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

Yokai Attack!

yokai-attack

Title: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
Authors: Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Illustrations: Morino Tatsuya (森野達弥) 
Publication Year: 2008 (America)
Publisher: Kodansha International
Pages: 191

I was absolutely certain that I was not going to like Yokai Attack. I had fully expected it to be a boring and poorly organized mishmash of folklore, citations, and half-baked interpretation along the lines of Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings. But the illustrations for this book were commissioned from Morino Tatsuya, a famous apprentice of Mizuki Shigeru (a manga-ka known especially for his manga Hakaba no Kitarō, which was adapted into multiple versions of the anime franchise Ge Ge Ge no Kitarō), so I decided to give it a shot, despite the silly cover.

To my immense surprise, I fell in love with Yokai Attack right from the book’s dedication to Lafcadio Hearn and his wife, which I found apt and also quite touching. It is clear from the first few paragraphs of the preface that the authors have done their research and are extremely knowledgeable on the subject matter. In fact, the “Yokai Resources” section at the end of the book, with its extensive bibliography, is almost worth the price of the entire book itself for people interested in yōkai. Alt and Yoda draw on wide range of materials, from Nō plays to Edo-period collections of woodblock prints to Yoda’s memories of the ghost stories she heard as a child, to bring together about thirty-five detailed, four-page profiles of Japanese ghosts and goblins.

The joy of this book is not its wealth of information, however, but rather the lucid and witty style in which the information is presented. Alt and Toda obviously enjoy what they do, and they make sure their readers are just as amused as they are. I don’t mean to say that Yokai Attack is condescending or facetious; rather, the writing is exuberant and filled with small, good-natured jokes that make it a pleasure to read. The format and organization of the book are reader-friendly as well, and the captions, panels, and side notes are enjoyable and not distracting.

Yokai Attack seems to be targeted towards an audience of all ages, with perhaps a movie rating of “PG.” Although instances of people (or other strange and inappropriate things) getting eaten are directly referenced with much glee, all mention of grotesque violence and sexual activity has been struck from the text. This is something of a shame, as I’m sure the writers ran across enough upsetting and salacious material to fill another couple of books, but I suppose it’s for the best, as it will allow this gem of a book to reach a wider audience.

The one qualm I have with Yokai has nothing to do with the authors but rather with the publisher. Kodansha International, true to its Japanese origins, is known for going out of its way to publish beautiful books. It seems that it has shortchanged Alt, Yoda, and especially Morino by being only half full-color. Although the first two pages of each yōkai entry are full-color, the second two are not, and the publisher seemed to give up around page 145, when the full-color pages end. Since this book is beautifully formatted and filled with interesting images, I can’t even begin to imagine why Kodansha would cut corners like this. I am so disappointed in them! Such a fine book deserves better.

Another thing that bothers me is that I have not seen this book in bookstores anywhere – not even Kinokuniya in New York. Kodansha should get on the PR train and market Yokai Attack as a manga, so that it will be shelved with manga and reach its target audience. I kind of want to go to Kodansha and throw something at them for being so willfully ignorant.

But three cheers for Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt! Yokai Attack is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Japan in any capacity whatsoever.