Tuesday, October 23, 2012


J-horror was everywhere for a while, and is still an influence, so it's good to look back on some of the sources of it.

Ugetsu Monogatari (translated as Tales of Moonlight and Rain) was first published in a woodblock print in 1776, although it appears to have been complete in 1768 and in the works since 1770. The actual cause of the eight-year gap is unknown and still debated today. It depicts both the yokai (monsters and demons) and yurei (ghosts) of Japanese lore, and is a great read, although some stories aren't all that great.

First up is "Homecoming," in which a man goes on a long trip hoping to make a profit from a business deal, but is kept away from his wife for several years by a war. He eventually makes it home, spends a cozy night with the wife, and wakens alone in a dilapidated ruin. Turns out she's dead, and was waiting for a final reunion. "Bewitched" concerns young Toyo-o who encounters a lovely woman and proceeds to romance her, eventually discovering she's a malicious cobra spirit who will not leave him alone. Almost a case of supernatural stalking.

"Exiled" concerns itself with the conversation between a holy man and the spirit of a former emperor, who has now become a demonlike spirit. "Birdcall" is about a father and son who visit a mountaintop shrine who encounter an army of spirits. "Prophesy" is the most vicious of the tales; a faithless husband is stalked by the insane spirit of his abandoned wife, who won't rest until he pays for his sins against her.

"Reunion" is a tale of loyalty between friends, with one friend making a spectral appearance and the other seeking to right a wrong. "Daydream" is a sort of morality tale in which a holy man has an out-of-body experience and inhabits the body of a fish. "Demon" is interesting, the tale of a priest whose passion for a young acolyte drives him to madness and cannibalism, transforming him into a monster (a sort of gay wendigo), and who is finally redeemed because of a holy man. "Wealth" is a bit of a clinker, an extended conversation between a miser and the spirit of Wealth.

The version I read, borrowed from a local library, is a 1972 edition from Columbia University Press, and contains some of the original woodblock illustrations which lends an air of authenticity to it all. The stories are all based on real Japanese folklore and reference historic events, so you may end up running to do some research as you read. And two of the stories were used to make the 1953 film Ugetsu, now regarded as a masterpiece of Japanese cinema. (It also uses a story by Guy de Maupassant.)

Hunt this down; there are versions in print and it's worth reading for horror fans and those fascinated by Asian culture.

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