desire for treasure.
Nonetheless, I found the similarities striking and the possibility that Sendak was inspired by these stories, maybe even this same book, intriguing.
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