This week on Deep Dive Shaun McKenna and Dave Cortez discuss a few horror movies before “Uncanny Japan” podcast host Thersa Matsuura tells a classic Japanese ghost story.

Hosted by Shaun McKenna and produced by Dave Cortez.

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Shaun McKenna: Articles | X | Instagram

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Shaun McKenna 00:09

Welcome to Deep Dive from The Japan Times. I'm Shaun McKenna. It's spooky season, and while we're still off on a short break, we thought we would tide you over with a rebroadcast of an episode from October of 2020, featuring Thersa Matsuura, who hosts the “Uncanny Japan” podcast. Now, we may be a little early for Halloween but Thersa's library of ghost stories and supernatural folk tales is so plentiful that we thought we'd go ahead and introduce you to her podcast sooner rather than later so you can spook up sufficiently over the next two weeks. And hey, from the time of recording tomorrow is Friday the 13th, so, that kind of works. Before we get into the conversation between Thersa and former Deep Dive host Oscar Boyd, however, producer Dave Cortez is going to join me to discuss a few Halloween-themed stories we found from The Japan Times archives that we think are definite must reads leading up to the big night on Oct. 31.

Dave Cortez, welcome back to the mic. We don't get to hear from you much but it's good to have you.

Dave Cortez 01:16

Hey Shaun, it's nice to be on this side of the mic again.

Shaun McKenna 01:18

So are you a Halloween guy?

Dave Cortez 01:20

You know, I like to get spooked out sometimes, but I was never really in the whole dressing up thing. What about you?

Shaun McKenna 01:25

OK, no, it's my favorite holiday of the year.

Dave Cortez 01:27

Yeah, I don’t even know why I asked.

Shaun McKenna 01:29

I've gone as Sherlock Holmes, I've got as the guy from “Clockwork Orange.” When I was a kid, I went as a three-headed clown, yeah, I really like it.

Dave Cortez 01:37

You know, it's weird, I remember doing a cowboy for like four years in a row, that's how creative I was.

Shaun McKenna 01:43

Yeah, you stick with what works. But I think that, you know, other than the night itself, I actually really like the build up to Halloween. I think you only get that with one other holiday and that's Christmas, really. You know, like, you start to feel Christmas maybe a month before it actually happens. I think Halloween is the same, at least in North America, you know, like the leaves are turning color, it's getting a little bit colder, pumpkins start appearing, there's like Halloween parties. And then on TV, you get special episodes of all the TV shows, like “The Simpsons” does the “Treehouse of Horror” specials every year. I think they're on their 32nd or 34th edition of it now?

Dave Cortez 02:26

Yeah, I totally agree. like the build-up concept definitely is something you feel in October, and television and horror movie marathons are what it's all about, right?

Shaun McKenna 02:34

Totally, totally. Actually, that leads to an obvious question. See if you get this reference too, do you like scary movies?

Dave Cortez 2:42

And I don't get the reference ... where’s it from? Where’s it from?

Shaun McKenna 02:57

It’s from “Scream.”

Dave Cortez 02:58

OK, so yeah, as you can tell, that probably betrays the answer I'm about to give you. So yeah, I did say I like to get spooked out. So for sure, from time to time I seek out horror movies. But I'm not really into the pulpy stuff, you know, “Children of the Corn” or “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” you know, but for some reason, pagan cult movies creep me out. Like there was a Netflix Original called “The Ritual,” and I like, couldn't sleep. So yeah, I mean, it's definitely something that's in my media diet, but I wouldn't say I'm a horror buff. Which, Shaun, you kind of are!

Shaun McKenna 03:27

Yeah, I kind of am, yeah, it's weird. I actually don't like gore. But I do like horror movies. And I do like the fact that horror movies kind of say a lot about the state of the world. So often you can watch a horror movie and you know exactly the era you're in. And it kind of shows you signs of like, what it's like to live in that era. Right? But yeah, it's it's I really like horror movies. For that reason. I like actually studied them in university, too, so. But one question for you. Have you seen many Japanese horror movies?

Dave Cortez 03:59

Yes, so I'll be honest, I haven't seen many. I know I saw “The Ring” one time many years ago, and I cannot tell you the plot other than girl with creepy hair and some kind of videotape, right? Yeah.

Shaun McKenna 04:11

Well, if you're looking to get into Japanese horror, then I want to recommend some articles that our film critic Mark Schilling has written up. The first place to start something that he wrote for us in 2018 was titled, “The ghosts that had been haunting cinema-goers in Japan for over a century.” And this is a real deep dive into the history of horror films in Japan. He starts off by kind of, you know, like, name-checking the popular stuff, this would be the J-horror boom that happened in Japan between like 1998 and maybe like 2002, but it actually happens a little bit later overseas because all those films were being remade. But yeah, he points out that this is just like a blip in the whole, you know, like lineage of horror movies in Japan. So a lot of this stuff is based on kaidan, which is ghost stories in Japanese. They often deal with a vengeful female ghost. Something that tells you about society. But I got a question for you. When do you think the first Japanese horror film came out?

Dave Cortez 05:13

Oh gosh, when I think black and white, I think the ’30s ... 1933?

Shaun McKenna 05:18

So this is incredible, like this is almost unbelievable. Mark did his research, he found a film called “Shinin no Sosei,” which is translated as “Resurrection of a Corpse,” and then there's another film called “Bake Jizo,” which is translated as “Jizo the Spook,” both from 1898.

Dave Cortez 05:37

Whoa, are they silent films then?

Shaun McKenna 05:41

Yeah, the early days of cinema — jump scares were a lot different back then. Then the other film that he mentioned is actually called “Botan Doro,” “The Tale of the Peony Lantern,” and that comes from 1910. It's about a young man who falls in love with the beautiful Otsuyu, who is later revealed to be a ghost and despite dire warnings, this is what Mark's written, “he soon joins her on the other side.” So Otsuyu is one of three female ghosts that are kind of referred to as sandai yūrei, which translates as “the big three ghosts.” The others are Okiku and then you have Oiwa. Okiku, is like a servant girl who ends up at the bottom of a well after a dish goes missing and then she kind of haunts the place where she lived, the castle where she lived. Oiwa is a loyal wife who is betrayed and poisoned and finally killed by her cheating samurai husband. And these are the kind of inspirations for people like Sadako in “The Ring.” These kinds of like when you think of Japanese horror you think of, you know the woman with the hair in front of her face and kind of like creepy and pale

Dave Cortez 06:53

Kind of like a hell hath no fury, kind of revenge.

Shaun McKenna 06:56

Yeah, yeah. But yeah, this article by Mark just goes deep into the history. I won't read all of it here, but it's definitely worth a read kind of in the run up to Halloween.

Dave Cortez 07:07

Well, that definitely sounds like a good read. I also have brought another Mark Schilling hit about horror films, which is from 2020, titled, “10 days of J-horror: from funny frights to shock and gore.”

Shaun McKenna 07:20

OK, I remember this one.

Dave Cortez 07:23

Yeah, it's kind of an interesting invitation that Mark gives to the reader to take a 10-day challenge to watch one horror flick a night that progressively gets scarier and scarier from Oct. 22 all the way up until Halloween. So I'm just gonna go through this with you so you can kind of see how we kind of build up to it. So day one starts with a movie called “One Cut of the Dead,” which is actually a zombie comedy. So kind of fitting, nice light beginning.

Shaun McKenna 08:01

Yeah, so this is actually a film by Shinichiro Ueda. And I remember when this came out, it was like a big hit at festivals when it came out. I think it was a real surprise that it was so popular. I tried watching it on Netflix, but I couldn't get the subtitles for it, because I'm watching Japanese Netflix. But if you can find it, I think it's definitely worth a watch.

Dave Cortez 08:22

Well, that's a bummer. So hopefully don't use Netflix if you're trying to do this 10-day Challenge. But moving on, day two is a 1964 film called “Kwaidan,” which is based on stories by Lafcadio Hearn, so for all of you Japanese Studies majors out there, you should definitely check that one out. Now day three, it's a film called “The Ghost Story of Yotsuya” from 1954, day four is a film called “Onibaba” in 1964, which actually I think I have seen in a college film class? I remember it being kind of famous for being in sort of a small setting and creepy for that reason. Day five though, is where we get the popular names.

Shaun McKenna 09:02

The hits.

Dave Cortez 09:03

The hits. Day five is “The Ring,” day six is “The Grudge” — “Ju-on” in Japanese — and day seven is “Dark Water.”

Shaun McKenna 09:27

OK, “Dark Water” is interesting. I actually saw the American remake of that, it starred Jennifer Connelly. It was a good movie. It was kind of, like, creepy, and I remember it being somewhat sad, as a lot of ghost stories are, they often, ghost stories often deal with kind of like regret. So yeah, that's actually a really good recommendation, I think.

Dave Cortez 09:48

OK, well, Shaun has made it up to day seven knowing that he likes dark water but I don't think Shaun can make it past day seven.

Shaun McKenna 09:55

No, I do not like gore. And I'm kind of feeling that we switch into gore from here.

Dave Cortez 10:00

For sure, Mark definitely leans into the door on day eight, nine and 10. This is where it gets squeamish for sure. So day eight is a film called “Pulse,” and so Mark writes “think social media with mine rotting death dealing memes as the ghosts invade the world of the living in the horrific alternative universe.”

Shaun McKenna 10:17

Can I haz murder?

Dave Cortez 10:20

Exactly. Now day nine is definitely where I tap out. It's a well-known film if you're a horror buff called “Audition,” 1999. Tell us why you’re tapping out, Shaun.

Shaun McKenna 10:30

Every time, you know, I see, if you put Japanese horror into Google and you get an image search, “Audition” always comes up with, like, a syringe way too close to someone's face. And it's just like the needles. Yeah, that's nope. I’m out.

Dave Cortez 10:43

That's a nope for me, too. So finally we come up to Halloween, day 10, and Mark suggests a film called “Tetsuo the Iron Man” from 1989, which is kind of a black-and-white, steampunky gore bonanza, which Mark calls “a frontal assault on genre conventions and sanity itself.”

Shaun McKenna 11:02

Wow, that sounds a lot like drinking in Shibuya, actually.

Dave Cortez 11:06

Which you might also do on Halloween?

Shaun McKenna 11:08

Which you shouldn't do. You should not do, not this year.

Dave Cortez 11:12

So yeah, take the 10-day challenge and see how far you guys get.

Shaun McKenna 11:16

Yeah, I think it is a really good idea. It's really cool to kind of be able to discover, you know, what makes another culture afraid. So we will be back after a quick break and we will have Oscar Boyd speaking to Theresa Matsuura of “Uncanny Japan,” stick around.

Oscar Boyd 11:43

Thersa Matsuura, welcome to the podcast.

Thersa Matsuura 11:45

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.

Oscar Boyd 11:47

So Japan has a long history of ghost tales, and they've fascinated many writers who've lived in visited Japan. Japanese ghost tales were one of the favorite subjects of writers such as Lafcadio Hearn, he introduced many of Japan's ghost tales in translation in his book “Kwadan” in 1904. More recently, Anthony Bourdain put out a Japanese ghost-themed recipe book in 2018. And many of your own stories and podcasts are influenced by Japanese horror stories. So what is it about the Japanese supernatural and ghost tales that first attracted you to them?

Thersa Matsuura 12:23

So, when I first came to Japan was back in 1990. So this is like pre internet. I came, I studied for a couple years, decided to stick around, got married, moved to this smallish town. And I was thrown into life with my mother in law, who was very superstitious, and also actually the town where I live is Lafcadio Hearn’s, he used to spend a lot of time here. And so it's always kind of buzzing around me. I've got this theory that in the West, we kind of have this line that separates the other world that, you know, after we die, and then this world where we're alive. But in Japan, it kind of, there's not really a line, like my mother in law would talk about spirits, or, “oh, I have a clingy spirit on my back today.” And it was just very mind blowing. So again, no internet. So I’d go to the library, and I just study this stuff like, “What is she talking about? What does all this mean?” And from there it was, “I've got to introduce this to other people, because it's so wonderful and strange.”

Oscar Boyd 13:29

What did your mother know mean when she said you're sticky or that she's got a clingy ghosts stuck to her back or whatever? What was she talking about?

Thersa Matsuura 13:37

What is she talking about? Exactly? That's what I thought. So she taught me that some people are more sticky than other people. I'm a very sticky person. Evidently, she's not so much. There's ghosts everywhere. There's spirits, and there's good ones and there's bad ones, and sticky people will go places and they'll get these ghosts on them. They'll bring illness or you’ll have nightmares, or something will happen because of that. So she was convinced that I had all these ghosts on me. And at one point, she actually...

Oscar Boyd 14:11

Was that news to you? At the time?

Thersa Matsuura 14:16

At the time I thought, “Oh, that's cool. I'm like, I'm special. I have ghosts.” But then the more she talked about it, the more it wasn't a good thing. You have to get rid of those things. She's very superstitious. So if anything bad would happen, it would be me, right? It's like, “Oh, it's because Terry's sticky that Grandpa got sick,” or something, and I was like “Oh, wait a minute. That's not fair.” And also I was so alone at the time, I had to deal with this, and that’s why I do the research. And I kind of had to write the stories just to get it out. So, even in my neighborhood at the time, we had all these elderly people living around and they all had their stories and I read a lot of stories about them to kind of, what's it called, exorcize these these bad feelings, not bad feelings, but you make sense of things, I guess.

Oscar Boyd 15:02

So it's a pretty tough induction to the world of Japanese ghost stories by the sounds of it.

Thersa Matsuura 15:06

It's gotten better.

Oscar Boyd 15:08

I'm glad to hear it. So Japan has a long history of ghost stories in literature and in folklore. But is there any real indication of when ghost stories that are being told in Japan?

Thersa Matsuura 15:19

To me ghosts, and any culture, it’s just kind of like from the beginning of time, like when we started telling stories like that just was a natural ... especially in Japan. The more I read about old Japan, and the andon, the oil lamps they had, and they have these paper doors and and shadows, and just how dark everything was. Like the paper doors, the shoji paper door, they get holes in them that just happens naturally, someone throws something, there's a hole in it, and it's torn, and then at night, you have the shadows, and then there's actually a ghost and their eyes, and they look through the holes at night. And I just thought it'd be so easy to imagine, right? You know, it's dark, you know, it's cold, you're alone, you got these little flickering lamps, and you look over, and maybe somebody did look in or whatever, but they have all these... I think it was just a way, I think, to make sense of the world around them, like things were happening and they couldn't explain them. So it would be a ghost. Oh, your leg hurts? There you go. It's a ghost. You know, you have to explain something some way? At least. I think so.

Oscar Boyd 16:22

According to the mythology, then, how do ghosts in Japan actually come into being? Is it the same concept of a trapped soul that never quite leaves Earth for whatever reason?

Thersa Matsuura 16:35

Yeah, it feels the same that way. A person passes on and for some reason or another, they don't make it to the other side. The funeral services here are very ritualistic, there's a lot of things that need to be done before the funeral, during the funeral, after the funeral — days after, months after, a year after — you have to keep doing these things. You have butsudan altars in the house, and again, you do offerings, usually every day, especially on special occasions, like Obon, or New Years. So yeah, there's a presence there, someone passes away, their soul doesn't go, you have to kind of keep them on the other side. If there is some kind of anger or jealousy or wrathfulness or something, then the soul will stay on this side, and like hang out and either get its vengeance or find someone to stick to or some are supposed to just stick to spots and they'll just be there forever and ever until they realize they're dead.

Oscar Boyd 17:29

So is this all rooted in Buddhist tradition and Buddhism then?

Thersa Matsuura 17:32

Buddhism, but also before Buddhism got here, because Buddhism came in from China later. There's a lot of overlap, but there’s Buddhism, there is also the Shintoism, and they also have their thing with spirits. Everything has a spirit, so Shintoism is, you know, animistic — everything, rocks, trees, rivers, of course people, animals, we all have souls. And the same thing you know, they do rituals to appease the soul. So it's kind of a whole mix together. Japan has such a long history, it's lovely how that happens. It's just this big potpourri of traditions and thoughts and beliefs that come out.

Oscar Boyd 18:13

The kind of generic word for ghost in Japanese is yūrei​, which translates to dim spirit or faint spirit, but there are actually many different types of ghost Japanese stories right such as shugorei, hyōrei, onryō​, so what are the differences between these types of ghosts?

Thersa Matsuura 18:31

Yes, so shugorei would be like a protecting, like a guardian spirit spirit. So there's the good ghost, there's there's animal ghosts. There's ghosts that are connected to certain places, local tail. Near my house, there's a mountain pass, a girl was crossing, I guess a young lady was crossing the road in the middle of the night, got hit by a car. Her spirit kept coming back, evidently, there was always flowers out there. Finally, her parents spent just a crap ton of money, they built this bridge over it, there's nothing there. It's like there's absolutely no reason for the rear bridge. But they built this overpass. And to this day, you know, you go at a certain hour and you can see her walking across the bridge and stuff. So these ghosts, jibakurei, they actually stay to the place so it'll be a waterfall, whatever, a tunnel. And then there's the onryō​, which are vengeful, and they died angry, and in a horrible way. They come back to get their revenge. And they're cool because it always seems like ghosts really can't do much, they just kind of spook you and they move by, but these actually have the power to in some way cause a death. There is Oiwa, there is Okiku of the nine plates. There's three big ones in Japan (onryō​). They're all kind of onryō​, vengeful spirits that come back and exact their revenge.

Oscar Boyd 19:59

And it’s these stories of onryō​, these vengeful spirits, that have influenced a lot of Japanese horror films in characters like Sadako from “The Ring” and Kayako in “The Grudge,” and these stories, stories like “The Ring” and “The Grudge” designed to scare the living shit out of you. But of the older ghost stories you've translated and studied, do they tend to be purely designed to scare or is there a more moral element to them? Kind of horror parables?

Thersa Matsuura 20:28

I think both. But there does seem to be a lot of moralistic tales. Probably one of the first ones I heard about, or saw on TV, at least that old movie, was “Yotsuya Kaidan,” Oiwa. She's this woman and the poor thing, you know, she's been betrayed, she's been cheated on, she's poisoned, she's dies and of course she comes back and gets revenge. But absolutely a moral tail. This this man is just horrible to her and the people around him who were horrible to her get there's in the end. So there's quite a few like that. Even “The Ring,” right? A newer tail but it's kind of based on that old, “this poor woman was thrown down a well and look what she did.”

Oscar Boyd 21:18

Yeah, quite the mess. Do you have a favorite ghost story then?

Thersa Matsuura 21:24

Maybe it would be Oiwa? Just because the more I've studied her, there's a noh version, there’s a kabuki version, dozens of movies about “Yotsuya Kaidan.” And they're all a little bit different. But the initial, the bones of the story are so good that you can change things and it still holds up. It's still really scary. And even to this day, she's at two shrines in Tokyo and I went to both of them and a lot of actors go there and give offerings. So you go there and there's all these flowers and sake and all this stuff to her. But even then, it says if you go there with a flippin heart, like just kind of out of fun, that you're going to be cursed. Right? So even today, it's like “OK, I'm gonna bring an offer. And I'm not going. As a casual bystander.” I'm really kind of fascinated with that. But I like that even though that story is so old. And it was probably based on a real person, is what they say, it's changed through time, it's hasn't been any weaker. And even today, it's kind of you still just don’t talk about her, because yeah, she doesn't like it and she'll come back and come after you.

Oscar Boyd 22:38

It sounds like there's a real continued tradition of believing in ghosts and other superstitions in Japan. It's not something that's completely faded away as people have moved to the cities and away from the countryside.

Thersa Matsuura 22:50

I really think so. Even though I haven't had TV in several years now, I just remember all the TV shows at night, people going on saying, “I took this picture and there's something in it,” our video. A lot of people just love that stuff, and there's always new ones coming out — urban myths kind of based on ghostly things. There's still those that are being thought up. Before when I used to teach, there were these teenage girls that go, “There's this new thing that pops up on your computer and this ghost is going to come,” and I’m like, “That's brilliant.” Or hitori kakurenbo it's a kind of a ritual that you do when you're alone at that house with a bear but it's terrifying these kids thought it up and they do it I'm like, “Those nii-chan,” or whatever. And they do it live so it's over the internet but it's so spooky because you can't see somebody or they have their camera and it's in a dark room you go, “Wait, I see something,” so it's kind of funny how it's just evolved, but it's still, they’re just a scary these stories in these tales and how wonderful how good these kids are at making them up and making them pretty good stories. Still around for sure. So stick around for sure

Oscar Boyd 23:59

There's a semihaunted expression and you eyes.

Thersa Matsuura 24:01

The first time the first time I read the one about the bears, like playing hiding hide and seek by yourself, I was reading it at night and I was just going through the chat and “oh this happened, this happened” and then you know you're supposed to bring something and the ghost is supposed to come find you or something and all these kids are doing it and they're talking and reading and one says, “Oh my god, I forgot the sake.” You’re supposed to have some sake and spit it out of your mouth but this one person has forgotten the sake, and everyone is worried about this one girl in the closet and one says, “I hear something!” And these she’s gone, she’s off the chat and you’re like, “What happened to this girl?” OK, they're playing a game but, that’s brilliant that is such a good story. And it still haunts me to this day. Maybe she got eaten? And yeah, ghosts still work today.

Oscar Boyd 25:00

For the second half of this episode, we're going to feature a story by Thersa Metsuura. Her retelling of one of the most popular of Japan's ghost stories, “Okiku and the Nine Plates.” This story is said to have taken place at Himeji Castle in Hyogo Prefecture, one of Japan's most famous tourist landmarks, a UNESCO heritage site, and where you can still see Okiku’s well. This story also inspired the classic Japanese horror film “Ringu” remade as “The Ring” in 2002. I'll be back at the end of the story, but for now tuck up tight, turn off the lights and enjoy Thersa’s story.

Shaun McKenna 40:39

That was Thersa Matsuura, reading the story of “Okiku and the Nine Plates,” which was first told to us back in October 2020. Check out more of Thersa's ghost stories, urban legends and other quirky tales about Japanese folklore on her uncanny Japan podcast and that If you'd like your stories a bit more sci-fi, she also hosts the uncanny robot podcast with Rich Pav. The site also has a pre-order link to her “Book of Japanese Folklore,” which is set to come out next year.

Dave Cortez 41:07

Dude. Thersa is an empire.

Shaun McKenna 41:11

We'll be back next week with our own new episodes of Deep Dive from The Japan Times. And until then, thanks very much to producer Dave Cortez for joining me at the top of the episode.

Dave Cortez 41:18

My pleasure, Shaun, thanks for having me.

Shaun McKenna 41:21

And thanks to Oscar Boyd and LLLL for providing the music and until next time, I'm Shaun McKenna. Dave, do you want to do the honors?

Dave Cortez 41:28