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July 3, 2008

Book Review: "Yokai Attack!" by Yoda & Alt

My first encounter with Japanese terror in the form of a yokai monster came in the early eighties, when I studied in Kyoto. It was a double punch as I more or less simultaneously discovered the manga of Mizuki Shigeru, and the Kwaidan tales of Lafcadio Hearn. Mizuki Shigeru (born in the Tottori town of Sakaiminato, where the streets have since been decorated with bronze statues of his yokai) started writing his famous Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro in 1966. The stories tell about a boy, Kitaro, who is the last offspring of a tribe of yokai. He is helped by an eye on legs, which - of all things - happens to be his own dead father's eye, still watching over him. Kitaro is an ugly-looking but good-natured yokai, who helps humans fight the real baddies in the various stories - these include many of the famous, classical yokai, for example the Child-Crying Old Man.

Lafcadio Hearn wrote numerous ghost stories based on Japanese tales he heard from his Japanese wife or had translated by his pupils. The most famous collection is called Kwaidan. I read all Hearn's books (now partly available on Gutenberg) when I was in Kyoto - they had just been reprinted by Tuttle and were available in the Maruzen store on Kawaramachidori (now, alas, gone..). I enjoyed those stores in the heart of summer, in August, which in Japan is traditionally a time for telling horror stories (or watching horror movies) to get a "natural chill" in the hot, hot weather...

Back in Leiden, in the mid-eighties, I had two more important yokai encounters. One was a yokai exhibition at the National Museum of Ethnology, Leiden (based on the famous collection Von Siebold brought back from Japan). There I could not only admire ukiyo-e by Kuniyoshi as "Mitsukuni defying the skeleton specter," but also saw mummies of yokai. These were apparently preserved in temples, where in the past they must have been taken out of their boxes and shown to the gullible country folk whenever the priest wanted to scare them into belief in higher powers. They were made by stitching together the bones and skulls of small animals as monkeys and birds and adding feathers or skin (or doing intricate things with washi paper). These yokai mummies looked so creepy that they really scared me, more than the prints!

The other encounter was with Kobayashi Masaki's film Kwaidan, based on four Kwaidan stories collected by Hearn. I liked the first one best, about a samurai becoming entangled in the long black hair of his dead wife... (I am kind of fond of hairy horror). I saw the film at Leiden University (courtesy of the Japanese Embassy, which regularly provided classical films to the Japanese Department). When I walked back that night, along the misty and murky canals of the old town of Leiden, somewhere a church bell chimed the the midnight hour and the mist seemed to swirl around me like the Snow Women, another story from the film...

Those memories were brought back by a book published recently by Kodansha International, called Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. Written in a refreshing style by video game and comic book translator team Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt, the book gives 42 profiles of yokai, usually four pages each. Besides historical information, we get tongue-in-cheek advise about how this particular yokai attacks and how to survive that - if at all possible. Besides perennial favorites as the flatulous Kappa Water Imp, the bewitching Fox Lady and the Naughty Badger with his oversized testicles, we have the Pelagic Phantoms, the deadly Giant Skeleton, the Woman with Two Mouths (one extra in the back of her head, so that she can secretly devour sweets), the Filth-licker (doing you the service of licking your bath tub clean), the Haunted Shoji Screen, and the Haunted Umbrella with his long tongue sticking out, to name a few of the colorful apparitions. And o yes, I forget one of my favorites, the Long-necked Woman, who can throw her head on a meters long anaconda-neck deep into your room... There are also some contemporary yokai, as Hanako, the Little Girl in the Bathroom (of film fame) and the Slit-mouthed Woman (an urban legend, and also a – rather terrible – film).

The book positions itself for the "Japan cool" video game and anime crowd, who have encountered their yokai perhaps in Miike Takashi's The Great Yokai War or the anime films of Miyazaki Hayao, - but of course the book has a wider appeal as well. A small unfortunate point is that the authors were restricted by the four-pages-per-yokai format - there is a lot more to say about many of these yokai – the fox for example has had whole volumes dedicated to her alone... At other times, important information is withheld (no space?) - for example about that tantalizing “Nue-barai” (yokai) festival in Shizuoka (when, where?).

Yokai Attack! has alternate pages in color and black and white, until the 32th yokai, after which the color ink apparently ran out. Of course, this whole book should have been in full-color, but the publisher probably had to weigh using more color against the price getting too high. Full-color would also have done more justice to the illustrations of all 42 yokai by Morino Tatsuya, who started out as assistent to Mizuki Shigeru and now is an independent manga artist. His fun illustrations are one of the great assets of this book. The editing, by the way, is playful and quite inventive, making the book symbolically into a yokai file.

The book has a useful list for further reading and internet exploration (there are excellent yokai sites as the (Japanese language) Strange Phenomenon and Yokai Legend Database at the Nichibun Institute). If this charming book helps you delve deeper into the mysterious yokai world, it will have fulfilled an important function!

What about a nice shiver in the coming hot months?

P.S. Another great yokai resource, mentioned in the book, is the Tono Monogatari (“Tales from Tono”) by folklorist Yanagita Kunio.