Books / Reviews

Spooky tales from beyond the grave

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Ghost stories are universal, but Japanese ghost stories, argues Zack Davisson in “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost,” are unique. So much so that Davisson, a translator and essayist who is something of a specialist in the supernatural, uses yūrei, the Japanese word for spook, throughout the text. He also makes big claims for them, saying that “almost all of Japan’s most talented writers have turned their considerable talents to yūrei at some point in their careers.” Define “most” and “talented.”

Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, by Zack Davisson.
Chin Music Press, Nonfiction.

But Davisson largely succeeds in his main aim: retelling some of Japan’s most famous ghost stories in lively modern prose while putting them into their cultural, social and religious context. If you are looking for a concise description of traditional Japanese funerary rites, you’ve come to the right place.

Davisson also gives a concise history of the Japanese ghost (pardon me, “yūrei”) in all its fictional and nonfictional guises, from ancient legends and Kabuki plays to the sort of urban (and rural) legends that have been a fruitful source for contemporary Japanese horror films, now known throughout the world as J-horror.

The stories mostly center on women who become vengeful, restless or protective spirits after their untimely deaths. The first type, however, is by far the most common in the popular culture, including the unforgiving ghost-in-the-well Sadako of the “Ring” films, which launched the J-horror boom in the late 1990s.

Her classical prototype, as “Ring” series director Hideo Nakata readily acknowledged, was the unfortunate Oiwa. Unknown to this fatally trusting heroine, her samurai social-climber husband schemed to dump her so he could marry into a wealthy family. With the aid of a hired assassin, he had her poisoned and dumped her body in a river. Satisfyingly and thrillingly for the audience, her angry ghost returns to harry him to a miserable and well-deserved doom.

Oiwa’s story, which first appeared in Tsuruya Nanboku IV’s hit 1825 Kabuki play “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan (Ghost Story of Yotsuya),” which has been filmed and refilmed. The best-known version is Nobuo Nakagawa’s 1959 film of the same name, shot in spectral shades of red and green with Katsuko Wakasugi delivering an indelible performance as Oiwa, her eyes alight with shock and horror as her poisoned face blackens and dissolves in the mirror. The most recent version is Takashi Miike’s 2014 “Kuime (Over Your Dead Body),” which focuses on a theater company putting on a new version of Oiwa’s tale, while the play’s theme of love turned to hate is reflected in the cast’s own lives.

Another classic tale retold entertainingly by Davisson is that of Okiku, the maid who ends up down a well after one of her master’s 10 treasured Delftware plates is broken and she is blamed. From the bottom of the well her ghostly voice can be heard counting the plates until she reaches the last, missing one, when her piercing lamentations end the nightly ritual — and freeze the blood of whoever happens to be listening.

The book meticulously traces the story’s evolution from its murky origins in local folktales to its various adaptations for the bunraku and Kabuki stage, as well as its appearances in kaidan (ghost story) collections and films. The most common location for Okiku’s sad tale is Himeji Castle, though as Davisson notes, the story dates to at least 100 years before the castle’s current form was built, in around 1600.

Stranger is “Botan Doro,” a story first published in Ryoi Asai’s 1666 kaidan collection. Inspired by Chinese Buddhist morality tales, Asai, a Buddhist priest himself, stripped out all their religious and moral elements, while rewriting them to erotically titillate his Japanese readers.

In one of several versions of “Botan Doro,” a widowed samurai, Ogiwara Shinnojo, becomes infatuated with the beautiful Otsuyu, whom he first encounters at dusk walking with a maid carrying a lantern decorated with a botan (peony) design. They become passionate lovers, with Otsuyu always arriving at dusk and leaving before dawn. But when a nosy neighbor discovers that Ogiwara’s inamorata is really the rotting remains of a corpse and warns Ogiwara about his mortal danger, he engages a Buddhist priest to drive her away. The priest succeeds, but the heartbroken Otsuyu can’t let go of her love and eventually she and Ogiwara reunite — in the grave.

Like the stories of Oiwa and Okiku, “Botan Doro” has been adapted several times for the screen, including a 1990 version by Itsumichi Isomura set in contemporary urban Japan, with the Ogiwara character transformed into a rock band manager, though his mysterious lover is a still a ghost.

For all its value as light, if enlightening, reading, “Yurei” is sloppily edited, with entire sections being repeated word for word. There is also a scattering of errors, such as saying that “Japanese studios coped with (the) crisis” caused by rise of television in the 1960s by making so-called “roman porno” — softcore adult films made with conventional studio resources. There was in fact only one “roman porno” studio, Nikkatsu, which came up with both the name and the subgenre.

But when reading the book by the night light, with the shadows creeping and the wind whistling, none of these quibbles matter. The pages of “Yurei” seem to turn themselves — whether with the assistance of a ghostly hand, I’d really rather not know.