Sunday, August 25, 2013

YUREI ATTACK! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt

Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide is one of a series of books by husband-and-wife team of Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt on Japanese pop culture; notably, there's also Ninja Attack! and Yokai Attack! One senses a theme. I first learned of it when I heard Yoda & Alt interviewed on the podcast "Monster Talk" and hope to get the other two eventually. Being a bit of a ghost person, I want for this one first.

The book opens with a general introduction to yurei, or ghosts of Japan, as opposed to yokai, or monsters. There's an extensive literary, folkloric, and artistic heritage of the uncanny in Japan, and it's really clear that it's the book's purpose to open that up to western viewers whose familiarity may not run much past Ringu and Ju-On and other J-horror films.

There are themed sections to the book. In "Sexy & Scary" there's a series of seductive female phantoms, including some from The Tale of Genji and my beloved Ugetsu Monogatari. These ladies range from the pathetic, like Okiku, the plate-counting phantom, to the infamous Oiwa, the template for Japanese female ghosts.

Oiwa emerging from a lantern.

Up next is "Furious Phantoms," with specters motivated by rage and revenge. Included in this section are Taira No Masakado, a historical figure whose shrine occupies valuable Tokyo real estate but is still honored and feared today. Another is a fictionalized ghost story based on real-life kabuki actor Kohada Koheiji, who died in the 1700s.

Koheiji, in a famous print by Hokusai.
 "Sad Spectres" includes Miyagi, from Ugetsu Monogatari, and who was incorporated into the 1953 film Ugetsu. Another interesting one was Ame-Kai Yurei, or the candy-buying ghost. In this tale, a sad-faced woman shows up at a stand for several nights in a row to purchase a small piece of candy, of the sort normally given to a baby. The shopkeeper eventually follows her when she leaves, to a cemetery, where she vanishes over a recent grave. Digging it up, the shopkeeper and his friends find a mother and child together; either the woman died while pregnant but managed to give birth in the coffin, or they were both ill and while the mother had died the baby had been mistaken for dead and buried with her. And in it were the remains of the candy, along with the living child; obviously she had been sustaining the baby's life with the candy. I recount all this because long ago I read a story that had been told in the North Carolina mountains that was almost identical, except it was a general store being visited by the ghost and she was buying bottles of milk. Hard to know which came first, but it's yet another example of how uncanny folktales from different cultures can be so similar.

The Okiku Doll, another haunted possession in Japanese lore.

"Haunted Places" is a fun chapter because so many of the stories are from historical sources, some not all that long ago. Tabaruzaka, a hill near Kumamoto, has a haunting from a real battle of the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877. Mount Hakkoda is haunted by soldiers who died there during a disastrous training exercise in 1902; they were trapped, unprepared, during a "normal" cold-weather survival mission, that went hideously awry when a history-making blizzard hit the area, with record low temperatures, and out of 210 soldiers, only 11 survived, some as multiple amputees. There's also Japan's famous Suicide Forest (where a staggeringly high number of people go to off themselves), Jomon Tunnel (haunted by those who died during the construction in 1914), and Oiran Buchi (a waterfall where 55 courtesans committed suicide in the 1570s).
The Hakkoda mountains, now a ski resort.
"Dangerous Games" looks into various spooky pastimes, including a form of ouija board, a popular curse, and the hyaku monogatari, a sort of seance game where you and your friends light 100 candles, then sit around at night telling scary stories, and blowing out a candle after each story. When you blow out the last one...well, something scary is supposed to happen, but the stories are very vague as to exactly what. It's supposed to be done in summer, which is the spooky season in Japan. (In the West we tend to associate ghosts with autumn, thanks to Halloween, I guess, and also with winter, because of the long nights. Remember A Christmas Carol?)

Chapter Six, "Close Encounters," has three tales of famous meetings with ghosts, including the famous "Hoichi the Earless" which was recounted in Lafcadio Hearn's Kwaidan and dramatized in the famous film of the same name. There's a tale each about Yuten Shonin, a famous real-life exorcist, and Ono No Takamura, a poet and scholar who is supposed to have visited Hell. The appendices include a selection of ghost-related toys and merchandise, and suggestions for further reading.

Yurei Attack! is fun, spooky reading; Yoda and Alt do a very good job of making this part of Japanese pop culture accessible to Westerners. It's got a ton of illustrations, with a lot of classic Japanese ghost art from great artists, and modern manga drawings from Shinkichi.

This is great stuff, folks. Look it up, find it, and read it. It's available as a physical book and I think also for the Kindle.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind words! Glad you enjoyed it... as a fellow former Takoma Park-er! ;)


Vagrarian said...

You're most welcome; it was a joy to read. And I'm thrilled at the serendipity of our local connection, although soon I'll be a former Takoma Parker myself...