The Book of Yōkai

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Title: The Book of Yōkai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore
Author: Michael Dylan Foster
Illustrator: Shinonome Kijin (東雲 騎人)
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: University of California Press
Pages: 309

This guest review is written by Katriel Paige (@kit_flowerstorm on Twitter).

Yōkai are part of an ongoing conversation surrounding global popular culture. Even in the United States we hear about yōkai through games like Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch, and we happily watch films from Studio Ghibli that feature wondrous and strange creatures.

Although Michael Dylan Foster acknowledges that commercial cultures factor into the continued vibrancy of yōkai lore, The Book of Yōkai does not focus on the portrayals of yōkai in contemporary popular media and fan culture. Rather, the goal of this text is to provide an overview of the folkloristics of yōkai, from how thinkers and artists have interpreted yōkai to how the mysterious entities have been created, transmitted, and continually redefined. Foster is especially interested in how yōkai enthusiasts create their own networks of practice, with popular media cultures as one node in those networks. As he writes, “For many of my students in the United States, for example, the terms yōkai and Japanese folklore are practically synonymous; they have encountered kappa or kitsune or tengu in manga and anime, films and video games, usually in English translation. This exposure inspires them to delve further into folklore, to find the ‘origins’ of the yōkai of popular culture that they have come to love. And that is [a] purpose of this book, to provide some folkloric grounding for yōkai they might encounter” (6).

Foster succeeds in this endeavor, as The Book of Yōkai is an excellent overview, especially for those new to the study of folklore. In his first chapter, “Introducing Yōkai,” the author offers a short introduction to the shifting definition of the term “folklore,” reminding readers that, like yōkai themselves, “folklore” occupies a place-in-between, where it is both traditional and modern, rural and urban. Folklore, like yōkai, can be found both in the shadows of the forest and in the light cast by our computer screens. Just as there is no single definition of “folklore,” there is no single definition of “yōkai,” and Foster’s cogent explanations of liminality and communal creation serve as an excellent introduction to the study of cryptids and the legends surrounding them.

The Book of Yōkai is divided into two sections: “Yōkai Culture” and “Yōkai Codex.” The “Yōkai Culture” section is where the reader will find Foster’s discussions of the history of yōkai, beginning with the mysterious twilight entities of the classical Heian Period (c. 794-1185) and spanning to medieval picture scrolls illustrating yōkai night parades and early modern codices classifying both natural and supernatural phenomena. The majority of this section is centered around important texts, such as the mytho-historical Kojiki and hyakumonogatari compilations of ghost stories, and influential figures, such as the artist Toriyama Sekien and the scholar Inoue Enryō.

The “Yōkai Codex” describes yōkai according to their habitats, such as the countryside, the city, and the sea. This section is similar to the indexes seen in games that involve the collection of strange creatures, such Pokémon and Yo-Kai Watch. Foster’s “Yōkai Codex” also draws on and serves as a link to yōkai indexes past and present, most famously the illustrated yōkai compilations of the manga artist Mizuki Shigeru.

The writing is accessible to academics and non-academics alike, making The Book of Yōkai superb for independent scholars or a general reader with an interest in yōkai. Foster by and large avoids technical jargon, and he clarifies his treatment of Japanese words and names at the beginning of the book, which aids in cross-referencing with other sources. As a folklorist, Foster privileges the storytelling experience, using anecdotes to make the reader feel as if they are having a friendly chat with the author. Although the academic foundation of Foster’s text is solid, his colorful personal stories have the potential to resonate strongly with a non-academic audience.

The Book of Yōkai is a great resource for undergraduates, non-specialists, and other curious readers looking for a comprehensive English-language introduction to the historical complexities and artistic potential of yōkai. It is available in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions from the University of California Press. Shinonome Kijin, who has provided thirty original illustrations for the text, can be found as @ushirodo on Twitter.

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Katriel Paige is an independent scholar of yōkai as well as media cultures and folklore. They earned a MA in Intercultural Communication with International Business from the University of Surrey and a BA from the University of Delaware with a dual focus in East Asian Studies and English, and they currently work in the technology industry. They like cats, video games, and caffeine in both coffee and chocolate forms. You can find more of their work, including their essays on Japanese culture and video games, on their Patreon page.

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Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

Yūrei The Japanese Ghost

Title: Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost
Author: Zack Davisson
Publication Year: 2015
Publisher: Chin Music Press
Pages: 206

Zack Davisson is a major rising star in the world of manga translation, having worked on high-profile and award-winning titles such as Mizuki Shigeru’s Showa: A History of Japan and Oishii Mamoru and Kon Satoshi’s Seraphim: 266613336 Wings. He is also a consultant for the ongoing comic series Wayward, for which he writes the closing essays. Fans of yōkai and other Japanese cryptids will know him from his blog, Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, and he also maintains an active Twitter account, which is a great source of news on the American comics scene. Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost is Davisson’s first book, and it’s published by no less than Chin Music Press, which regularly releases Japan-related literary objets d’art such as Kūhaku & Other Accounts from Japan and Otaku Spaces. There’s obviously been a great deal of talent invested in this book, and it shows.

Yūrei are the ghostly cousins of yōkai, and their spectral tendrils stretch deep into Japanese history. Although he occasionally touches on contemporary popular culture, Davisson is mainly concerned with the society and print media of premodern and early modern Japan. Each of the twelve chapters in Yūrei covers one in-depth topic, the discussion of which is usually centered around a specific artistic work.

The first chapter takes as its subject “The Ghost of Oyuki,” the Edo-period painting by Maruyama Ōkyo that appears on Yūrei‘s cover. Davisson investigates the origin of this iconic image, melding history with legend. The second chapter covers kaidanshū, or “collections of weird tales,” while the third delves into the world of kabuki. The fourth and fifth chapters offer maps of the geography of the land of the dead, both imagined and, in the case of certain sacred mountains, real. Chapter 6 conveniently details how not to end up as a ghost, and Chapters 7 and 8 recount the lives and afterlives of people who really could have used this advice. Chapter 9, “The Ghost of Okiku,” is an Edo-period case study in how hauntings occur, and Chapter 10 brings the concept of haunting, or tatari, into the present by way of horror movies and urban legends. The eleventh chapter provides an explanation of the traditions surrounding Obon, the festival of the dead. Finally, the twelfth chapter is an informative analysis of Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, which was published in 1776 but still stands (or hovers creepily) as one of the finest works of dark fantasy in any language.

Although every chapter is a lot of fun, my favorite section of the book is its Introduction, in which Davisson relates a personal anecdote about how he and his wife lived in a haunted apartment in Osaka for seven months. Part of the appeal of reading ghost stories is imagining that you yourself might one day come into contact with the supernatural, so I can’t imagine a better way to begin a book like this. Davisson transitions into a brief overview of what the term “yūrei” signifies, how it differs from the Western concept of “ghost,” and its pervasiveness in contemporary film and literature. If I were a curious horror fan, or perhaps a teacher looking for a concise and engaging essay to assign as reading for a class on Japanese folklore, Yūrei‘s Introduction would suit my needs perfectly.

Unfortunately, the writing in Yūrei is not always uniformly smooth. In certain sections of the book, there are brief moments of jarring dissonance, as when one paragraph states that the constant warfare of the Sengoku period (1467-1603) generated countless ghost stories because of people needed a way to process their fear, while the next paragraph argues that ghost stories proliferated in the Edo period (1603-1868) in a way that they couldn’t before because people were finally free from fear. These paradoxes are relatively minor; and, in Davisson’s defense, such seeming contradictions need not be regarded as such, as multiple interpretations are equally valid. This is a book about ghosts, after all.

Yūrei is an extremely handsome publication. It opens with eight full-color images depicting yūrei as imagined by artists in the Edo period. There are fifteen additional images interspersed throughout the book, each of which is accompanied by a short explanation. There is also a glossary at the end, which helpfully provides the kanji for each term, as well as a useful five-page list of English-language works referenced.

The book’s most interesting index is its collection of 33 yūrei kaidan (“strange tales”), which are organized by theme, such as “Tales of Ghostly Vengeance” and “Tales of Ghostly Love.” As it’s difficult to find stories from medieval and Edo-period kaidan compilations outside of out-of-print academic publications, these translations are an extremely welcome addition to the project.

Review copy provided by Chin Music Press. (Full disclosure: I was so excited about this release that I begged for a review copy, and they sent me one just to get me to go away. It was totally worth it.) You can preview the book on Davisson’s blog.

The Fox’s Window

Title: The Fox’s Window: And Other Stories
Japanese Title: きつねの窓 (Kitsune no mado)
Author: Awa Naoko (安房 直子)
Translator: Toshiya Kamei
Publication Year: 2010
Publisher: University of New Orleans Press
Pages: 232

I found out about this book due to the happy accident of stumbling upon the website of the SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Tokyo Translation Group. It’s a fantastic site that has taught me a great deal about Japanese children’s literature, and I’m grateful that it’s so well organized and contains so many interesting and well written essays.

Before I discovered the website, however, I had never heard of “the revered Japanese author” Awa Naoko. Thankfully, her translator’s short introduction does a fine job of sketching out her background for the reader:

Naoko Awa (1943-1993) was an award-winning writer of modern fairy tales. She was born in Tokyo, and while growing up, lived in different parts of Japan. As a child, Awa read fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, and Wilhelm Hauff, as well as The Arabian Nights, which later influenced her writings. She earned a bachelor’s degree in Japanese literature from Japan Women’s University, where she studied under Shizuka Yamamuro (1906-2000), who translated Nordic children’s literature into Japanese. While still in college, Awa made her literary debut in the magazine Mejiro jidō bungaku (Mejiro Children’s Literature).

The themes of Awa’s work collected in The Fox’s Window are nature, transformation, and bittersweet pain of fondly remembered past. Like Western fairy tales, Awa’s stories are filled with animals who possess anthropomorphic attributes, such as the ability to talk. Like Classical mythology, Awa’s stories operate on at the edges of a constantly shifting boundary between plant, animal, and human; flowers can easily turn into girls, and rabbits and can easily turn into boys. In the worlds Awa creates in her writing, charming and innocuous trickster spirits abound and good deeds are always rewarded. This childhood realm is seldom presented without nostalgia, and characters often remember the past as being more vibrant than the present.

The story collection opens with “The Sky-colored Chair.” In this story, a blind girl’s father wants to paint a rocking chair he’s built for her the color of the sky so that she will be able to see the sky by sitting in the chair. On a windy hilltop, the father meets a young boy who helps him create the color of the sky for his daughter. The chair is such a success that the father begins to seek out other colors, such as those of the sea and the sunset. The boy, in an effort to help the father achieve these colors, disappears and then reappears as a young man who asks that the girl’s father take him on as an apprentice chair maker. The blind girl is never really able to see any other colors, but her story still ends happily:

After a short while, the blind girl married the young man. She became a happy wife who knew the true color of the sky better than anyone else. Even after her hair turned white, she enjoyed watching the sky in her rocking chair.

In the collection’s title story, “The Fox’s Window,” an archetypal hunter enters an archetypal forest in order to hunt an archetypal fox. After chasing and losing the fox, the hunter emerges into a clearing, in the middle of which is a house he has never seen before. Out of the house emerges the fox, now in the form of a boy, who offers to paint the hunter’s hands blue in an act of magic that will allow the hunter to see into the past. The story has no plot, per se, but the visions that the hunter sees in the window that he forms with his fox-painted hands are lovely:

In my mother’s vegetable garden, a patch of shiso plants was getting soaked by the drizzle. I wondered if she would come out into the yard to pick the leaves. A soft light seeped from the house. From time to time I heard children’s laughter mixed with the music from the radio. The voices belonged to me and my sister, who was now dead. I gave a deep sigh and dropped my hands. The house I grew up in burned down, and that yard doesn’t exist anymore.

Although many of the stories in the collection are harmlessly beautiful, a few, such as “Forest of Voices,” contain touches of genuine fairy-tale horror:

The Forest of Voices returned to silence and waited for its next prey. It was a terrifying place. Countless animals had lost their way in the forest. Like someone scared of his own reflection in the mirror, every animal going astray among the trees was surprised by its own echo and ran in circles until it collapsed and died. Sometimes humans wandered into the forest – hunters pursuing their game and woodcutters following the wrong path in the fog. They all ended up nourishing the oaks.

Such stories always end well, though. The pure of heart always prevail and no one is ever really punished. The only characters who die or get hurt are animals, and even then it’s usually just an instance of the “dead mother” trope.

Unfortunately, this lack of darkness made the stories seem shallow to me. With no true shadows or bursts of light, the separate stories began to blur together into a sepia-toned slurry of adorable children, talking animals, and nature imagery. These stories are completely harmless and thus, in my opinion, mostly forgettable.

Perhaps The Fox’s Window would appeal to parents of young children for whom the stories of Beatrix Potter and Jill Barklem are deemed too scary. The stories might also appeal to the children themselves, as younger readers have an astonishing ability to make up details to fill in the gaps of minimalist narratives. Since the visual imagery of Awa Naoko’s writing is so strong, her stories might also appeal to artists and illustrators looking for inspiration. In fact, I felt that each of the individual pieces in The Fox’s Window was highly impressionistic, like a pencil sketch of a scene onto which a single layer of watercolors has been quickly applied. Although this type of writing doesn’t hold a great deal of appeal for someone like me, who finds beauty and meaning in words and narratives, I imagine that Awa’s short fairy tales could be much more interesting to someone better able to think in pictures and images.

I’d like to thank University of New Orleans Press for making The Fox’s Window available on the Kindle Store. I’ve been noticing a baffling dearth of children’s literature in digital format, and I think it’s wonderful that this collection is helping to remedy the situation.

Bad Girls of Japan

Title: Bad Girls of Japan
Editors: Laura Miller and Jan Bardsley
Publication Year: 2005
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Pages: 222

Every once in awhile I will demand, in my ignorance, why no one has published an article about some facet of Japanese culture that really deserves an article. It usually turns out that, in fact, someone has published an article; and, occasionally, it turns out that all of the articles I have ever wanted to read have been published in one book. My most recent of such discoveries is Bad Girls of Japan, which was published in hardcover in 2005 and paperback in 2007. Why hadn’t I read it before this past weekend? That’s a good question. Perhaps I had thought to myself, what do I care about Abe Sada or Yoshiya Nobuko? Perhaps I had thought to myself, how academically rigorous can a short collection of twelve-to-fifteen page essays actually be? Did I mention that I can be extremely ignorant sometimes?

Bad Girls of Japan is a compilation of eleven short articles (plus a separate introduction, conclusion, and bibliography) about, as the title suggests, Japanese bad girls, with “bad” meaning “defying mainstream notions of proper female conduct” and “girl” being a term of female empowerment, apparently. Rebecca Copeland begins the collection with an essay about the demonic women of Japanese folklore, such as the yamamba, or carnivorous mountain witch, and the jilted lover turned giant snake monster from the Dōjō-ji myth that has come down to us by way of a famous Nō play. Other essay topics include geisha, Meiji schoolgirls, kogal, and shopping mavens like Nakamura Usagi – as well as the aforementioned Abe Sada (whose erotic escapades were sensationalized by films like In the Realm of the Senses) and Yoshiya Nobuko (whose Hana monogatari – flower tales – more or less established the shōjo narrative style).

In short, Bad Girls of Japan is all about women who have become the vortexes generating major cultural currents in modern and contemporary Japan. As such, it reads like an alternate cultural history informed by various academic focuses and disciplines. Since the essays are short, each writer has been forced to say the most important things about her topic in the most efficient way possible, but none of these essays sacrifices theoretical nuance (or footnotes). Furthermore, in a book designed to upset common ideas concerning Japanese culture, it is appropriate that none of the essays makes any sort of culturally essentializing overgeneralizations, either.

Because of its essay length and broad range of topics, Bad Girls of Japan does feel a bit like an introductory textbook, but it’s a very intelligent textbook, and the excellent editing ensures that it’s easy to read, as well. As a result, I think this essay collection is one of the rare academic books that will appeal to non-academics, and it would be an excellent choice of reading material for someone who doesn’t know very much about Japan but wants to learn more. I especially recommend this book to pop culture fans interested in moving beyond archetypes and stereotypes. It’s a quick, fun read, and it paints a lively and vivid picture of the past one hundred years of Japanese cultural history. To respond to my own initial doubts concerning this book, then, one should care about women like Abe Sada and Yoshiya Nobuko not merely because they were interesting people who told interesting stories, but also because of what their stories reveal about Japan and its relation to the rest of the world as it made its way through the twentieth century.

By the way, that hypothetical essay I always wanted to read about sex in josei manga is in here too, and I think Gretchen Jones does a great job of addressing the possibility of female pleasure and agency lurking within all the graphic rape. I just wish her chapter were longer, which I suppose is something I could say about everything in the book…

The Summer of the Ubume

Title: The Summer of the Ubume
Japanese Title: 姑獲鳥の夏 (Ubume no natsu)
Author: Kyōgoku Natsuhiko (京極夏彦)
Translator: Alexander O. Smith and Elye J. Alexander
Publication Year: 1994 (Japan); 2009 (America)
Publisher: Vertical
Pages: 320

Reading The Summer of the Ubume was like being in a trance. Honestly, it feels weird to not be reading the book right now, but I imagine that I’m going to be reading it again soon. I haven’t been this engrossed in a book since I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Which is not to say that Summer of the Ubume is in any way like the Harry Potter series, aside from its sheer literary addiction quotient. On the surface, the book presents a simple “sealed room” murder mystery. Underneath, however, is mystery upon mystery upon mystery. Running through these mysteries is a current of Japanese folklore, especially folklore concerning spirit possession. The “ubume” of the title is the ghost of a woman who died in childbirth and carries out her grudge against still-living mothers by stealing their infant children. This trope is connected to the household of a family that is just about as gothic as they come, with frail maidens and hereditary curses and hidden murders set on the stage of an almost abandoned hospital, which was designed by an insane architect and almost destroyed during the wartime firebombing of Tokyo.

The Summer of the Ubume is set in 1952 in the Nakano area, which used to be a residential district on the northwest periphery of Tokyo, a stone’s throw away from the prisons, insane asylums, and black markets of Ikebukuro. Its narrator is a man in his early thirties named Sekiguchi, a freelance writer who specializes in essays on supernatural incidents. Sekiguchi is friends with the brilliant yet antisocial proprietor of the Kyōgokudō used bookstore (which is the name his friends use to refer to him). Sekiguchi is the Watson to Kyōgokudō’s Holmes, and a great deal of the book is devoted to their conversations concerning metaphysical matters, which end up having a great deal to do with the mystery at hand.

In the course of his work (which borders on yellow journalism), Sekiguchi has stumbled upon a rumor of a woman who, having been mysteriously deserted by her husband, has been pregnant for eighteen months. After asking several magazine editors about the source of the rumor, Sekiguchi becomes more intrigued. Due to a strange series of coincidences, the writer has the opportunity to meet the woman’s family, which is deeply dysfunctional in every possible way. As Sekiguchi learns more about these people, it turns out that his ties to them are deeper than he initially suspected.

The first chapter of the novel is a forty-page discussion of the supernatural between Kyōgokudō and Sekiguchi. Each page is dense with ideas and metaphysical language (not to mention text – the book’s margins are practically nonexistent), and neither Sekiguchi nor Kyōgokudō is presented in a particularly sympathetic light – Sekiguchi comes off as rather dense while Kyōgokudō is supremely abrasive. If the reader can weather this initial chapter, however, he or she will be rewarded with a deliciously convoluted mystery populated by a genuinely fascinating cast of characters. The action of the story reaches its climax 230 pages into the novel, which leaves 90 pages for the explanation of the mystery. Although this may seem like poor pacing, the explication is well-plotted, engrossing, and bizarre, reaching its own climax at the end of the novel.

The Summer of Ubume is Kyōgoku’s debut novel, and at times it does feel unpolished. The momentum of the story more than makes up for any flaws in the narrative’s structure, however. The occasional clichés implicit in the mystery (such as the uncertainty that is inevitably created when there are two almost identical sisters in a fictional family) are balanced by the writer’s unique take on the gothic genre. The novel’s setting in 1950’s Tokyo is fully taken advantage of by Kyōgoku, who skillfully renders the city as a sinister gothic landscape.

Although, as I mentioned, there is a greater emphasis on talking heads in this novel than is strictly necessary, the characters and setting are superbly handled, and the mystery is just about as addictive as they come. I can only hope that more of Kyōgoku’s work is translated into English as soon as possible.