The Book of Yōkai

the-book-of-yokai

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.

* * * * *

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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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.

Mechademia

Mechademia

Title: Mechademia
Editor: Frenchy Lunning
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press
Publication Schedule: Annually
Pages: 300

The annual publication Mechademia is, as far as I can tell, the best source for scholarship on contemporary Japanese popular culture in English, even surpassing recent essay collections like Cinema Anime (2008, edited by Stephen T. Brown) and The Worlds of Japanese Popular Culture (2008, edited by Dolores Martinez), which are both fabulous. Each of the three volumes of Mechademia contains about fifteen 15-20 page articles on a specific topic, theme, or work. Although a wide range of authors, from academics to grad students to freelance writers, is represented, the editing is tight, and the essays are of uniformly high quality. These articles are well-illustrated with grayscale images, and the overall layout and design of each journal is visually attractive. Of course, the vibrant cover illustrations, taken from works by artists like Aoshima Chiho and Oksana Badrak, are quite eye-catching as well.

The subject matter of the various articles in Mechademia deals with broad cultural phenomena, such as fanfiction and the Gothic and Lolita subculture, important themes in Japanese pop culture, like shōjo and homoeroticism, and examinations of various anime, animated films, manga, and video games. Auteurs such as Miyazaki Hayao and Shinkai Makoto and famous manga-ka like Tezuka Osamu and Mizuki Shigeru are well-represented, as are controversial and provocative anime like Revolutionary Girl Utena and Neon Genesis Evangelion and canonical films such as Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence and Blood: The Last Vampire. Lesser known but still noteworthy works of Japanese animation, like Haibane Renmai, have also been included in the selection of articles.

The tone of the journal is predominantly scholarly, and the authors and editors assume that the reader is at least somewhat familiar with Japanese popular culture. In other words, Mechademia takes the value of its subject matter for granted; there are no essentializing explanations of what Japanese popular culture is and what makes it so great. The journal is not directed at “specialists,” however, as most of the articles are quite approachable by scholars who don’t know much about anime and anime fans who don’t know much about post-structuralist theory. There is very little geeking out going on on either the academic side or the otaku side, a facet of the editing which makes each volume of the journal quite readable while preserving an atmosphere of intellectual rigor.

An interesting feature is the “Review and Commentary” section at the end of each volume. This section presents several shorter articles that, as the section title suggests, take the form of reviews and commentary, often in the guise of semi-philosophical musings. Two of my favorite mini essays in this section are a piece by Trina Robbins, a former editor and localizer for the “Shojo Beat” line of manga from Viz Media, on the inner workings of an American manga publisher, and a very short introduction to the psychology of dolls in contemporary Japan by Susan Napier, the mother of “Anime Studies” in America. This “Review and Commentary” section reads like a high octane version of a monthly anime magazine and provides plenty of food for thought in bite-sized chunks.

Since Mechademia is so readable, and also since it’s such an attractive publication, I would recommend it to any serious fan of contemporary Japanese popular culture. Although the first volume was somewhat shaky on its feet, the two subsequent volumes have improved dramatically, and the new volume, “War/Time,” comes out on October 30.

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.