Another shade of night

Picture book review, from Tokyo – February traditionally signals the start of spring in Japan, when imaginary demons or oni (or dads donning paper demon masks) are pelted with roasted soya beans and driven out of the home in the annual mame-maki bean-throwing ritual at setsubun, the turn of the season in the calendar. Even so, after the sun sets, temperatures drop. That nighttime has grown shorter since the end of the Winter Solstice is scant consolation, and nights remain a time to seek shelter from the cold outside. The darkness of this time of the day might seem scary and daunting for some, while to others it might be just quiet and peaceful.

To Milly’s black cat Yoru in Masumi Asano’s 『ヨルとよる』(Yoru to yoru, lit. Yoru and the night), the night is the latter. Yoru’s eyes, round and bright eyes like the moon, peer out from his dark face. It is no wonder Milly named him Yoru, which means night in Japanese. But to the cat, even the moon was a complete stranger. Having not ventured out of the house at all, Yoru always thought that nighttime was always like that – humans slept, and all was peaceful and serene.

Until one day, when the tabby helped a mouse come unstuck from a crack in the outside wall. Initially wary of the cat’s motives, it was eager to repay the favour quickly, not that Yoru seemed the slightest bit likely to ask for something more in tune to its nature. Latching on to what Yoru thought of the night, the mouse offered to show him the colourful, exciting, and yummy side of it!

And so that night the mouse returned to take Yoru outside. Under the light of the moon, the two set off on their little jaunt into town. They were greeted by the sights and sounds of people dining in brightly lit cafes and restaurants filled with chatter and activity. When the smell of piping hotdogs wafted down their way, the mouse suggested for Yoru to buy one to share, and handed him a coin and a hat to hide his feline face.

Just as the hotdog was served, the wind lifted the hat away! The mouse shuddered at memories of stories of what happened if a human were to catch it! The person manning the hotdog stand was not only surprised by the pair, but was also kind enough to give them one each to fill their stomachs before sending them on their way back to Yoru’s home.

The story made me recall how excited I was as a child at any chance to go out at night with family. Whether it was to the flower market during Lunar New Year, a drive through the streets to catch the Christmas light-up, or a bite at a bustling hawker center to satisfy those late night cravings. While I saw that nighttime was more than just sleep and tranquil, I was also forewarned of staying close and avoiding the dangers that might lurk in the shadows. And when we returned home, the exhilaration of the adventure would fade and sleep would overcome me.

The book seemed to mirror this thought process – from curiosity to excitement mixed with a hint of fear before calm. Beyond that, this story of a cat and a mouse befriending each other suggests that getting to know someone would lead to new revelations. The mouse realizes that Yoru is kind (and warm), and the two learn that not all humans are scary. If Yoru didn’t reach out to help the mouse in the first place, he would not have seen the bright, colourful, yummy side of nighttime, albeit of urban life.

More than just a tale of different views of nighttime, it read like a simple story of adventure – of stepping out into the unknown and returning with new perspectives and a new friend.

Title:  『ヨルとよる』(Yoru to yoru, lit. Yoru and the night) by Masumi Asano, illustrated by Megu Yoshimura
Publisher: Kyouikugageki, 2022

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