Ancient and Modern Japanese Weird Tales
As someone who is no stranger to Japanese weird tales—I have an MA in Japanese Folklore and run a website where I translate stories based on the hyakumonogatari kaidankai ghost-story game—I found “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan” to be a unique treat and a wonderful experience. I have a whole library of books in this genre, both in Japanese and in translated English; but this is the only one I have that combines ancient weird tales with modern writers’ takes on the classic storytelling style.
The important subtitle of this book is “Tales of Old Edo,” not “Tales from Old Edo.” Along with stories by the great authors of Edo period weird tales, like Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan), Ueda Akinari (Ugetsu Monogatari), and Okamoto Kido (“Strange Tales of Blue Frog Temple”), there are modern masters like Miyabe Miyuki (Crossfire) and Kyogoku Natsuhiko (The Summer of the Ubume). Some of these tales I knew very well, particularly the old classics. Some of these I was reading for the first time. But whether I knew them or not, I found the mix of old and new to be fresh and appealing.
None of the entries here could be mistaken for horror. Although populated with ghosts and monsters, Japan’s storytelling tradition lends more towards strange experiences and odd phenomena than chills and thrills. Kurodahan Press was very careful in choosing the term “uncanny tales” for the title. There are nine stories collected in total, along with two essays on Japanese weird fiction, a short manga story, and an introduction by Robert Weinberg. Each of the stories has a different translator, some of whom do a better job than others, and which affects the quality of the stories.
I loved the 1959 story “Through the Wooden Gate,” by Yamamoto Shugoroi. There supernatural undertones are subtle, and much of the story must be read between the lines. I also enjoyed the 1938 “Visions of Beyond,” by Koda Rohan which takes you through page after page of various fishing techniques before finally getting to the story of the haunted fishing pole. Miyabe Miyuki’s 2000 “The Futon Room” was a touching story of sisterly love, and Kyogoku Natsuhiko’s “Three Old Tales of Terror” where a perfect recreation of the Edo style hyakumonogatari tales that were designed to be short and told around candlelight. I don’t know that I would have chosen Lafcadio Hearn’s “In a Cup of Tea” out of all of his available stories, but it is a good one that I hadn’t read for awhile. I liked the inclusion of Hearn’s essay “The Value of the Supernatural in Literature.”
The translations in “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan” where never bad, although there was variation in quality. Some of the translations seemed stiff and formal; more like an academic exercise than a book designed for pleasure reading. I spotted a few mistakes here and there, worked my way through a few clumsy turns of phrase that must have sounded better in Japanese than in re-worked English. But on the whole the various translators did a good job, and I found myself forgetting I was reading a work in translation and just disappeared into the story.
Kurodahan Press has a series of three books in this series, and I intend to pick them all up. The only disappointment is this is one of those books I would have loved to have participated in the making of not just in the reading of! Great stuff all around.