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.

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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.

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni

5.0 out of 5 stars The Importance of Being Oni

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present

One of the oni’s supernatural powers is shape-changing, and that is entirely  appropriate for a creature that has transformed so completely across the  centuries. From a powerful, invisible entity worshiped as a god, to one of many  of Japan’s assortment of monsters known as yokai, to the sexy and frivolous Lum  from the popular series Urusei  Yatsura, and to an emotional children’s book character in “The Red Oni who  Cried;” the oni has played many roles in Japanese society.

Noriko Reider  (Tales  of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan) takes us on a tour of the various  masks the oni has worn over the story of Shuten Doji, and an exploration of  female oni and the morphable mountain oni called yamauba, to oni in modern manga
and anime. A few stories are looked into in detail, like the aforementioned  Shuten Doji (of which Reider supplies a full translation as an appendix), and  the legend of Sakata no Kintoki, also known as Kintaro the golden boy, who was  raised by a yamauba. Reider looks at modern anime like Spirited  Away and Inuyasha  for a modern take on oni.

I have read several of these essays before,  from the “Journal of Asian Folklore Studies.” Noriko Reider is a prolific and  interesting writer on Japanese folklore, and her works were a main resource when  I did my own MA in Japanese folklore. For “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni,” Reider has  edited and reworked her essays, adding elements here and there, for an  imminently readable study on this important Japanese figure. Even though I was  familiar with some of the information, there was still much to learn about oni.

There is history here, and interpretation. There is the oni as outsider,  and speculations on the origin of the Shuten Doji legend being a shipwrecked  Spaniard and his crew. Or metal workers in the Oe mountains. There is  sexualizing of the yamauba figure from an old hag to the voluptuous woman of  Utagawa’s prints. There is the oni as metaphor and symbol, such as the use of  oni during WWII to portray the Allies, or as a sympathetic allegory of the  outcast burakumin caste in Nakagami Kenji’s “A Tale of an Oni.” Throughout all  of Japanese history the oni has played the role required of it by Japanese  society.

“Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” is a scholarly book, and Reider  assumes readers will have a functional background in Japanese folklore. She does  not spend a lot of time on definitions of words like kami, marebito and  mononoke. She assumes readers will be familiar with Japanese folklore heroes  like Minamoto no Raiko, Kintaro, and Abe no Semei. I think you could still get  something out of “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” without this background, but there  is more to be gained if you have a foundation.

Japanese Ghost Stories

3.0 out of 5 stars Japanese Psychic and Paranormal Phenomena

Japanese Ghost Stories: Spirits, Hauntings, and Paranormal Phenomena (Tuttle Classics)

The title for “Japanese Ghost Stories” is somewhat misleading. In fact, this book is a new edition of the previously published Supernatural and Mysterious Japan: Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomena. The only thing different is the title and cover.

There aren’t a lot of ghost stories in this book. In fact, “Japanese Ghost Stories” is the type of book one might pick up in a New Age bookstore, right next to “Forbidden Secrets of the Pyramids” and “How to See Leprechauns.” The author, Catrien Ross, is a self-styled Scottish shamen who runs QRQ in Nishi Hachioji Japan, a “healing center” for “healers, alternative thinkers and futurists.”

With that in mind, “Japanese Ghost Stories” is a decent little book on with some good information on psychic phenomena in modern Japan as well as some nice ghost stories and haunted places. The book is heavier on psychics than ghosts, with quite a bit on mystic healing which is Ross’s own forte. She goes into detail on psychic photographs, ki energy research and feng shui. As a firm believer, there is no skepticism in any of these stories, and Ross presents every story as if it were accepted fact.

Which is not to say that there are no ghosts to be found here. The “Strange but True” chapter contains some nice weirdness, such as the grave of Jesus Christ in northern Aomori prefecture and the living mummies of Gassan mountain. My personal favorite sections were “Modern Day Hauntings” and “Edo Era Tales.” Unfortunately, at only 160 Ross doesn’t have enough space to go into any detail, and tends to rapid-fire stories at you in quick succession. One page might have four or five haunted places with just the names and a one-sentence synopsis given.

While I had heard many of the stories before, Ross is well-informed and added some new bits and some new stories, as well as some haunted places to check out. Her take on the famous “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” was very nice, with some history of the tale and how it was adapted by various media.

Overall, not a great book on the Japanese supernatural, but not terrible either. Anyone interested in weird phenomena and strange happiness will enjoy it, but anyone looking for a book on actual Japanese ghost stories will come away disappointed.

Tenken

5.0 out of 5 stars Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada

Tenken

It is very rare that I come across a comic book that I think truly deserves the name “Graphic Novel.” For 99% of the stuff out there, be they American or Japanese, the term “comic book” works just fine. They are serialized ongoing adventures, light entertainment and a genre I really love. They are comic books.

Yumiko Shirai’s “Tenken,” on the other hand, is a true Graphic Novel. Conceived and created over a ten year period, “Tenken” is a complex and complete story, rendered in beautiful inks with a deft hand that walks the thin border between illustration and art.

A blend of science fiction with Japanese mythology, “Tenken” mixes the ancient legend of Susano-o, the dragon Orochi and the Princess Kushiinada with an unnamed dystopian future marred by the cycle of war and recovery.

Set sometime after the “dirty war” when the planet has become tainted by a mysterious pollution called “fukashi” (the term can mean “invisible” in Japanese, although I am not sure if that is the allusion here.) Fukashi taints the Earth’s soil, but it has been discovered that (in shades of Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind) bamboo has the property of being able to draw the fukashi from the soil, thus cleansing it and making it safe for farming. The bamboo turns blue in the process, and becomes a giant poison stick that needs to be dealt with. Only those over the age of thirty-five have the job of clearing the fukashi forests, which is generally fatal.

At the opening of the book, we meet Manaka, the boss of a construction crew that uses clean bamboo for high-rise construction projects. One day he meets a teenage girl named Saki who wants to work for him. Saki claims to be a village girl fleeing an arranged marriage, and Manaka asks no questions. She loves to work the high-rise jobs, but has an overwhelming fear of being underground. Manaka and his crew is getting ready for the Tenken festival, and annual event marking the marriage of the Princess Kushiinada to the handsome “Master Orochi.” This is a special year for Tenken, as every fifty years there is a special festival, and rumors of a “hidden festival” where a chosen girl is actually sacrificed to the dragon rather than just playing the part. Of course, it is not long before Manaka and Saki are caught up in this, and are quick to learn that legend is not always divorced from reality, and it is up to Manaka to discover and embody the lost character of the legend, Susano-o the dragon slayer.

Blending ancient mythology with Science Fiction is a somewhat classic combination (think Stargate), but Shirai keeps the focus more on the myth than the future. She is dealing with the primal here, the Earth-forces and hungers of the gods that stay constant no matter how much the humans advance and retreat. The Susano-o legend has been dealt with before in Masamune Shiro’s Orion, but this is a much more serious and somber take.

I loved “Tenken.” There was a nice balance here of story, and Shirai’s artwork is lovely. She has very a nice painterly feel, full of smudged inks and emotion combined with controlled line work. She does a great job with the facial expressions, and pulls all the possible drama out of a scene.

The only possible difficulty I can see with “Tenken” is that it assumes a familiarity with the Susano-o/Orochi/Kushiinada legend. To a Japanese audience, this would be so familiar that it no more needs to be explained than “A guy named Noah with a Really Big Boat” would need to be explained to Western audiences. That makes the bar of entry higher than normal manga, but worth it.

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume Two

4.0 out of 5 stars Improvement over volume 1

Hanako and the Terror of Allegory Volume 2

Volume two of “Hanako and the Terror of Allegory” is a marked improvement over the disappointing Volume 1. The translation kinks that marred the first volume seem to have been worked out, and the English flows much smoother than before. On top of that, artist Sakae Esuno (Future Diary) has hit more of a stride with the series, relying less of cheap gags and delivering some actual horror. Even then, the series is still not of the same caliber as “Future Diary” and suffers from some major flaws.

Volume two starts out with Kanae drunkenly wishing she was a pop idol, and inadvertently summoning up the Demon in the Mirror to grant her wish. Kanae is a terrible singer but everyone is still compelled to buy her music, and only the vague nature of her unfillable wish keeps her from being dragged down to hell. Next up comes the Teke-Teke, an allegory composed of the severed torso of a woman who is said to strike down other young women leaving them as damaged as themselves. Allegory Detective Daisuke Aso and his assistant Hanako from the Bathroom are having no luck tracking down this elusive allegory and more and more schoolgirls are dying every day. The next story is more personal, featuring Kanae’s cousin Chieri who has damaged her optic nerve while piercing her ear. The damage continues to spread, and an allegory might just be the cause. Finally, the famous fox-spirit Kokkori san comes out to play and Aso’s own allegory is pressed to the surface in order to deal with the menace, and action from which Aso might not recover.

When “Hanako and the Terror of Allegory” is playing with straight horror, it really shines. The Teke-Teke story is the longest in the book, and by far the best. Sakae Esuno can draw some creepy people, especially faces, and that story was the only one in the book that really grabbed me and had me flipping pages. I can’t remember the last time I read a story in a manga as scary as the Teke-Teke.

Too often however, the weird blend of technology and supernatural that is the core of the story just doesn’t work. As an example, the titular character of Hanako confounds every time she appears. Hanako is herself supposed to be one of these allegories, Hanako from the Bathroom, and the point is even made in one story that she can’t stray too far from a bathroom or she starts to disappear. That actually made her interesting, until a scene a little bit later in the book has Kanae and Hanako out having a picnic with nary a bathroom in sight. Hanako is a supernatural character, but at the same time she is a science genius making all sorts of computer programs and equipment to aid in the allegory hunt. Esuno needs to make some decisions about these characters, what they can and can’t do, then stick with it.

My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part One

 
4.0 out of 5 stars The Bride of Seto
 

My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part One

If Jr. High School student Nagasumi Michishio watched as much anime as I do, it should have come as no surprise to him that a seemingly harmless family vacation to the Seto Inland Sea would result in an engagement to a beautiful, sweet girl whose family is made up of the local yakuza clan all of which who happen to be merfolk. I mean, this kind of stuff happens all the time, right?

So yeah, “My Bride is a Mermaid” (Japanese title “Seto no Hanayome” or “The Bride of Seto”) is one of those kinds of anime. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. When working in an established genre, it is really a question of how good they do the genre, and this series does a great job.

The Magical Girl/Harem combo can be done for romance (Ah! My Goddess or an overdose of fan service (Eiken) or for straight-out comedy which is what “My Bride is a Mermaid” goes for. Based on the manga of the same name by Tahiko Kimura., this series is almost a parody of the genre and delivers some good laughs with the many bizarre situations Nagasumi finds himself in. The undersea humor reminded me a lot of One Piece more than anything else, with the romantic element thrown in. “My Bride is a Mermaid” is pretty much a fan service -free anime, with maybe just the slightest hint of it here or there if you squint your eyes, but that is about it.

The story is basic: Nagasumi and his family go for vacation to the Seto Inland Sea, where Nagasumi almost drowns and finds himself rescued by a beautiful mermaid. No one believes his story until that same mermaid, named Seto and with legs this time, shows up at his doorstep and begs for Nagasumi to accept her as his fiancé. The merfolk have a code, it seems, of killing any human that sees them in their nautical form, and the only way around it is for Nagasumi to take Seto as his bride. Marry the beautiful girl or be killed. Of course, to complicate matters Seto’s family is also the local yakuza clan, and Seto’s father would much rather see Nagasumi dead than give away his precious daughter.

Nagasumi and Seto are only engaged, not married, so they spend time going on dates and Seto eventually returns with Nagasumi to his hometown of Saitama to attend school with him and get to know him in preparation for their future. Seto’s family isn’t going to let her go off alone, however, and they soon show up to wreck havoc on Nagasumi’s school life. Of course, there are some human girls back at school that fancy Nagasumi as well, and a rival mermaid shows up to give Seto a battle for Nagasumi, who she wants to take as her manservant. Hijinks ensue.

There is all sorts of good comedy packed into this series. Seto has legs only so long as her feet don’t get wet, which means that water is flying everywhere during the series. Seto’s bodyguard Maki is a tiny little elf-girl that lives in a spiral shell but comes out sword a swinging every time she thinks Nagasumi is over-stepping his bounds. The series relies a lot on running gags and playing around with the genre tropes, such as Nagasumi getting his “first kiss” stolen by male yakuza member Masa so Nagasumi is rendered as a “bishonen” -type whenever Masa shows up. When Seto gets serious, she is suddenly shrouded in darkness and accompanied by falling cherry blossoms, which leads the other characters to wonder where all the blossoms are coming from. There are two transformed-animal yakuza members, Shark Fujishiro and Octopus Nakajima who are exactly what their names sound like.

The only complaint I have with “My Bride is a Mermaid” is with the subtitles. Japanese is a language with many regional dialects, and too often translators feel compelled to use various English accents or way of speaking to capture this. It doesn’t work. Even though Sun and her family speak perfectly polite Japanese using the dialect local to Seto, the subtitles have them speaking like a bunch of hillbillies saying things like “yer gonna get it” or other ridiculous phrases. When Sun says “Watashi was Nagasumi no tsuma ni naru” the subtitles says “I’m yer future wife” which is not at all correct. She doesn’t speak like an uneducated country bumbkin. I don’t mind it if this kind of translations is used when done for effect, like when the tiny Maki talks in her “yakuza voice” when trying to be intimidating but then switches back to normal Japanese, but putting those words in Sun’s mouth all the time just doesn’t work.

This release by Funimation has the first 13 episodes of the 26-episode series originally released in 2007. The series is continued in My Bride Is a Mermaid: Season One, Part Two. Although the boxsets say “Season One,” there actually is no “Season Two” following up this anime There were two OVA releases in 2008 and 2009, although I don’t know if there are plans to release these as well, but it is possible they would be released as a limited “Season Two,” but they would be very short and non-continuous.

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