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.

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Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan

What is not a dream? Who will not end up as a skeleton? We appear as skeletons covered with skin — male and female — and lust after each other. When the breath expires, though, the skin ruptures, sex disappears, and there is no more high or low. Underneath the skin of the person we fondle and caress right now is nothing more than a set of bare bones. Think about it — high and low, young and old, male and female, all are the same.”

–Ikkyū (“Skeletons,” 1457) Translated by John Stevens

 

I was lucky enough to catch the Asian Art Museum’s Seduction exhibit before it closed about a week ago. The exhibit was a view into Japan’s “Floating World,” in particular the Yoshiwara District of Edo, as represented not only in prints and booklets, but in textiles, too. Everything was lovely, but the piece that caught my interest most strongly was Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s diptych Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan:

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Monk Ikkyū and the Hell Courtesan, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845. (Click to enlarge).
Image photographed from the Seduction catalog two-page spread; I couldn’t find this online, and I couldn’t bring myself to rip apart my catalog for a better photo.

Those skeletons! That the piece itself (especially with that title) should get my attention is no surprise, if you read my blog. The story that the diptych refers to worth repeating, too.

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Boy Meets Ghost

A young man meets a beautiful, noble-born widow who has a crush on him; the noblewoman’s servant girl helps the two of them orchestrate their trysts. But all is not what it seems…

There are many variations of this originally Chinese tale, some of which have been carried over to Japan too. My favorite is a version by Lafcadio Hearn, called “The Story of Ming-Y,” from his collection Some Chinese Ghosts. Hearn attributes the story to the thirteenth century collection Kin-Kou-Ki-Koan (which he translates as “The Marvelous Happenings of Ancient and of Recent Times”).

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Tang Dynasty Poet Xue Tao
Image: Wikipedia

Ming-Y and Sië-Thao

Ming-Y is a young scholar who as been hired as a tutor into the household of the high commissioner Tchang, who lives just outside the city where Ming-Y’s parents live. Ming-Y lives at his employer’s house, but one spring he gets permission to visit his parents in the city. It’s on his way back to Tchang’s house when he first encounters a mysterious woman:

The dreamy joy of the day entered into the heart of Ming-Y; and he sat him down among the young blossoms, under the branches swaying against the violet sky, to drink in the perfume and the light, and to enjoy the great sweet silence. Even while thus reposing, a sound caused him to turn his eyes toward a shady place where wild peach-trees were in bloom; and he beheld a young woman, beautiful as the pinkening blossoms themselves, trying to hide among them. Though he looked for a moment only, Ming-Y could not avoid discerning the loveliness of her face, the golden purity of her complexion, and the brightness of her long eyes, that sparkled under a pair of brows as daintily curved as the wings of the silkworm butterfly outspread. Ming-Y at once turned his gaze away, and, rising quickly, proceeded on his journey. But so much embarrassed did he feel at the idea of those charming eyes peeping at him through the leaves, that he suffered the money he had been carrying in his sleeve to fall, without being aware of it. A few moments later he heard the patter of light feet running behind him, and a woman’s voice calling him by name. Turning his face in great surprise, he saw a comely servant-maid, who said to him, “Sir, my mistress bade me pick up and return you this silver which you dropped upon the road.” Ming-Y thanked the girl gracefully, and requested her to convey his compliments to her mistress. Then he proceeded on his way through the perfumed silence, athwart the shadows that dreamed along the forgotten path, dreaming himself also, and feeling his heart beating with strange quickness at the thought of the beautiful being that he had seen.

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Friday Video: Ghosty Tap-dancing Double Feature!

I found today’s video via Zack Davisson (@zackdavisson on Twitter), and I love it, love it, love it! A charming (and possibly a bit bored) Japanese ghost finds some dancing shoes to play with, to the tune of “Moses Supposes” from the movie Singing in the Rain.

Length: 2 minutes, 36 seconds.

I’d love to credit the video, so if anyone can tell me who the animators were, please drop a comment below.

If you’re curious about the outfit that the yurei is wearing, you can read about her white kimono and her white triangle headband in Zack’s always informative posts, on his blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.

Still in a dancey mood? Here’s the original film version, with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Amazing!

Length: 3 minutes, 12 seconds.

The song “Moses Supposes” was composed by Roger Edens, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. I believe that Gene Kelly choreographed the number.

Happy Dancing Friday!

Friday Video: The Visitor

A short video to enjoy on lunch or coffee break, or after your workday is done:

This is from a series of youtube videos called “Ghost Stories from Japan”. They appear to be short segments from an old TV show; I’m guessing it was done in the ’90s, from the clothing and hair.

I’ve watched several of them; they’re all pretty good, but this one has always scared me the most. Don’t watch it in the dark!

Length: 5 min, 3 sec. Use the CC icon at the bottom of the video if you don’t get the subtitles.

If anyone can tell me what the series is called, please drop a comment below. Enjoy!

Ghostly Lover: from the Sioux and from Japan

While flipping through my copy of American Indian Myths and Legends yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this gem, collected in 1970 from a Brulé Sioux informant at Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a terrific ghost story all on its own, but it caught my eye for another reason as well. Before I give you the reason, though — the story:

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Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

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Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

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The Demon Lady of Uji Bridge

In the time of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, known as Raikō, strange things happened throughout the land. One of the strangest was the unexplained disappearance of many people from their own homes, in full view of friends and family. They didn’t leave the room, they didn’t fall down and die; they simply vanished, as if blotted out. No one could find out where they had gone, or how it had happened. Nor did they know how to stop it — all the land was in a great panic.

Yorimitsu called his advisors and diviners to investigate. They learned that in the days of the Emperor Saga Tennō, (about one hundred and fifty years earlier), there was a lady of the court, the daughter of a high official, who feared that she was losing her lover to another woman. This lady became so jealous that she secluded herself in the shrine of Kibune for seven days, and prayed to the kami of the shrine:

“Grant that I may be changed into an oni (demon), so that I can kill the woman who is stealing my lover.”

The kami pitied the woman, and granted her wish.

“If you wish to become an oni, you must change your appearance and bathe in the Uji River for three times seven days.”

Overjoyed, the lady returned home and hid herself away. The divided her long hair into five tresses, which she shaped into five horns. She reddened her face and body with vermilion, and on her head she placed a tripod with a torch attached to each leg. In her mouth she held another torch, flaming at both ends. In this attire she rushed south down the Yamato highway after dark. The poor people who saw her thought for sure that she was a demon — some of them were so terrified that they died from their fear.

NewImageHashihime, From The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past, Toriyama Sekien, 1779
Image: Wikipedia

The lady reached the Uji river and bathed there for three times seven days, and as the kami had promised, transformed living into an oni. She became known as Uji-no-Hashihime, or the Lady of Uji Bridge. As an oni, she killed not only her rival, but her lover as well, along with all of their relatives, rich and poor. When she wanted to kill a man, she would show herself as a woman, and when her intended victim was a woman, she would show herself as a man. All the people of the city were so terrified that they would shut themselves in their homes after the Hour of the Monkey (4 pm), neither going out nor allowing anyone in.

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The Lady Aoi

A friend turned my husband and me on to Mishima’s Five Modern Noh Plays; I’ve read a couple of them now. I wasn’t familiar with Noh plays, other than the fact the Kurosawa borrowed some Noh stylings for Throne of Blood (the stylized, dance-like movements, and makeup made to look like Noh masks). Mishima’s adaptations have given me a place to start.

The two plays that I’ve read are both ghost stories (all five plays are supernatural). Sotoba Komachi is a karma fable about a beautiful woman who was cruel to her lover, and is now, as an old and homeless woman, being tormented by his spirit. Mishima’s retelling is fairly faithful to the original: the stupa that the old woman sits on is updated to a park bench; the priests, to a poet.

Sotoba Komachi was pretty good, but I liked the second play that I read even better: The Lady Aoi. The original play, Aoi No Uye, is itself taken from The Tale of Genji. The Lady Aoi of the title is Lord Genji’s wife; though her marriage to Genji hasn’t been all that great, the two have reconciled, and Lady Aoi has only recently won a little roadside battle with one of Genji’s former lovers, an older woman and former Crown Princess named Lady Rokujo (Aoi had Rokujo’s carriage driven off the road when it was in the way of her own carriage). Rokujo’s jealous spirit has already left her body once before, to kill Yugao, the woman who replaced her as Genji’s lover. Now, her spirit is tormenting Aoi.

Neither Aoi or Genji are in the play; it begins in Aoi’s sick room, with a folded red kimono placed onstage to represent Aoi. Aoi’s attendants have called in a witch to summon whatever evil spirit is tormenting Aoi. The witch succeeds in summoning Rokujo’s spirit, which pours out Rokujo’s jealousy and bile. She becomes so angry that she transforms herself into a demon and attacks Aoi.

NewImageA demon-mask. From The Nō Plays of Japan, by Arthur Waley, 1921.

Aoi’s attendants rush to fetch a priest, who confronts the Rokujo-demon. The priest’s prayers cause Rokujo to repent her ways. Aoi dies anyway.

Here’s a snippet from a traditional Noh performance of Aoi No Uye (the first 1:20 or so of the video). This is the scene where the Lady Rokujo turns into a demon, and then is exorcised by the priest. I think the foot stamp the priest makes at the end of the scene is the traditional signal that the ghost has disappeared.


The comedy play in the second half of the video (about two servants who have been tied up to keep them from drinking all the sake) looks fun, too.

Mishima’s adaptation starts with the original play, and takes it somewhere familiar, and yet so different.

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O-Kame: A Japanese Vampire Tale

After watching Kwaidan last week, I spent some time flipping through Shadowings and Kotto, which I’d never read before. I found this little vampire-style story in Kotto. It seems familiar; I think I’ve read a similar tale before, possibly a Chinese version.

I don’t believe the vampire myth, as we know it in the West, exists in Japanese folklore. However, (at least according to Wikipedia) the Japanese do have two kinds of “hungry ghosts”. The gaki are the ghosts of jealous or greedy people who have been cursed with insatiable hunger (so O-Kame might qualify). The jikininki are ghouls (corpse-eaters). Neither type seems to suck blood or life essence, as a vampire does. So it’s likely that Lafcadio Hearn transposed a folk motif (or several) from another place, either Europe or perhaps China, to Japan.

Either way, it’s a good story. Enjoy.

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Illustration from Kotto: being Japanese curios, with sundry cobwebs (1902).
archive.org

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