Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

5.0 out of 5 starsGhosts of Taisho and Heisei

Tales of the Metropolis – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 3

My only disappointment with “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan – Volume 3: Tales of the Metropolis” is that it is the final volume. I could easily read another ten volumes or more in this remarkable series by Kurodahan Press.

Japan’s history of weird and uncanny tales (not to be confused with horror stories) is probably more rich and extensive than any country on earth. As explained in the forward to this volume, “Earthquakes, Lightning, Fire, and Father,” Japan has a history of destruction and renewal, of a populace keenly aware of their own mortality with a horrific death only an earthquake away. Combined with the Japanese sense of art and aesthetic, this has led to the evolution of a style of weird storytelling that is both haunting and beautiful. Kurodahan’s “Kaiki” series is one of the few chances English speakers have ever had to experience this literary heritage.

To be honest, “Tales of the Metropolis” was the volume I was looking forward to the least in this series. My tastes tend to run to the earlier Edo period weird stories which are cruder in execution than the careful, refined prose of the Taisho era, but somehow more real and vital. Edo period stories are like traditional campfire stories, told by people who believed they were passing on a true story. Taisho era writers were fully aware that they were writing fiction.

But those writers knew what they were doing and were able to build on and refine Japan’s storytelling traditions. “Tales of the Metropolis” collects tales from some of Japan’s greatest writers, with stories ranging from 1915-1996. Names like Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Tanizaki Junichiro, Edogawa Rampo, and Kawabata Yasunari should be familiar to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of the other authors may not be as well known, but they are carefully curated to deliver a slice of the best of Japanese weird fiction.

From the first page I was swept into this collection. Some of the stories here I have read before, like Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Tanizaki’s “The Face.” Both come from that tradition of “erotic-grotesque nonsense” that focused on the objectification of body parts, human deformity, and the celebration of the bizarre. Kawabata’s story is sensuous and nostalgic, while Tanizaki’s tale jams together modern technology and Japan’s yokai tradition for an unsettling effect. Rampo’s “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crime” is an interesting story featuring the author as a character.

But the stories that really affected me were the ones I was reading for the first time. Toyoshima Yoshio’s “Ghosts of the Metropolis” tells of a haunted Tokyo packed with billowing ghosts with an unmistakable debt to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Minigawa Hiroko plays a lovely game of “Who’s dead here?” with the story “The Midsummer Emissary” about a chance meeting between three people and the nature of lingering desire. Endo Shushaku’s “Spider” is a classic modern haunted taxi story with a twist ending that I wasn’t expecting. Yamakawa Masao’s “The Talisman” could have been an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”

My favorite in the volume was Akae Baku “Expunged by Yakumo,” a brilliant retelling and “finishing” of Lafcadio Hearn’s story “In a Cup of Tea” that began the first volume of the “Kaiki” series. Akae managed that delicious writer’s trick of leaving the reader in suspense as to whether this is a fiction or non-fiction story. Is there really an undiscovered ending to Hearn’s famous unfinished tale? Akae skillfully weaved a personal ghost story into this quest for the understanding of “In a Cup of Tea,” and the sequel here made me appreciate the original all the more. Brilliant stuff.

The translations for the “Kaiki” series have improved with every volume. I am a translator myself, and so I can be nitpicky when it comes to awkward phrases or poor word choice. Almost every story in “Tales of the Metropolis” accomplishes the goal of reading as if it was originally written in English. I got so engrossed in the tales I forgot I was reading translations, which is the mark of a job well done.

Hopefully Kurodahan Press will be able to publish further volumes of this series in the future, or a companions series in the same style. Anyone interested in weird fiction or Japanese literature is going to want the entire series on their shelf.

Country Delights – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 2

5.0 out of 5 stars More Japanese Weird Tales

After enjoying the first volume in this series, Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1, I was eager to read volume two. While I was quite familiar with many of the tales of old Edo, I didn’t know what to expect from “Country Delights.” There are a few famous names here, and some stories I know, but most of the book was new territory. And, as promised by the title, delightful.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” Kurodahan Press assembled a collection of classics and modern authors, of the ultra-famous and the not-so-much. Some of the authors will be familiar to anyone with even the most casual acquaintance with Japanese literature—like Natsume Soseki (Botchan), also also known as “that guy on the old 1,000 yen bill,” Izumi Kyoka (Japanese Gothic Tales), and Yanagita Kunio (The Legends of Tono) who almost single-handedly created Japanese folklore studies. Many of the authors I had never heard of, but that didn’t mean their stories were any less fascinating. In fact, in the later stories it was interesting to watch the waning influence of Edo-period storytelling and seeing obvious Lovecraft-influences slowly creep in.

There are nine stories in total in “Country Delights,” and one short comic. In his introduction, Robert Weinberg suggests that you read all of the stories before reading Higashi Masao’s introduction, which I heartily agree with. There are lots of surprises here that you don’t want spoiled. Most of the stories are fairly short, and the longest, “Midnight Encounters, (1960)” runs ninety-four pages. The oldest story is Izumi Kyoka’s “Sea Daemons (1906)” and the most recent is “Reunion (1993)” by Takahashi Katsuhiko.

As with “Tales of Old Edo,” none of the stories in here could be classified as “horror.” These are weird fiction, more unsettling that shocking. Most make use of traditional settings and Japanese ghosts and monsters, but some favor exotic locales.

My favorite story in “Country Delights” was “Sea Daemons,” which is no surprise as I really like Izumi Kyoka. This story of a poor coastal fishing village and their battle with something from the dark of the ocean was chilling and sad. “The Kudan’s Mother, (1968)” by Komatsu Sakyo was also intriguing, telling the story of a cursed house during the firebombing of WWII. “The Clock Tower of Yon, (1961)” had the most Lovecraftian feel, with the exotic French setting and the hordes of Tibetan cats. I know there is a sub-genre of Lovecraft-inspired Japanese fiction, but this is the first story I have read in that vein. Not every story was a winner. I thought both “The Mummy (1942)” and the comic “Only You (1992)” were lackluster.

The translations in “Country Delight” were a marked improvement over the previous volume. Whereas some of the translations in “Tales of Ole Edo” felt stilted and academic, the translations in “Country Delight” were just pure reading pleasure. I caught a few mistakes, and reading the “Legends of Tono” translations was a big awkward as I have translated those myself and know the different choices I made. But on the whole you could just disappear into the story and forget you were even reading a translation.

Overall this was another great volume from Kurodahan Press, and I am looking forward to volume three.

Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1

5.0 out of 5 stars Ancient and Modern Japanese Weird Tales

Tales of Old Edo – Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1

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.

All Night Long Collection

3.0 out of 5 stars Human Beings are Garbage

All Night Long Collection

The “All Night Long” films are pure exploitation cinema. Cheap thrills shot on digital video featuring (mostly) amateur actors, they are churned out low-plot adventures in rape and murder, Japanese style. Think of these as direct-to-video Z-Grade Slasher flicks that you find in the US. They have never gotten a theatrical release, and 99.9999% of the Japanese population has never heard of them and wouldn’t even know they exist. These are for exploitation fans only.

Director Matsumura Katsuya has made his whole career on the “All Night Long” films. There are currently six in the series, with the most recent one (All Night Long: Anyone Would Have Done) released in 2009. The delve more into psychology and sadomasochism than your average Slasher flick; don’t expect buckets of blood or reams of nudity, although there is some of each. Matsumura is more interested in exploring obsession and attacker/victim power exchanges.

There first three “All Night Long” films are in this collection, “All Night Long (1992),” “Atrocity (1995),” and “Final Atrocity (1996).” The films have no connection other than the aforementioned themes. The stories try to frame real events, like a man going on a revenge spree after his girlfriend is raped and murdered, or a mentally challenged man who obsesses over a neighbor, but ultimately the stories don’t have much depth and are just playing with taboos and darkness.

It is hard recommend this flicks. These three DVDs are not a bad little box of blood. These three DVDs are not a bad little box of blood. They have none of the brilliance of Ichi the Killer or Audition. Keep your expectations low.

If you are an exploitation fan, you will find something to like here. I have this series, and the The Guinea Pig flicks, and a few other collections in the genre. I thought the “All Night Long” films were not as good as the early “Guinea Pig” films, but better than the later ones. The effects are decent. The acting is decent. There is nothing particularly shocking or gut-wrenching. But they can be fun.

Shadow of the Wraith

3.0 out of 5 stars Two “Ghost at School” Stories

Shadow of the Wraith

“Shadow of the Wraith” (Japanese title “Ikisudama,” or “Living Ghost”) is an entry in the popular gakko no kaidan (ghosts at school)genre, aimed squarely at high school aged kids and younger. These kinds of low-budget spook fests are pretty typical in Japan, and get cranked out during the summer when kids are eager for a scary story. The director, Ikeda Toshiharu, is most famous for his film Evil Dead Trap although he has been cranking out this kind of low-budget work in recent years.

“Shadow of the Wraith” has the extra hook of staring two pop-star brothers, Koji and Yuichi Matsuo from the band “Doggy Bag,” and two “Teen Scream Queen” sisters, Hitomi and Asumi Miwa (Uzumaki, Ju-On: The Curse, Eko Eko Azarak) who are familiar faces to any fan of modern Japanese horror. Think of “Shadow of the Wraith” as the Jonas Brothers appearing on an episode of Goosebumps.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is split into two stories, each staring one Matsuo brother and one Miwa sister. The stories are very loosely linked by the brothers, who play brothers in a band.

The first story,” Shadow of the Wraith,” is a typical story of jealousy. Popular boy loves popular girl. Strange girl in the corner is jealous and projects psychic doppelganger to clear a bloody path to popular boy’s affections. You know the story. Or maybe you don’t. “Shadow of the Wraith” is about a creature from Japanese folklore, called an Ikiryo, or “living ghost.” The mythology is very old,dating back to the The Tale of Genji, and I have never seen an ikiryo story on film before. So that was kind of cool. Unfortunately, novelty is all the story really had going for it, and “Shadow of the Wraith” is otherwise by-the-numbers.”

The next story, “The Hollow Stone” starts off pretty good as a classic haunted apartment scenario. A new girl moves into down, and finds out that she is living in a cursed apartment. A charming neighbor, still reeling from the death of his brother, falls for the new girl and tries to help her survive where others have died. I am a sucker for a good haunted apartment story, and I would have enjoyed “The Hollow Stone” quite a bit if it weren’t for some unfortunately bad special effects. The director forgot that less is more where ghosts are concerned, and shook some fake props at us that look like they could have been bought at the
local Halloween store. The ending to “The Hollow Stone” was also terrible. It made no sense, and completely broke the rules of Japanese ghosts for no particular reason.

“Shadow of the Wraith” is not a bad DVD. The stories neither rise above nor sink below the level of the genre. They are exactly the kind of show you would see in Japan flicking the tv channels in the summer. It’s too bad that director Ikeda didn’t try a little harder to bring some life into these stories, as they had some potential, but everyone involved seemed to be pretty content to produce something mediocre.

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Vol. 3

4.0 out of 5 stars The Secret of Kanae

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory, Vol. 3

“Hanako and the Terror of Allegory” is a series that started out on a weak note,  but keeps getting better with every volume. Artist Sakae Esuno (Future  Diary) has moved away from the panty-gags from the first volume, and is  positioning the series as a horror-comedy rather than a comedy-horror. Esuno has a real talent for visual horror, and I love seeing his interpretations of popular Japanese urban legends. There was a clever nod in the volume when a thinkly-disguised Ge ge ge no Kitaro showed up as well, which I really enjoyed.

Volume three picks up right after the cliff hanger of volume two, where Allegory Detective Aso has transformed completely into an allegory to do battle with the powerful Kokkuri. With Kokkuri’s ability to predict the future, Aso seems to stand no chance. Also, as the battle is being chatted about live on the internet, the two are creating more folklore as they go, adding power to the belief-driven allegory of Kokkuri.

Can he win? Well, of course he can,  or the series wouldn’t continue. Thanks to some quick thinking by Hanako of the Toilet the day is saved, but the battle makes Aso realize how dangerous it is getting the human Kanae involved in his battles against the allegories. Aso must decide if protecting Kanae is too much of a liability, or if he needs to push her away for her own good. But Kanae has secrets of her own, and Aso discovers that pushing her away might be pushing her even further towards danger, with no one to protect her.

The thee allegories (urban legends) in volume three were the Gap Girl, Red Paper/Blue Paper, and Merry-san. The creepiest of these was the Gap Girl, a phantom said to hide in the spaces between bookshelves and walls, and is responsible for that eerie feeling you get of someone watching you when you are home alone. I thought combining the Gap Girl with a shut-in who never left his room was brilliant, and the ending took me by surprise. Red Paper/Blue Paper is a legend about sitting alone in the bathroom, when a voice whispers “Red paper or blue paper?” to which either answer is deadly. Finally, Merry-san is a vengeful doll who resents being thrown away in the trash by an owner who has outgrown her, and comes back to take her revenge.

The Merry-san story really pumps up the violence, and there was one scene in particular that was downright disturbing. I haven’t seen anyone draw horror as well as Esuno, and it is nice to know I can still get the chills from a comic book.

Melancholia

3.0 out of 5 stars Attack of the Clones

Melancholia

“Melancholia” is part of the six-part V-cinema series called “Series Kyofu Yawa” (“Series Horror Night Tale”) that includes Demon Hunting, The Last Coffin, Legend of Ogre, and In the Site. The series is a try-out for new talent, and director Takaaki Ezura is making his first feature here

The Kyofu Yawa series is extremely low-budget, filmed on digital video and staring mostly amateur cast. The level of filmmaking and action is about the same as a cheap TV movie, and no one should mistake this for a feature film. At 90 minutes “Melancholia” is a pretty short flick.

The story follows a group of friends who gather one last time at a park that will soon be developed into a housing complex. One of the girls is moving away, and the friends are saying goodbye. The girl moves in with her aunt and uncle, and things start to get weird from there. In her new house, she hears noises coming from a room that she is forbidden to enter. Meanwhile, her old friends are being visited and murdered by the same girl, who appears to be able to be in two places at once. Eventually, secrets start coming out and she learns that she is a twin clone, created by a mad scientist who wanted to do a study on human morality and raised two genetically identical people in different circumstances to see how they would come out.

I have seen a few of the Kyofu Yawa series, so I know what to expect and keep my expectations low. For what it is, “Melancholia” isn’t horrible. The cloning story adds some interest to a standard doppelganger plot, and the director and actors do their best in the confines of the budget. I have seen much, much better low-budget horror flicks, but I have also seen worse.

For the lead actresses, Kyofu Yawa likes to recruit from the world of Japanese bikini models, and making an appearance here is Hikaru Kawamura. Hikaru looks pretty, but her acting mainly seems to consist of grabbing her head and screaming. I don’t see a long movie career in front of her.

Also, anyone seeing “bikini model” should not get the wrong idea. There is no cheesecake and Hikaru remains fully dressed as does everyone else. Anyone expecting a gore-fest had better look elsewhere as well, as the killing happens mostly off-frame.

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