Tales from a Mountain Cave

Tales from a Mountain Cave

Title: Tales from a Mountain Cave
Japanese Title: 新作遠野物語 (Shinsaku Tōno monogatari)
Author: Inoue Hisashi (井上 ひさし)
Translator: Angus Turvill
Year Published: 2013 (England); 1976 (Japan)
Publisher: Thames River Press
Pages: 134

In 1910, the famous ethnologist Yanagita Kunio published the Tōno monogatari, a collection of folk legends from the Tōno region of central Iwate Prefecture in northeast Japan. Although the authenticity of these records is debatable, the collection is extremely important and has influenced subsequent generations of folklorists, including the inimitable manga artist Mizuki Shigeru. In 1975, Robert A. Morse translated the work as The Legends of Tono.

Inoue Hisashi was born in Yamagata Prefecture, which is southwest of Iwate but still in the Tōhoku region. Although famous primarily as a playwright, Inoue is also known for his novels, many of which are humorous and contain elements of fantasy and science fiction. Tales from a Mountain Cave, or “The New Legends of Tono” in its Japanese title, is Inoue’s take on the Tōno monogatari, which he sets in the coastal town of Kamaishi, just east of Tōno.

If you’re not a professional historian or ethnologist, the Tōno monogatari can require quite a bit of study to fully appreciate. Robert Morse’s translation is remarkably well done, and the book is nicely published, but the work is still difficult to read for pleasure. Tales from a Mountain Cave, on the other hand, is a lot of fun.

The nine stories in Tales from a Mountain Cave are relayed to the narrator, a young man taking time off from college, by an old man named Inubuse Takichi, who lives in a small cave in the mountains behind the sanatorium where the narrator works. Initially drawn to Inubuse by the sound of his trumpet, the narrator forms a habit of spending his lunch break with the old man, who rewards him with a series of stories about his life.

In these stories, which span from the 1920s through the early postwar period, Inubuse describes his hardships, his various forms of employment, his romantic relationships, and the odd characters he’s encountered. Not all of these characters are human, and each of the tales focuses on a supernatural occurrence, many of which are the doing of the yōkai that inhabit the region. Inubuse’s recollections of these creatures are vivid and refreshingly original. To give an example from the second story, “House up the River,” this is how the narrator summarizes Inubuse’s description of river imps called kappa:

According to him, there were several thousand kappa in the Hashino River, but when in the water they were translucent, like jellyfish. In fact they couldn’t be seen with human eyes at all. Once they were out of the river they took the form of children or travelers. In the mountains they appeared as monkeys or phesants. They could change size as well as appearance – a thousand kappa could hide in the puddle of a horse’s hoof print.

Far from being remixed or modernized versions of legend fragments, each story has a clear and compelling narrative arc; and, although they’re all connected, all but the last of the stories (which ties everything together) can be read by itself. The major theme of the collection seems to be the inability of human beings and yōkai to coexist, which can be understood as representing a fundamentally antagonistic relationship between human society and the dangerous wilderness of the Tōhoku region. If you’re looking for the sort of religious messages common in medieval Japanese folktales, they’re practically nonexistent, but Tales from a Mountain Cave does offer plenty of sexuality and earthy humor.

I really enjoyed this collection. It’s colorful, charming, and highly entertaining. Even if you’re not familiar with Japanese history or folklore, you’ll still enjoy Inoue Hisashi’s outrageous stories and charming prose.

Review copy provided by Thames River Press.

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons

The Night Parade

Title: The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons
Author: Matthew Meyer
Publication Year: 2012
Publisher: Amazon CreateSpace
Pages: 224

The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which began its life as a Kickstarter project, collects roughly four dozen entries on various yōkai, which are accompanied by lavish full-color illustrations. Both the pictures and the text are by Matthew Meyer, an artist heavily influenced by Japanese prints. Meyer has lived in a rural town in Fukui prefecture since 2007, and, as he explains on his Kickstarter page, he has been collecting and translating local folklore for years. There are a number of other books on yōkai available for digital download (such as Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s fantastic Yokai Attack!), but what The Night Parade does especially well is to add regional color and variety to Japanese legends of supernatural creatures that may already be familiar to many Japanophiles.

Compiled in such a way as to resemble an illustrated bestiary, The Night Parade is divided into several sections, which include “In the Wilds,” “Out on the Town,” and “In the House.” The book includes entries on yōkai that appear frequently in popular media, such as the kappa, the kirin, the kitsune, the tanuki, and the yuki onna, as well as many lesser-known creatures, such as the bake kujira (an enormous ghostly whale), the jorōgumo (a man-eating spider), and the nuppepō (a flabby, stinky lump of flesh that lives in temple graveyards), and the nopperabō (who looks and acts like an ordinary person but has no face). Each entry contains information on the diet and appearance of these yōkai, their behavior, their interactions with human beings, and the various forms they may take, as well variations on and translations of their names.

Many of the entries are also peppered with interesting information about the historical and cultural contexts of these creatures. For example, the entry on the takanyūnō, or “tall priest,” contains a special section on why suffixes relating to Buddhism and Buddhist priests are so common in the names of yōkai. (Apparently, it’s not so much a connection to religion as it is a certain wariness regarding traveling priests, or at least strangers dressed as traveling priests.) The entry on the kerakera onna, a gigantic “cackling woman” who haunts the alleyways of red light districts and hounds men into their graves with her incessant laughter, alludes to the tendency in Japanese folklore to grant great power to long-lived things, whether they be cats (which become neko mata) or eating utensils (which become tsukumogami), and surmises that prostitutes who managed to live into middle age may well have become yōkai, an interesting conjecture that leaves the mind to wonder about what such a bit of folklore might correspond to in a less numinous context.

Meyer has published his work through Amazon’s CreateSpace program, which offers both print and digital versions of the collection. I can’t offer an opinion of the physical copy of The Night Parade, but the digital edition is beautifully formatted, and its images are of extremely high quality. Although the book is relatively kid-friendly, it includes frank (although far from explicit) references to prostitution and human sexuality. Most of the images are stylized as colorful and cute or understated and eerie, but a few (such as the illustration of the ubume, a spirit of a woman who has died during childbirth) may be too intense for younger readers. My honorary nieces and nephews have been delighted by pictures like the illustration of the onryō, a vengeful ghost who is depicted as a pale shrieking woman bleeding from her eyes, but discretion might be advised for more sensitive children.

Meyer has recently launched a successful Kickstarter project for a second collection, titled The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits, so expect another excellent illustrated bestiary from him soon!

Matthew Meyer - Tanuki

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.