Category Archives: Japanese Horror

Explore the haunted and gory in Japanese Horror films. From psychological thrillers to creepy ghost stories, Japanese horror is quite unsettling and entertaining.


Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg

 


Musings VI: On the ghost of O’iwa, and why she’s still scary.

The Season of Horrors

It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.

You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.

Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii]  Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.

The Birth of O’iwa

In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]

Oiwa O'iwa Iemon yotsuya kaidan ukiyoe

O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836.  http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034

The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.

Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.

But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.

This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?

The three horrors of O‘iwa.

Pollution

The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of

discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.

Mother and Monster

 

Oiwa O'iwa hair blood ukiyoe

O’iwa’s bloody hair loss.Source

O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare.  As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.

 

Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.

Rebellion

Class…

O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.

Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.

…and gender

Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice.  “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.

At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.

Otherworldliness

One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.

An onryō…

But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]

Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.

… or another other scary creature?

However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.

The Burning Lantern

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hokusai ukiyoe

Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s.  https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg

One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.

Hokusai’s O’iwa

While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]

To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hozuki reitetsu

O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.

Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.

Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond

I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.

Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.

What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere.  She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?

Notes and References:

[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.

[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.

[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.

[iv] http://www.kabuki21.com/nakamuraza.php#jul1825

[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.

[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.

[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.

[viii] Scherer 2011:50-51, my translation.

[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.

[x] Wee 2011:154.

[xi] For a definition of onryō, see http://yokai.com/onryou/, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/10/07/heike-ichizoku-no-onryo-the-vengeful-ghosts-of-the-heike-clan/

[xii] Carmen Blacker: The Catalpa Bow. A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975, 48.

[xiii] Scherer 2011:40-41

[xiv] For a first look, see http://yokai.com/yuurei/. There are whole books on the different types of yūrei… This one, for instance.

[xv] Samuel L. Leiter: „Keren. Spectacle and Trickery in Kabuki Acting“. In: Educational Theatre Journal 28 (2), 1976, S. 173–188, 188.

[xvi] Scherer 2011:112, 114.


Shinigami–Angels of Death

Shunsen ShinigamiThe Grim Reaper is probably the most widely known persona of death in Western cultures.  Most typically depicted as a scythe wielding skeleton garbed in black robes, this fearsome figure harvests the souls of the dead, escorting them to the other side to await judgment and their eternal fate.  While this symbol of death has deep roots in Western culture, stemming from the 14th century Danse Macabre imagery that became popularized when the Black Death was wreaking its havoc with European society, the Reaper has only come to Japan relatively more recently, in the form of the Shinigami.

Now, I do not purport to be an expert in Japanese folklore (or in anything, really) but as near as I can tell the Shinigami started life in the 18th or 19th century, springing forth from a variety of influences including traditional Shinto, Buddhist, and Taoist beliefs that merged with Christian influences from abroad.  While the Grim Reaper is considered a fearsome creature in the West, Shinigami are more intercessors, functionaries in the grand cosmic bureaucracy whose only function is to escort souls from our world to the next.  While the Grim Reaper is singular, Shinigami are depicted as being many, and working together to achieve their goals.

The word “Shinigami” itself means “death god” or “death spirit”.  They are believed to be a form of kami, or a spirit not unlike the Western concept of an angel. While their role in folklore has only come about in relatively recent times, the Shinigami’s impact on modern Japanese pop culture has been tremendous.  From Bleach to Death Note, Shinigami are often portrayed as alternatively scary, monstrous beings to human-like entities merely fulfilling a function.  It seems that, for the time being at least, the Shinigami are here to stay.


Issei Sagawa–Japan’s Cannibal Killer

Police photo of Issei Sagawa

Now and then on my blog I will do a post about the worst of the worst–serial killers.  When trying to come up with a premise for this week’s post, I stumbled across the strange and macabre story of Issei Sagawa, a cannibal and minor celebrity.  Yes, you read that right: a cannibal and a minor celebrity.

Sagawa was a troubled youth who was identified by psychiatric professionals as a potential threat to himself and others early on.  While the story should have ended here with Sagawa safely medicated and locked away in a psych ward, Sagawa had one asset that many psychopaths lack–a rich father.  Unwilling or unable to see his son for the burgeoning monster he was, Sagawa’s father shipped his son off to school in Paris, France to study Comparative Literature.  It was while he was in school that he met Renee Hartevelt, a Dutch classmate who he became obsessed with.

He lured Hartevelt to his apartment under the pretense of needing help with a German class they took together.  Sagawa shot Hartevelt in the head with a .22 caliber rifle he’d bought specifically for that purpose, and over the next few days he proceeded to enact his ghoulish fantasies with her dead body.  Sagawa was arrested by French police after being caught trying to dispose of the body, which he had dismembered and stuck in a pair of suitcases.  French authorities quickly found Sagawa too insane to stand trial, and he was confined to a mental hospital.

Again, the story should have ended there but for the intervention of Sagawa’s rich father, who hired a top notch lawyer to defend his son.  Sagawa was extradited to Japan, where he was judged to be sane, but the trial couldn’t commence because France refused to release court documents for reasons that aren’t quite clear.  Issei Sagawa checked out of Matsuzawa hospital five years after his grisly crime, a free man.

As if that gross miscarriage of justice was not enough, Issei Sagawa became something of a celebrity as a result of his crime.  He published at least four novels based on his experiences, acted in more than one porn movie, has been a freelance photographer, and has written several articles for various publications.  Thirty years on, Sagawa is still free, but some minor amount of justice has come his way.  His star has faded in recent years, and several publishers have turned him down, apparently having gained a conscience at last.  He cannot find work due to his infamy, and he now lives in poverty on welfare (which so far as I understand has run out). All told, he only served five years for his gruesome crime.

For more about our weird world, check out Andrew’s blog.


Japanese Bathroom Ghosts–Yes, You Read That Right. Bathroom Ghosts.

Japan is a weird, weird place.  Anyone who is casually acquainted with Japanese pop culture knows that.  But things get even stranger when you delve into the world of their folklore and urban legends.  Japanese legend features a stable of ghosts, goblins, monsters, and various other bugaboos that puts the Pokemon roster to shame.  Among the strangest that I’ve come across are Japan’s bathroom ghosts.  So far as I can see there are six of them, and they are as follows:

Akaname

We’ll start the list with one of the strangest ghosts I’ve ever come across, not to mention among the grossest.  As Japanese ghosts go, the Akaname isn’t very threatening.  It can be found in dirty bathrooms, licking up the filth that accumulates between cleanings.  It’s said to be monstrous in appearance, with red skin and a pointed tongue, but other than giving you a good scare should you stumble across one, the Akaname is harmless.

Noppera-Bo

With the Noppera-Bo we move from the Akaname’s strangeness to outright creepiness.  The Noppera-Bo looks like a person, with one notable exception–its face is completely smooth, with the exception in some cases of of a mouth and teeth.  This ghost appears at random in restrooms, often ladies restrooms, with the sole goal of scaring the crap out of any occupants unfortunate enough to be doing business at that moment.  Other than giving you a good scare though, the Noppera-Bo is as harmless as the Akaname is, if not as disgusting and a whole lot creepier.

Hanako

The legend of Hanako reads almost like a Japanese version of Bloody Mary, minus all the eye clawing.  Japanese school children sometimes dare one another to knock on an empty stall door and say “Are you there, Hanako-son?” to which the ghost is said to reply affirmatively.  Whenever she is sighted, she’s said to wear an old-fashioned bob haircut and a red skirt.  The story goes that she was killed during a bomb raid in WWII, although how that led her to spooking around random elementary school bathrooms is beyond me.  Like the previous two entries, Hanako does little more than scare random bathroom goers.  The next few entries are not quite so benign.  Let’s ramp up the horror with…

Aka-Manto

Imagine sitting in the stall, doing your business, when a disembodied voice asks you if you want a red mantle.  Confused, thinking maybe there is a guy in the stall next to you playing a prank, you answer yes just to see what happens.  Suddenly your back erupts in pain as an invisible force peels the skin from your back.  You’ve just had an encounter with the Aka-Manto, the red mantle, a spirit described as a tall, handsome man dressed in a red cloak and wearing a red mask.  This spirit is said to be irresistible to the ladies.  As to why he hangs out in bathrooms and rips people’s skin off, I have not the slightest.  Everyone needs a hobby I suppose, even lady-killing malevolent spirits.

Reiko Kashima

This ghost is more recent than the others on the list, and in many ways her story is more tragic.  It goes that she was brutally attacked and raped (presumably in a bathroom) by a large group of men who left her for dead.  She tried to crawl away, only to fall unconcious across a set of rail tracks.  When the next train came by, it sheared her legs off.  Now she wanders Japan’s public bathrooms in search of her lost legs.  When she comes across people, she will ask them a series of questions.  If you answer wrong, she twists your legs off.  Oh and apparently just knowing about her is enough to solicit a visit from Reiko Kashima.  So, it might be a good idea to avoid public bathrooms in Japan after reading this article.  You know, just in case.

Akai-Kami-Aoi-Kami

This one reminds me of The Matrix, when Morpheus asks Neo to chose between the red pill and the blue pill.  Except with the Akai-Kami-Aoi-Kami (literally red paper, blue paper) there are no good choices.  If you answer red paper, you’ll find yourself flayed alive, while if you answer blue paper you’ll be strangled to death (thus turning the skin blue from lack of air…no one says ghosts aren’t creative).  But let’s say you’re a smart ass and you answer any other color.  The legends vary a bit on the outcome, but many say that if you answer anything but red or blue you’ll be dragged off to hell.  Some say if you answer yellow, you’ll wind up having urine dumped over your head.  Unsavory as it is, I think I’d take the latter.

 

 


Japan’s Ghosts–The Yurei

Several months ago, I did a post about Aokigahara, Japan’s suicide capital and a purportedly haunted forest.  It is widely believed that the forest is haunted by Yurei, which are essentially Japan’s version of ghosts.  These differ from the traditional Western style ghosts.  On our side of the ocean, ghosts are ephemeral things that can only interact with the physical world with great difficulty.  They knock and creak and moan, but they’re generally harmless; in fact, they’re usually little more than annoying, at least according to the lore.  Their goal is usually to attempt some sort of communication with the living, in order to fulfill some sort of unfinished business, after which they can pass on to the other side.  Some are more malevolent, intending to scare folks away from their haunts or just to generally be pains in the butt.  In general, they’re said to be tied to our world by strong emotions, often negative.

Yurei, on the other hand, are entirely different beasts. There are some similarities, of course: both are tied to the world by strong emotions, and both seek to interact with humans.  Other than that though, there are few similarities.  For one, Yurei are often depicted the same way: they’re women dressed in white with long black hair.  Yurei are predominately believed to be women, because the Japanese believe that women experience deeper, stronger emotions than men and thus are more likely to become Yurei.

The differences don’t end there, but in order to understand the Yurei fully we must understand traditional Japanese beliefs about the afterlife.  Shinto doesn’t have heaven or hell the same way the West does.  When a person dies, their soul leaves the body and enters a kind of purgatory.  When the proper funeral rites are performed, the soul can go to the ancestors and thus become a protective spirit.  However, if the proper rites are not performed, or if the person dies by suicide or murder, their soul may become a Yurei.

That isn’t too different from the Western conception of ghosts, nor the conception of ghosts the world over.  There is a prevalent belief the world over that if people are not laid to rest properly they will somehow haunt the living.  Yurei, however, are more corporeal than their Western counterparts.  They are not see through, although in their traditional depiction they are shown hovering over the ground, with only their hands and face visible.  Yurei also, possibly due to their corporeal nature, have no problem interacting with the physical world, much to their victim’s dismay.

You see, Yurei can be incredibly dangerous.  They are said to seek vengeance against those who wronged them in life, and little can be done to stop them.  The Yurei will only disappear when their desire for vengeance is sated, either by the Yurei itself or by its family members.  In some cases, the Yurei may haunt a lover until its passion is fulfilled (not sure what that means, but to me that sounds pretty ominous).  Sometimes a Shinto or Buddhist priest may be able to exorcise the Yurei, but more often than not the spirits are unstoppable until they fulfill their desires.

It should be noted that not all Yurei are malevolent.  Yurei are tied to the Earth by strong emotions, but they do not necessarily have to be negative.  Some Yurei are motherly figures, who come back to watch over their children.  Others might return to keep a business appointment or some other sort of obligation.  While they might be frightening to people who happen to bump into them, these types of Yurei are largely harmless.

The worst kind of Yurei become a curse.  Their desire for vengeance is so strong that even destroying the original object of their fury cannot sate it.  They will destroy anyone who enters their territory–Yurei are typically, but not always, bound to a specific site–and will do so until exorcised or otherwise removed, a dicey proposition at best.

American has come to know Yurei in recent years through movies.  The Grudge, The Ring, and Silent Hill all feature Yurei style ghosts.  While these depictions aren’t always accurate in terms of the traditional folklore, they’ve definitely made waves in American horror.  Like it or not, it seems the Yurei are here to stay in American horror.

Have you seen The Grudge, The Ring, or Silent Hill?  What do you think of the Yurei or ghosts in general (keep it civil, please)?

Sources:

Yurei — Wikipedia

Yurei — The Mask of Reason