The scene: It’s night; someone is alone in a dimly lit room. There’s an eerie stillness, a creeping anxiety. Then, behind them, you notice a strange shape: a hunched-over figure, lurking in a corner. It is standing deathly still. The head is obscured by what looks like tendrils of jet-black hair. A chill runs down your spine as you suddenly realize the person isn’t alone. There’s something in the room with them, something that shouldn’t be there, something anomalous, incongruous … menacing.
Scenes like this have come to define Japanese horror or “J-horror.” The genre’s ability to evoke the supernatural has made it into a worldwide cultural phenomenon, popularized by the films of Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata, and also by anime, manga and video games. However, while a great deal of attention has been given to modern J-horror, relatively little has been said about its precursors, especially the literary influences that so deeply inform its aesthetic.
One such influence is the book “Ugetsu Monogatari,” published in 1776 and authored by Ueda Akinari (1734-1809). Conventionally translated as “Tales of Moonlight and Rain,” this collection contains nine tales that all have the hallmarks of classic kaidan (“strange tales”).
Ueda published his book at a time in Japan when kaidan were an immensely popular form of entertainment. Get-togethers known as “hyakumonogatari kaidankai,” or “gathering for telling 100 strange tales,” were not uncommon, and at which such stories were read by candlelight, with one flame extinguished after each successive tale was told. But “Ugetsu” isn’t just fodder for an Edo Period (1603-1868) parlor game, it’s also a “literary” work, containing allusions to more than 100 texts, including Buddhist and Confucian writings, Japanese court poetry, noh dramas, Chinese ghost tales and Japanese classics such as “The Tale of Genji.”
Ueda’s collection is unique because it sets the standard for the Japanese horror story, with its emphasis on atmosphere, mood and a sense of the weird and grotesque. Stories such as “Asaji ga Yado” (“The Reed-Choked House”), “Jasei no In” (“A Serpent’s Lust”) and “Aozukin” (“The Blue Hood”) read like modern horror, containing vengeful spirits, demonic possession, vampirism and the living dead. In each tale, we see fragile and unsuspecting human characters encountering entities that can only be described as unhuman: ghosts, revenants, demons, goblins, shape-shifters, cannibals and lesser-known beasts of folklore and myth. These entities appear against the ongoing human drama of war, desire, madness, disease and faith. Throughout the nine tales, “Ugetsu” returns again and again to a central theme: human beings confronting not only their own mortality but the larger nonhuman world around them.
By today’s standards, Ueda’s stories are not “scary” — but perhaps they are not meant to be. Instead, what they seem to evoke is a strange sense of wonder and dread that has come to define supernatural horror. For example, in one story (in the most recent translation, by Anthony H. Chambers), a traveling monk is visiting a grave site to pay his respects, as night falls: “He continued tirelessly chanting the sutra. How damp with dew his sleeves must have grown! As the sun set, the night was menacing here, deep in the mountains. He was cold with his bed of stone and fallen leaves for nightclothes; his mind clear and body chilled to the bone, he began to sense something bleak and awful. The moon rose, but the thick woods allowed no light to penetrate. In the darkness, his heart grew weary and he began to doze, when a voice called unmistakably. “
In another tale, a young Confucian scholar is thinking of his friend, a samurai, who went on a journey and recently died: “The Milky Way shone faintly; the solitary moon cast its light on him alone; a watchdog’s bark reached him clearly from the distance; and the waves on the shore seemed to crash at his very feet. As the moon set behind the hills and its light faded from the sky, he thought it time to go inside and was about to shut the door behind him when he glimpsed a figure in the shadows, moving toward him with the wind.”
In scenes like these, Ueda describes the creepy allure that one feels just before encountering the supernatural. Instead of focusing on the ghosts or demons themselves, he emphasizes the pervasive mood that surrounds their strange and unnerving presence.
It is in this hallucinatory space that sudden reversals take place: the lover you are embracing turns out to be a decaying corpse; a warmly lit home is revealed to be a dilapidated ruin; and what seems to be a humdrum world of human concerns turns out to be the mere play-thing of malefic deities. In “Ugetsu,” the supernatural is always atmospheric, something palpably felt yet difficult to define.
However, it would be a mistake to simply label Ueda’s stories as “supernatural.” In the Western context, the supernatural tale often presumes a strict boundary between reality and unreality, a boundary that can be transgressed, but only in rare circumstances. By contrast, the stories in “Ugetsu” move effortlessly between the natural and supernatural, giving the sense of a porous membrane between reality and fantasy, or between the normal and the anomalous; the supernatural pervades landscapes, homes, human lives — and even bodies.
What makes “Ugetsu” so compelling today is the way that it describes human beings coming up against a world that is at once palpable and mysterious, a world filled with entities (and nonentities) that lie just beyond the horizon of our comprehension. As Ueda writes in one story, “It can be said that an inability to express even a fragment of one’s thoughts is more moving than the feelings of one skilled with words.”
Perhaps this is why “Ugetsu” has been such an influence on J-horror. Though the genre today is filled with all the debris of 21st-century culture — photos, videos, computers, phones and crowded cities — it still depicts human beings embedded in a strange world. It’s one that not only surrounds us but, in many ways, engulfs us, too.
This is the first installment of a three-part series on the literary origins of Japanese horror. The second part of this series will run on Dec. 3. Eugene Thacker is the author of “In The Dust Of This Planet” (Zero Books, 2011) and “Cosmic Pessimism” (Univocal, 2015).