Once upon a time, a baby was left outside a temple on a snowy night. The priest and his wife happily adopted the child, but he never felt like he belonged, all too aware of his early abandonment. Then one day he met a woman from a far-off village in the north and accepted her offer of marriage. The two were happy, but the god Obosuna was jealous of their joy, and so tricked the man into taking one of the enchanted apples from the boughs of his sacred tree. The man fed the apple to his wife, dooming her to become Obosuna’s bride instead. Although the man tried all that he could, no one would help him break Obosuna’s curse, no matter how he struggled…
Told another way, Apple Children of Aeon might sound a little something like that paragraph. Although it’s a modern manga, set in 1971 and written in the 2020s, there’s a folktale sensibility to its plotline, one that draws from Shinto legends of ubusunagami, birthplace gods who protect children even when they move away from where they were born. It also relies on universal tales of bridal sacrifices to cruel deities or fey beings, stories manga and manhwa readers may be familiar with from series like Bride of the Water God, Give to the Heart, or The Water Dragon’s Bride. (Yes, water gods overwhelmingly make up the manga retellings of these legends, probably because they tend to take the form of dragons and dragons are neat.) This one instead uses more of a land-based deity who protects an unnamed village in Aomori, where apples are the main export. For centuries the village offered up a bride to Obosuna, and a skipping rhyme still exists that tells the story of how he “blessed” the woman and spirited her away. The ritual giving abruptly stopped sixty years prior to the start of the manga, but when protagonist Yukinojo accidentally feeds his wife Asahi an apple from Obosuna’s sacred tree, he triggers its resumption – and that’s not a sacrifice he’s willing to make.
The elephant in the room with this story is the use of a Scottish accent to render the Aomori dialect used in the original Japanese. While I understand the theory behind it, and it is decently explained in the translation notes for the first volume, I do think it’s an unnecessary distraction to the story, as dialectic writing has both fallen largely out of favor in popular fiction (with the major exception of Scotland-set romance novels) and can present a barrier to reading for some learning differences. That said, the parallel between the teind of Scottish folklore and the bride for a local god in the unnamed village in Aomori is fascinating and speaks to the universality of those aforementioned folk practices. (As a note, “teind” simply means “tithe,” but it’s used in folktales like Thomas the Rhymer and Tam Lin to mean a human tithe paid to the fairies.) While translator Samuel R. Messner sees this as a decent enough reason to partially justify the accent, it really is a world-wide folkloric belief, and I think the accent becomes more detriment than benefit to the series. However, he really is between the devil and the deep blue sea on this one, because original creator Ai Tanaka clearly wanted an accent present in the villagers’ dialogue and Messner’s translation is otherwise excellent with some of the best glosses I’ve seen in recent memory.
Of the three books that make up the series, volume one may be the weakest, although it does do a good job of setting the whole story up. I can also say that if you don’t love the first book, the rest of the series may not work for you as a whole, because it really only gets more esoteric from there. Tanaka blends fairy tale plot with a more modern sensibility in a way that largely does work, most notably in the way the villagers react to Yukinojo himself. This is easily the most grounded piece of books two and three, and if you’ve ever lived in a small, rural town, you’ll likely recognize the way that strangers or newcomers are universally distrusted to the point where they aren’t given all the pertinent local information. Yukinojo is blamed for picking an apple from Obosuna’s inexplicably fruiting tree in winter, but no one ever bothered to tell him not to do so – and as a lifelong city-dweller, he doesn’t necessarily understand that there’s anything wrong with a tree in full fruit at that time of year. It’s frustratingly real to see the way that he’s treated by the townspeople, who don’t seem to realize that however much they’re blaming him for reawakening the sacrifice, he’s blaming himself ten times as much and is, in fact, at risk of losing his beloved wife. It says a lot about Yukinojo that he doesn’t blame them for not warning him about the tree, but instead is frustrated with them for not helping him – he is acting like the bigger man, even if they can’t see it.
The conclusion of the story isn’t entirely satisfying. It does work with Yukinojo’s internal quest to find a place to belong, but romantics may not find this to be the story they were hoping for. While it doesn’t technically leave any unanswered questions something about it still doesn’t quite feel satisfactory, but that, it must be said, is in line with older folk and fairy tales, especially of the Claire-de-Lune and Thomas the Rhymer ilk. Still, it’s an interesting piece, and the setting of 1971 gives it the feel of being just long enough ago that memories are hazy – modern enough for us to question the magic, but long enough ago that we can still wonder. That’s the main vibe that the entire story gives off. It’s hindered by the accents and a few elements of the series itself, but in some senses, folklore is just like that, an ambiguous statement that sums up my feelings on the story as a whole.