Reading Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

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I’ve long been a fan of Zack Davisson’s Japanese folklore blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (named after the game of 100 Weird Tales), so I was eager to read his new book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. It did not disappoint.

Davisson traces the origins of the yurei from their basis in Japan’s belief systems and traditions about the dead, starting with early animistic beliefs and their mixture with beliefs from Shintoism and Buddhism. The worlds of the living and the dead are perhaps nearer to each other in the Japanese conception than they are in Western belief systems. Your obligations to your ancestors continue past their deaths — and perhaps their interest in your life outlives their deaths, too. Becoming a ghost might be as simple as dying with something pressing on your mind — and moving on as easy as fulfilling the goal that keeps your ghost here.

The book also presents the literary history of the Japanese ghost story or weird tale (kaidan), beginning with the story behind Maruyama Ōkyo’s famous 18th century painting The Ghost of Oyuki. Oyuki is the prototype of the modern image of the yurei: pale, dressed in white, with no feet; she also graces the cover of the book. From there, we follow the weird tale through Japanese art, Japanese literature (and Chinese contributions to Japanese literature), Noh and Kabuki theater, and film. We learn about the three great yurei of Japan: the lovelorn Otsuya, the vengeful Oiwa, and the earth-bound (or maybe well-bound) Okiku. As with the Latino legends of La Llorona, there are many versions of the stories of Otsuya, Oiwa, and Okiku, and Davisson introduces us to several variations. He also shares other classic ghost tales and legends from Japanese and Buddhist mythology.

Beyond the tales and legends, the real-life histories are interesting, too. We read about the colorful life of Lafcadio Hearn, who introduced much of Japanese folklore to the West, and maybe rekindled in the Japanese an interest in their own stories, too. We get the histories of many prominent actors and playwrites of Kabuki theater, and read how Kabuki costuming also influenced the look of modern yurei. I was especially interested in the story of Ueda Akinari, the humbly-born son of a prostitute who eventually wrote the 18th century masterpiece Ugetsu monogatari (Tales of Moonlight and Rain)*.

But of course the ghost stories, which Davisson weaves throughout the narrative, are the big draw. The last section of the book — my favorite — is a cornucopia of kaidan: selections from Hearn and translations from several Japanese ghost story collections, some of which I think haven’t been translated to English before. Most of the Hearn selections I’d already read, but it was nice to read them again in light of the additional cultural context. And the other, brand-new (to me) stories were a delight. The very first one (“On a Skull That Was Saved From Being Stepped On”) is a cool variation of the Grateful Dead motif, which I wrote about not too too long ago.

Flipping through the book now, it’s amazing how much information managed to fit into such a slim, accessible volume; I couldn’t detail more of what’s in there without this post getting longer than the book itself! Overall, I found the book readable, interesting, and just plain fun. It’s also a really beautiful book: hardcover, full of gorgeous color reproductions of ghostly paintings and prints. If you’re interested in ghost stories, folklore (either Japanese specifically, or in general), or Japanese horror film, you should check out Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost.


*By the way, I highly recommend Anthony Chamber’s recent translation of Ugetsu monogatari, as well. Oh, and Kenji Mizoguchi’s lovely film, loosely based on two of Akinari’s stories (and one by de Maupassant).

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