Yurei Attack!

Yurei Attack!

Title: Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Shinkichi (Satoko Tanaka)
Page Design: Andrew Lee
Year Published: 2012
Publisher: Tuttle

This is the best book ever, and I love it.

Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the authors of Yokai Attack!, have come out with another fantastic field guide to the supernatural phenomena of Japan. Everything about this book, from the selection of topics to the authors’ sense of humor to the colorful and creepy style of the illustrations, is wonderful, and the physical book itself is a work of art.

Like Yokai Attack!, Yurei Attack! is divided into four-page entries on famous ghosts, ghost stories, and haunted places. Each of these entries contains not just the legends associated with the ghost in question but also its real-world historical background, its method of attack, and a short section on “how to survive” (which is always appreciated). The second page of each entry is a full-page illustration, and photographs and woodblock prints are scattered across the rest of the pages. The entire book is printed in high-contrast full color, so the images and page layout are just as entertaining as the text.

The ghosts indexed include fictional characters from literature and kabuki plays, real historical figures, and legends that have arisen from historical events. Lady Rokujō from The Tale of Genji is catalogued (that’s her on the cover), as is Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaidan. The outcast Heian noble Sugawara no Michizane, the crucified peasant Sakura Sōgorō, and the fallen soldiers of Saigō Takamori’s counter-revolutionary group make an appearance. You’ll visit haunted hotel rooms, weeping rocks, castle ruins, tunnels and waterfalls with terrible histories, and the “suicide forest” of Aokigahara. The range of material on offer in Yurei Attack!, which includes famous ghosts and hauntings as well as lesser known spirits and folklore, is incredible, and the authors treat all of their subjects with equal thoroughness and attention. It was immensely gratifying to me personally to learn the full stories behind the vague urban legends I had heard regarding places such as the Sunshine 60 building in Ikebukuro and the tiny shrine dedicated to Taira no Masakado in Tokyo’s Chiyoda ward.

I especially enjoyed “Chapter Five: Dangerous Games,” which deals with matters such as how to curse someone and how to summon ghosts. In this chapter, the reader can learn about Kokkuri-san (which sort of like an Ouija board), all the ways in which ghosts can manifest themselves in photographs, and how real estate agents deal with “houses with histories” (wake ari bukken or jiko bukken). Speaking of haunted houses, apparently agents are legally required to inform prospective buyers if something terrible has happened on the property. If, however, the house has been occupied – for however short a time – since the incident, they don’t have to say anything. Luckily there’s a website that can be consulted to make sure that the reduced price you’re being quoted for a property isn’t due to a ghost: Oshimaland. Good to know!

The opening of the book is really cool, as is its back matter. The five-page introduction is a well-organized discussion on yūrei that highlights trends without forcing any interpretation on the reader, and it’s followed by a seven-step guide to ascertaining if the strange ghostly presence in your life is indeed a yūrei. In the back of the book is a glossary of Japanese terms, a cool (and I mean really cool) photo collage of Japanese toys based on yūrei, a short section on the ofuda charms believed to be able to drive ghosts away, and a bibliography that is actually worth reading in its entirety. There’s also a short guide to the Japanese Buddhist hells, which are all lovingly illustrated.

I can’t exaggerate the awesomeness of the illustrations in Yurei Attack!. According to her short profile, the illustrator is an “active creator” of dōjinshi, or self-published comics. Shinkichi’s pictures do indeed have a sketchy, digitally colored feel, but this is not a bad thing by any means, and her slender-framed, angular chinned human (and not so human) figures are wonderfully expressive. What Shinkichi especially excels at is portraying all of the myriad calamities that can befall the human body. Blood, rotting flesh, missing teeth, emaciation, severed limbs, bloated skin, burn wounds, disfigurations, dangling umbilical cords, scalping, biting, rage, and extreme fear – Shinkichi does it all. The illustrations are generally more fun and dynamic than they are Stephen Gammell-style nightmare fuel, but they can occasionally be genuinely creepy. Shinkichi’s depiction of the frostbitten soldiers who died in a training exercise on Mount Hakkoda in Aomori prefecture in 1902 is particularly disturbing.

I can imagine small children being really upset by Shinkichi’s illustrations, but older children (such as myself) should find them morbidly delightful. I think kids would probably go nuts this book in general. The combination of colorful and imaginative imagery is perfect for a young reader, and the book eschews any serious discussion of adult topics such as sexuality and religion. The bound volume is fairly sturdy and can withstand hard usage (it is a field guide after all), so no worries on that end.

What I especially appreciated about Yurei Attack! is that asinine overgeneralizations about Japan and Japanese people are completely absent. Nowhere in the book will the reader have to suffer through idiotic statements about how “the Japanese have always revered nature” or how “funeral practices are very important in Japan” or how “there is no differentiation between good and evil in Japan.” It’s kind of nice. If nothing else, Yurei Attack! proves that it is entirely possible to write a fun cultural study of Japan for a broad audience without relying on meaningless stereotypes.

Isora from Ugetsu Monogatari

Isora from Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Dreamland Japan

Title: Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga
Author: Frederik L. Schodt
Publication Year: 1996
Publisher: Stone Bridge Press
Pages: 360

In his write-up of this summer’s Otakon convention, Ed Sizemore briefly mentions a panel held by the Anime and Manga Research Circle, in which Frederik L. Schodt’s classic work on manga was discussed. “I was glad to see Fred Schodt’s Manga, Manga! The World of Japanese Comics mentioned,” Sizemore says. “For a while, it seemed like there was a concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist even though it’s foundational to the study of manga in America.”

I’ve never been able to get my hands on Manga! Manga!, but I love its updated successor, Dreamland Japan. In fact, I love it so much that I read it for the third time earlier this summer. I think Sizemore’s statement about the “concerted effort in academia to pretend Schodt’s book didn’t exist” perhaps betrays a difference in understanding concerning the academic value of Schodt’s work, and so I would like to offer my own assessment of Dreamland Japan.

Even though Dreamland Japan is full of interesting and useful information, it’s not an academic study. The book reads like journalism; and in fact, as Schodt explains in his introduction, he has drawn much of the material published in this volume from material published earlier in newspapers and magazines. As journalism, the writing in Dreamland Japan is marked by certain features that do not often appear in academic writing, such as personal anecdotes. For example, information about how Schodt once witnessed a certain manga artist enter a porn shop in San Francisco may add color to his description of the artist, but it doesn’t really serve as evidence to support Schodt’s argument that the work of the often overlooked artist contains substantial artistic merit. Some of Schodt’s statements also come off as contradictory over the course of the book, such as when he mentions towards the beginning of the book that most manga artists employ a studio system, yet argues later that a certain artist is unique because she employs a studio system.

Dreamland Japan is written in a very personal style, and the reader ends up learning all sorts of information about the author over the course of the book. Some of this information is completely random. For example, in his blurb about Okano Reiko’s manga Fancy Dance, Schodt reveals that one of his friends from high school has lived in a Zen monastery for almost twenty years. Um, okay. Some of this information is unintentionally hilarious. For example, in his chapter on Osamu Tezuka, Schodt brags that he is one of the only people to have seen Tezuka without his trademark beret – before mentioning a page or two later that Tezuka only takes off his beret in bed. Wow, okay. Some of this information is perhaps a little too much information, such as Schodt’s description of his physical reaction to all of the pretty ladies surrounding him at a major dōjinshi convention at the beginning of his second chapter, or how he feels like he knows the manga artist Uchida Shungicu intimately even though he has never met her. Uhh… okay.

To return to the point, Schodt’s writing is not academic. He’ll describe a certain artist as incredibly influential without giving any examples of who or what the artist influenced, he’ll refer to a certain art style as uniquely Japanese without explaining what such a thing might mean, and he takes the things people say in interviews as absolute fact without any further corroboration. He engages in hero worship. He does not consider alternate arguments or non-obvious interpretations of certain works. He’ll summarize complicated issues or topics in one sentence. There aren’t footnotes or references explaining where he got his data. None of this makes Schodt’s work any less interesting or informative, but it’s not “academic.”

This is not a bad thing, and it doesn’t mean that Schodt’s work isn’t worthwhile reading both for manga fans and for people with a more than casual interest in Japanese popular culture. Not only is Dreamland Japan an invaluable resource, but it’s also an absolute pleasure to read.

The book has an interesting layout. Five short chapters sandwich the bulk of the volume’s two longest chapters, a 54-page catalog of manga periodicals and a 96-page catalog manga artists.

The shorter chapters, which gather together bite-size essays on subjects such as “Modern Manga at the End of the Millennium” and “Manga in the English-Speaking World,” serve as informative editorials and snapshots of manga fandom as it existed in the early nineties. In his opening and closing chapters, Schodt covers topics such as censorship and self-regulation in the manga industry, the amateur comics scene in Japan, how manga can be used as propaganda, the panel layout and cinematism of manga, and the first generation of anime and manga fan conventions in the United States. Reading these shorter chapters is like listening to someone who is deeply knowledgeable give an informal lecture on a topic very near to his heart. Not only is Schodt remarkably well read and well informed about the manga industry and fandom on both sides of the Pacific at the time he was writing, but his opinions have also aged well. Schodt’s tone is urbane and polished; and, as I mentioned earlier, his essays are given flavor and texture by his personal anecdotes, many of which are quite fascinating. You have to respect a man who sought out the official store of Aum Shinrikyō after the Sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway in order to investigate the manga the organization was creating to educate potential members, after all.

The essays contained in Schodt’s shorter chapters are fun and informative, and they don’t feel dated in the slightest. What about the two longer chapters, then?

As Schodt states in his introduction, “fans of manga should not expect to see many of their favorite works here. There are no extended commentaries on Ranma 1/2, Akira, or Pretty Soldier Sailor Moon.” Indeed, most of the manga creators Schodt profiles in his “Artists and Their Work” chapter would probably be unknown to Japanese manga fans. These artists create what might be called “independent comics” or “small press comics” in the West, and they are just as fascinating as they are obscure. There is at least one high definition example of each artist’s work accompanying his or her profile, with translations provided by Schodt. Even if it’s nigh impossible to get one’s hands on the work of these specific artists outside of Japan, Schodt’s discussions of them deal with broader topics, such as the more specialized genres of manga in Japan (like manga about Japanese law and business strategy).

The “Manga Magazine Scene” chapter, which provides information about ten specific manga periodicals and two subgenres of manga periodicals, was probably the most interesting to me, as Schodt’s treatment of each topic functions as a small case study of how the manga industry finds and grooms talent, targets a specific demographic, and then sends its content out into the world in the form of different types of media. Many of the manga magazines Schodt covers, such as Weekly Shōnen Jump, Nakayoshi, and Morning, are still industry leaders; so, even if the circulation data given for each publication is no longer current, the demographic and historical information is still pertinent to someone interested in contemporary manga.

In conclusion, while Dreamland Japan feels a bit dated and obscure at times, and while it’s not exactly a scholarly study, it’s a useful resource to anyone interested in manga in any capacity, and it doubles as entertaining reading material for anyone interested in popular culture in general.

Sailor Moon and Femininity

It would be many years before I would understand that femininity, the practice of femininity, and the fetishization of femininity degrades all women. That femininity is not a “choice” when the alternative is derision, ridicule, workplace sanctions, or ostracization. That femininity is a set of degrading behaviors that communicates one’s level of commitment to male authority and women’s oppression. That femininity is coerced appeasement, regardless of how successfully it is now marketed to young women as feminism.

So says Jill Twisty at her blog I Blame the Patriarchy.

I agree with her. So much has been written on this topic that I don’t need to be convinced that such a statement is true.

But… What if there were no men?

Or what if men existed, but simply weren’t that important? What if we didn’t live in a patriarchy? What if we didn’t live in a world where men are assumed to be the standard normative subjects and the ultimate bearers of political, legal, social, economic, religious, and sexual power? What if “femininity” didn’t need to be defined according to its deviations from “masculinity” (which connotes maturity, power, authority, and rationality), and what if “femininity” weren’t something to be performed for a presumed audience of men (and women who wield a male gaze)? Would femininity still be perceived as a submission to oppressive phallocentric interests?

These questions form the core of why the manga Sailor Moon is so fascinating to me. A story about women, created by a woman, edited by a woman, written for a popular female audience, and enthusiastically embraced by an adult female fandom, Sailor Moon is an example of a homosocial female space in which women can talk about women and femininity without having to worry about what men are thinking.

Because the early volumes of the series are about young girls – and beautiful young girls (bishōjo) at that – their reception has not always been feminist-positive, however. For example, in his monograph Beautiful Fighting Girl, psychologist and cultural theorist Saitō Tamaki discusses the anime version of Sailor Moon as a prime example of why the “beautiful girl” trope appeals so much to men. In America, cinema scholar Susan Napier and anthropologist Anne Allison both take issue with the series, finding it a stale mash-up of tropes characteristic of the mahō shōjo (magical girl) genre as it has existed since the mid-seventies. Both scholars also view the anime series in particular as catering to a male audience eager for sexual titillation. Napier, for instance, finds the Sailor Scouts “lacking in psychological depth,” while Allison finds it troubling that the “girl heroes tend to strip down in the course of empowerment, becoming more, rather than less, identified by their flesh,” a trademark visual feature of Sailor Moon that “feeds and is fed by a general trend in Japan toward the infantilization of sex objects.”

Unfortunately, these evaluations do not take into account the female fans of the series, who seem to be less interested in the sexual aspects of the short-skirted female warriors and more eager to identify with the empowered femininity they represent. These fans are also willing to tolerate the weak characterization in the opening volumes of the series in order to enjoy the opportunities presented later in the story for the female heroes to develop their individual talents, personalities, and bonds with each other. In Sailor Moon, the female heroes begin as girls, but they gradually mature into capable and competent young women who must shoulder great responsibility and make difficult choices, usually without the support or interference of men.

To celebrate the recent North American release of a new translation of the Sailor Moon manga, an eighteen-year-old blogger on LiveJournal wrote of the series that:

[Sailor Moon] is a world where femininity is not something to be ashamed of, it’s the source of POWER. The girls don’t use their pretty clothes and jewels and compacts as playthings to impress men – these things are all weapons against evil, and powerful ones. They declare themSELVES pretty, needing approval from no one. Our hero possesses all the typical “chick” attributes – emotional, tearful, forgiving, loving, nurturing – and she uses these attributes to triumph and kick ass. She burns monsters alive with the purity of her love, sends out supersonic waves that shake the villains down when she bursts into tears, and her friendship and forgiveness is the most effective superpower one could ask for. The “girly” emotions and affectations are not something to be ashamed of or suppressed, but the source of the power these girls wield. They don’t have to imitate guy heroes at all or act “masculine” to be taken seriously – girliness is just as powerful.

Although someone like Saitō might see Sailor Moon as nothing more than a smorgasbord of tropes that can be endlessly combined and recombined to suit any male fetish, and although prominent critics such as Napier and Allison echo his reading, female readers find something entirely different in the series: they see a group of young women who fight not for the approval of a father or a boyfriend (or a male reader), but rather to achieve their own goals and ambitions. Moreover, they learn that being female isn’t something to be ashamed of; and, according to later developments in the series, neither is homosexuality or a transgendered identity.

Far from regurgitating the tropes of the magical girl genre, Sailor Moon creator Takeuchi Naoko overturned the conventions of both shōjo romance for girls and bishōjo fantasy for boys. Furthermore, the female fans of Sailor Moon aren’t invested in the series merely in order to lose themselves in fantasy (and spin-off merchandise), but rather because they find that the series empowers them to combat real-world problems directly related to the assumption that young women and the femininity associated with them exist only to please men. The fantasy created by Sailor Moon is not an escape from the gendered conventions and restrictions of reality, but rather a safe space in which these aspects of reality can be tested and challenged. Perhaps this is why Sailor Moon has appealed to so many women outside of its target demographic, and perhaps this is why it has appealed to so many boys and men as well.

If you haven’t read Sailor Moon, the Kodansha Comics re-release is beautifully published and contains a wealth of translation and cultural notes that help make sense of the story and characters. The first two or three volumes of the series can come off as a bit childish; but, as the characters grow and mature, the story does as well. If you’re a girl or a guy, or if you’re a serious manga reader or don’t read many manga at all, Sailor Moon is worth reading simply for the experience of entering a world in which femininity is indeed ” is not something to be ashamed of” but instead “the source of POWER.” The manga is also an excellent introduction to an alternative realm of discourse (common in Japanese manga and spreading to Western comics – partially due to the influence of Sailor Moon) in which female writers and artists can tell their own stories without really worrying about how men are reading and looking at them.

If you’re intrigued, check out the Sailor Moon Manga Moveable Feast hosted by Sean Gaffney’s at A Case Suitable for Treatment over on Manga Bookshelf.