Title: Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo
Author: Miyuki Miyabe (宮部 みゆき)
Translator: Daniel Huddleston
Publication Year: 2000 (Japan); 2013 (United States)
Apparitions: Ghosts of Old Edo is a collection of nine supernatural stories set in the Edo period (1603-1868), a historical era of relative peace that preceded Japan’s modernization. The author, Miyuki Miyabe, is known outside of Japan for her fantasy and suspense novels, but she also writes historical fiction informed by her love of the city of Tokyo.
Apparitions is a difficult book to break into, especially for someone who doesn’t have a great deal of background knowledge about Japan. Although the six-page thematic introductory essay by Masao Higashi situates Miyabe’s historical fiction within the tradition of Western horror, each of the stories in this collection is thoroughly suffused with what might be termed Japanese cultural odor. While this is far from a bad thing, the jumble of geographic and personal names that Miyabe employs to add color to her stories won’t carry the same narrative weight for most readers of this translation as it would for someone more familiar with the cultural and historical context she references.
The opening story, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” provides a good example of how these references work to create a sense of atmosphere – or, for many readers, may simply be strange and confusing. After the end of the Kyōhō era, in the fourth year of Bunka, a boy named Ginji is “sent off to work at a cotton wholesaler called the Daikoku’ya, in Tōri Setomono-chō” by an older man at the Mannen’ya, an employment agency “located in Ōdenma-chō Block 1” that places apprentices in the wholesale businesses “that dotted the way from Ōdenma-chō and the surrounding area on through Muromachi, Takara-chō, Suruga-chō, and Nihonbashitōri-chō” (18). Miyabe uses the names of these emperor reigns, businesses, and neighborhoods as a shorthand to create a sense of time and place. Unfortunately for those of us not already well versed in Edo-period historical fiction, this type of highly specific allusion is largely unaccompanied by any sort of explanation. As a result, to someone who isn’t a specialist in the Edo period, the stories in Apparitions can seem rather dry.
Even the broader cultural allusions that Miyabe uses to add flavor to her stories are only mentioned in passing without any sort of elaboration. To return to “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū,” the premise of the story is that the fourteen-year-old protagonist Ginji is employed by Tōichirō, the son of the prosperous cotton wholesale business Daikoku’ya, to run errands, some of which involve carrying messages to Tōichirō’s various girlfriends. Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Tōichirō wants his family’s business to start selling tea towels printed with monogatari moyō, or scenes from literary romances such as The Tale of Genji. His father tells him that this is a bad idea, as such items have come to be associated with real-world cases of shinjū, or double suicide, in which several pairs of lovers tied their hands together with these towels so that they would have a greater likelihood of drowning when they jumped into a river.
One thing leads to another, and when Tōichirō gets married he moves his mistress O-Haru to the neighborhood of Ōshima-mura, which “was on the other side of the Ōkawa River, on past Fukagawa” (34). On being sent to O-haru’s villa one afternoon, Ginji arrives to find it empty, and as he dozes off in the foyer he dreams that he sees the lifeless bodies of Tōichirō and O-haru deeper inside the house, their wrists bound with a monogatari moyō tea towel.
To anyone familiar with Japanese drama, “A Drowsing Dream of Shinjū” is redolent of numerous other stories involving the ghosts of star-crossed lovers appearing in forgotten and out-of-the-way places. It’s precisely because Miyabe is confident in her reader’s familiarity with such ghost stories in the Noh, Bunraku, and Kabuki theatrical traditions, however, that she doesn’t go out of her way to deepen the eerie atmosphere by means of other literary devices. Perhaps a Western equivalent of this might be naming a character Horatio and thereby expecting the reader to associate him with chilly Scandinavian sea winds and dead princes without otherwise supplying the character with any personality traits. Unfortunately, Miybe’s allusions may pass entirely over the heads of unfamiliar readers.
Although two or three of the stories in Apparitions are strong enough to stand on their own, the book isn’t so much a collection of accounts of individual people and the ghosts they leave behind as it is a cumulatively growing narrative about the city of Edo itself. If the reader can tough out an initial sense of disorientation, however, the geography of the city and the character of its people gradually begin to take shape with each successive story.
That being said, the strongest pieces in the collection need no contextualization. In my favorite story, “The Oni in the Autumn Rain,” an older woman speaks to a younger woman and offers sound and canny advice that transcends time and place. Moreover, the cleverness of the surprise ending to the story, in which it is revealed that the circumstances of this conversation are not what they seemed, needs no cultural background knowledge to be appreciated.
I use another of the more accessible stories in the collection, “Cage of Shadows,” as one of the readings in my “Tokyo Stories in Japanese Fiction” seminar. “Cage of Shadows” serves as an excellent starting point for a discussion of Edo period fiction, as it evokes the themes and tone of popular stories from the eighteenth century while still employing conventions relating to psychologically astute characterization and linear plot progression that contemporary readers have come to take for granted. As an added bonus, the imagery of the story is deliciously grotesque, and the way it ends is downright creepy.
Overall, it’s difficult to recommend Apparitions to a casual thrill seeker; but, for a patient reader, allowing the stories enough time to build a gradual atmosphere of strangeness at the margins of human activity is akin to watching twilight deepen into darkness as an evening fog rises from the ground. Many readers may find themselves lost in the maze of foreign words and names; but, if you’re interested in Japanese ghost stories and looking for a nice collection of original and historically grounded horror fiction with lovely Gothic undertones, then Miyuki Miyabe has summoned a delightfully eerie group of ghosts.