Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan


Special To The Japan Times

In the the late 19th and early 20th century, when Japan’s modernization was well underway, Japanese readers acquired a taste for a certain kind of monster: the twisted almost-human, bearing a grudge and wreaking havoc on the unsuspecting and upright citizens around them. Critics have long seen a connection here, and in “Monstrous Humans” Miri Nakamura, associate professor of East Asian Studies at Wesleyan University, offers a new take on this idea, arguing that these “modern monsters” were not throwbacks to Japan’s premodern past but rather distorted reflections of the newly imported ideals of modernity itself.

Monstrous Bodies: The Rise of the Uncanny in Modern Japan, by Miri Nakamura
192 pages
Harvard University Press, Nonfiction.

Thus, Izumi Kyoka’s “The Holy Man of Mount Koya” is reinterpreted as an allegory for contemporary attempts to reconstruct the Japanese body (and body politic) using modern medical science. The story’s mysterious female antagonist, Nakamura argues, is a “modern other, not some remnant of a premodern or ahistorical world.” Similarly, Yumeno Kyusaku’s “Dogura Magura” is placed in the context of early Japanese psychology and cinema, with Nakamura finding a surprising point of connection between the two.

Some of Nakamura’s arguments are less impressive: Nakamura’s notion of the “colonial double,” for example, feels superfluous, and the chapter on robots feels underdeveloped. But when the focus stays tight, the book offers thought-provoking new perspectives on a key moment in Japanese literary history.