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.

Japanese Ghost Stories

3.0 out of 5 stars Tattoo artists interpretation of traditional  Japanese ghost stories

Japanese Ghost Stories (English and Japanese Edition)

Gomineko’s “Japanese Ghost Stories” is essentially an art book. The project is the brainchild of Gomineko Press’ Crystal Morey who created a contest for her largely-tattoo artist customer base; she would present a traditional Japanese ghost story, that her customers would make artwork for, with the winner getting some free books. After the first of these contests proved successful, she followed up with another, and then a gallery show, and then finally this book showing the results.

There are four stories in this volume: “Ushino Toki Mairi” with a candle wearing woman pounding nails in a tree to gain divine vengeance for an untrue love. “Okiku,” one of Japan’s most famous ghost stories involving an abused serving girl and ten heirloom plates. “Kiyohime,” also known as “The Legend of Doji Temple” which tells the story of a woman whose forbidden lust overtakes her and she transforms into a serpent. And “Shitakiri Suzume,” known in English as “The Tongue-cut Sparrow,” involving a bird, a greedy wife, and a big box of demons. All of the text is in both English and Japanese.

Each story is more of an explanation of the story rather than the story itself. It is more of a one-page recap that tells the gist of the story and some of its variations. Each story is then followed by the customer submissions, between 15-29 per story. Each submission is a full-page, full-color illustration usually in the tattoo-style that attempts to get the feel of the story in a single piece of art.

The art varies greatly in quality, if not in style. To give you an idea of the caliber, far too many of these artists list their home page as MySpace or DevientArt) For a contest like this, I was surprised at how many of the submissions resembled each other. Because all of the artists hold the same job – they are all tattoo artists – most of the works are done in that thick-lined stained-glass style that is suitable for tattoos. I like that style of artwork. I like tattoos. But I would have liked to have seen more creativity in the interpretations. At least one submission came right off the promotional artwork for Ju-on, and a few more were almost direct copies of famous ukioyo-e prints of the same stories.

There are some standout pieces. Texas-artist Jon Claeton’s Old West interpretation of “Okiku” was inspired. Sergi Besa from Brighton, UK did an old-school sailor tattoo of “Ushino Toki Mairi” with a sweet face and rosy cheeks that was a nice change from the blood-weeping hags everyone else drew. Sara Alonso, also of Brighton, UK, did a very beautifully composed piece of “Okiku,” with each of the nine plates being a scene from the story. Horimasa, from Gunma, Japan, did a fantastically simple and effective painting of “Okiku” with nice striking reds and blacks. All in all, “Okiku” seemed to inspire the best submissions.

But ultimately the forgettable and the mediocre outweigh the good stuff. Crystal Morey had a good idea, and I applaud her efforts. I would have personally liked to have seen more balance between the stories and the art, with an attempt made to tell the stories, not just tell about them. A bit more quality-control on the art would have gone a long way as well, with fewer, better selections making for a stronger book.

The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition

5.0 out of 5 stars One of the classics of Japanese folklore

The Legends of Tono: 100th Anniversary Edition

Much of what we know of Japanese folklore might have been lost forever if it were not for two authors, Lafcadio Hearn and Kunio Yanagita. Both were avid collectors of the mysterious tales of weird and imaginative creatures that were passed down as oral folklore but never written down. Both did their work at the start of the Meiji era, a time when, in the name of modernization, the government and scholars of Japan were actively attempting to wipe out the beliefs and superstitions of previous eras which were thought to be embarrassing to a country entering the modern age.

“The Legends of Tono” (Japanese title “Tono Monogatari”) is the most famous of Yanagita’s works, collecting the narratives of the small town of Tono in Iwate prefecture, as told to him by local resident and storyteller Kizen Sasaki. The stories collected in “The Legends of Tono” include some of Japan’s most famous monsters like the kappa and the child-ghosts zashiki-warashi. Along with Hearn’s Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things and Ueda Akinari’s Tales of Moonlight and Rain, “The Legends of Tono” is one of the most classic and important books on Japanese folklore.

A surprisingly small book for one that carries so much weight, there are exactly one hundred and nineteen legends spread out over fifty-eight pages. Many of these legends are only a sentence in length, and often there are three to four different legends on a page. Some of them are a bit longer, maybe a paragraph or two, and typical of Japanese folklore they do not tell a complete story but rather just describe an odd circumstance or the history behind some strange stone or tree local to a certain village. Many explain customs of the time in Tono village, and the movements of household gods and festivals. Some are sexual cautionary tales, and other frights designed to keep people in their proper place for fear of punishment. Yanagita’s style was to record the legends in a straight-forward manner without decoration and little elaboration.

However, packed inside Yanagita’s short sentences is an ocean of depth, one that is almost impossible to know just through a quick reading. Indeed, in Japanese there are annotated versions of “The Legends of Tono” that go on for four hundred pages or more digging into each of Yanagita’s terse sentences as if mining for gold. His simple and direct writing style would become a massive influence on author Mishima Yukio (The Sailor who fell from grace with the sea) who considered “The Legends of Tono” to be the finest-written work of Japanese literature.

There was more to “The Legends of Tono” than simple folklore gathering and writing however. This was a book with a political agenda. Yanagita was protesting against official histories at the time, which concentrated only on the rich and powerful and ignored the lives and hopes of the millions of poor peasants who, in the words of someone with similar inclinations, “did most of the living and dying” in Japan. Yanagita did not want to see the stories of these people lost to the tides of time, and so he gathered them up and wrote them down for future generations.

This “100th Anniversary Edition” celebrates the original 1910 publication of “The Legends of Tono.” It reprints the 1975 translation prepared by Yanagita-scholar Ronald A. Morse. Morse includes a preface to the 100th Anniversary Edition, the original forward to the 1975 edition written by Richard M. Dorson who had actually worked and studied with Yanagita, and a new introduction discussing the relevance of Yanagita’s work today. These three introductions add a bit of bulk to the publication, and some background on Yanagita and his relevance.

Morse also includes a “Guide to English-Language Writings on Kunio Yanagita and “The Legends of Tono”” in the back of the book for those interested in pursuing further study on the man and his works.

Ju-on: Shiroi Roujo

2.0 of 5 Stars:  Beware the basketball wielding grandmother!

Ah “Ju-On”…perhaps it is long time past to say goodbye.  Although the first film remains one of the classics of the J-Horror genre, with each subsequent release there remains less and less to scrape off the bottom of the barrel.

This film “Ju-On: Shiroi Roujo” (English translation “Ju-On: The White Old Lady”) is part of a two-part release with “Ju-On: Kuroi Shojo” “Ju-On: Black Young Girl”).  They were produced in honor of the tenth anniversary of the original “Ju-On” V-Cinema release often known in English as “Ju-On: The Curse.”  Although since that film was released in 2000, the tenth anniversary is a little bit early.

Really, this film has only the barest of connection with the original series.  The “Ju-On” house is present, and Toshio pops up with his cat grown just to let us know what series we are in, but that is about it.   

The story follows the son of a business man who fails to pass his critical bar exam and then murders his entire family, leaving behind a cassette tape after he hangs himself.  On the tape is the mysterious female voice of a young girl saying “Go…go now…” Into this story comes Akane (played by nineteen-year old J-Idol Minami Akina) a highschool girl with supernatural senses who keeps catching glimpses of her old schoolgirl chum Mirai, who was molested and murdered when then were young. (Any guesses as to whose voice is the mystery girl on the tape?). 

The plot for “Ju-On: Shiroi Roujo” is really disjointed, although it follows some of the standard rules of “whoever enters this house dies.”   A small side scene has a poor guy delivering Christmas Cakes show up at the house, only to return home and murder his girlfriend (played by adult video actress Mihiro in a tiny bit part.  For the record, Mihiro takes off none of her clothes and has sex with absolutely nobody, which seems a waste of her talents in a film like this.  I think I will stick to the other Mihiro films in my collection.)  The main haunting ghost, and titular character, is the grandmother who was murdered by her grandson in the big family slaying, who likes to freak people out by tossing a basketball around before showing up in a bad white fright-mask and killing them.

Directed by Miyake Ryuta, who was apparently hand-picked by “Ju-On” czar Shimizu Takeshi, “Ju-On: Shiroi Roujo” is barely passable as something to watch.  Miyake imported his “basketball wielding grandmother ghost” from a previous effort of his, a short segment on “Kaidan Shin Mimibukuro” (“Tales of Terror from Tokyo and All Over Japan”) in an attempt to put something of his own stamp on the series.  The special effects work here is just terrible, and the ghost grandma comes off looking like someone wearing the “Ghost Face” mask from the “Scream” series, eliciting laughs rather than frights whenever she shows up.

Not that it was a complete waste.  At about an hour long, “Ju-On: Shiroi Roujo” isn’t too much of an investment to watch and there are a few nice scenes.  The dismembered head in a bag in the back of a taxi was a nice touch.   Minami Akina is nice to look at, and there are worst ways to spend an hour.  If your expectations are low, you might have some fun with this film.

I have heard that the second film, “Ju-On: Kuroi Shojo” is the better of the pair, but I haven’t had the chance to see that yet.

The Yotsuya Kwaidan or O’Iwa Inari: Tales of the Tokugawa, Volume 1

4.0 out of 5 stars A unique version of the familiar legend

“Yotsuya Kaidan” is unquestionably THE Japanese ghost story, the most famous and most instantly recognizable story from a very haunted culture. There are numerous filmed versions of the tale (about 60 different versions or so, most likely more) and uncountable written versions and translations.

This 1916 version, adapted by James S. De Benneville as the first of his two-part Tales of the Tokugawa, Vol 2, is different from the most familiar versions. In his introduction, De Benneville says that the story he relates was told to him by a storyteller in the Yoshiwara pleasure district, named Shunkintei Ryou. Shunkintei himself claims that this was the true account of the legend, and that it could only be told now some ninety one years after the original performance in 1825 of the play by Tsuruya Nanboku IV.Of course, as a professional storyteller who claimed to know the true, secret version of Japan’s most famous ghost story, Shunkintei’s claim should be taken with a grain of salt.

This version of the tale starts not with Oiwa and Iemon, but with their respective parents. The father of Iemon is responsible for the death of Oiwa’s father, leaving their children with the inherited burden of karma. (This piece was clearly lifted by Shunkintei from Sanyutei Encho’s 1859 story “Reckoning at Kasane Swamp” recently filmed as Kaidan.) Oiwa is given in marriage to Iemon, both of them unaware of their connection. Iemon, a rouge and a scoundrel, married Oiwa for her money and estate, but longs for a way to rid himself of his wife so that he may marry the prostitute Ohana with whom he has long been in love. Scheme builds on scheme, allies are recruited and Oiwa’s downfall is plotted. Just when all the conspirators are congratulating each other, however, Oiwa rises again in terrible vengeance.

There are several differences from this translation and the classic “Yotsuya Kaidan.” Aside from the elements added from “Kasane Swamp,” the Oiwa in this story has always been miserably ugly, so much so that her nickname is “the Obake” or “the Goblin.” Although she is rich, she is far to hideous to attract a husband and even the scum Iemon must be lured by trickery. Many of the familiar side-characters are also missing. There is no Naosuke lusting for Oiwa’s sister Osode, and partnering with Iemon in murder. There is no Oume in love with Iemon, and Ito Kehei is only interested in the downfall of the Tamiya house, and not his daughter’s happiness.

Probably the biggest difference is the lack of Oiwa’s vengeful ghost herself. As this was written in 1917, during the Meiji Restoration and not the Edo Period like the original kabuki play, it was a time when Japan was somewhat ashamed of its supernatural past feeling it was primitive and unenlightened as compared to science-minded Western culture. This shows in that Oiwa’s hauntings are almost never played as a straight ghost story, but almost as transference of psychological guilt felt by those who helped in her downfall. Is it the real ghost of Oiwa crying for vengeance, or simply the guilty consciences of those who have done her wrong? Blood is spilled, and it is gory, but the pale face of Oiwa almost never shows her face.

As for the translation, I don’t know how good De Benneville’s grasp of Japanese was, but the translation is rough and in an odd style. The long vowel is handled in a way I have never seen before, putting the extra vowel in brackets such as Encho[u] or To[u]kyo. Until you get used to this style it is distracting to read. Also, several words that De Benneville apparently didn’t know he simply left in Japanese, which is fine if you are a Japanese speaker yourself but might frustrate some without abilities in the language.

Apartment 1303

apartment

4.0 out of 5 stars The haunted apartment motif

When dealing with genre films, in this case the Japanese yurei, it isn’t really important to judge how original they are, but it how well they riff on the established tropes. All zombie flicks have the walking dead, but some walk with a jauntier step than others. All vampire flicks have blood suckers, but some pack a little more bite. All yurei flicks are going to have long-haired, white faced girls, and what matters is where you go from there.

“Apartment 1303” isn’t a great film, but it doesn’t try to be. It is a simple haunted-apartment story, with no intention other than offering some entertainment and some chills, both of which it does just fine. The premise is actually a real and ongoing situation in Japan. When there is some known ghostly activity in an apartment, or where a suicide or murder has been committed, the rent becomes super-cheap although the rental agent often doesn’t tell you why. Just by the price of the apartment you know something is going on.

Director Oikawa Ataru is best known for the Tomie series, and I believe this was his first venture into the yurei genre. He handles the conventions well, and maintains a nice spooky atmosphere for most of the film. Lead actress Hatsune Eriko (Uzumaki) handles her horror-duties well, and it is nice to see her pop up again. The movie derails a little bit when Oikawa goes for the special effects shots rather than the atmosphere. Up until one specific scene, he had kept his camera tight and claustrophobic, making the best use of the unseen and dark corners, until the sudden grand reveal brings everything a little bit too much into the spotlight.

If you are in the mood for a pretty straight forward genre flick, and just want some easy chills, then “Apartment 1303” has what you need. Of course, it isn’t on the same level as Ring or Ju-on, but comparing every single Japanese yurei film to those would be like watching every single ghost film and saying “It was good, but not as good as Kubrick’s The Shining. Not every flick needs to be a masterpiece to be enjoyable, and this one is good enough.

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