Book review: Fables of fright from Japan in Zack Davisson’s Yurei
High summer, not autumn, is the season for ghosts in Japan, as translator and researcher Zack Davisson reminds the readers of his enthusiastically written and hugely enjoyable new book Yurei: The Japanese Ghost (published by Chin Music Press in a slim and quite lovely illustrated hardcover).
“Japan serves up tales of ghostly revenge piping hot,” he writes. “Yurei appear in the oppressive and stifling heat and humidity that accompanies a Japanese summer – the traditional season of the supernatural.” It’s during the summer, when the wall between the netherworldly anoyo and the everyday konoyo is thinnest; the festival of the dead, Obon, takes place in August, when “yurei roam the country”.
Davisson even relates how he and his wife once rented an apartment that was full of mysterious sounds and half-glimpses; his Japanese guests easily put a name to it: “There is a yurei here.”
And although the term “yurei” might be unfamiliar to most non-Japanese readers, the distinctive appearance will be instantly familiar, at least to moviegoing audiences, thanks to popular film adaptations of ancient kaidanshu, the tremendously varied ghost stories that have filled Japanese literature for centuries and began to take on their formalised shapes in the 17th-century Edo period.
Yurei are hollow-eyed and pale-skinned, with black, ragged hair and a horrible fixity of purpose, and even theatre audiences who know nothing of Japanese culture will have shivered in fear while watching, for instance, director Takashi Shimizu’s Ju-On in 2003 or its American version The Grudge in 2004 (or Hideo Nakata’s equally effective 1998 film Ring and its 2002 American version).
These were all faithful representations of the classic yurei, whose appearance and behaviours Davisson traces back through the flourishing of kabuki theatrical versions all the way to the huge 11th-century compendium of supernatural stories called Konjaku Monogatari, a neglected masterpiece that Davisson says has always been overshadowed by its more illustrious contemporary work, The Tale of Genji. “As of this writing, Genji Monogatari has 88 separate editions in publication and has been translated into every major language, including Braille,” he points out, while “Konjaku Monogatari has no complete translation”.
But the real iconic beginning of the traditional form of the yurei happened in 1750, when the artist Maruyama Okyo painted the image of his dead lover and called the resulting work The Ghost of Oyuki. Okyo had a reputation for accuracy, and when he painted his lost Okuyi, giving her “a Mona Lisa-like inscrutable half-smile under hard eyes”, he unwittingly set a visual template that would last forever: the pale complexion, the dishevelled dark hair, the diaphanous kimono and no feet. Eventually, all the most popular yurei of stage and page took on variations of this quietly frightening look.
Davisson relates the stories of dozens of those yurei, but he concentrates on the San O-Yurei, the “Three Great Yurei of Japan” – three women (male yurei are virtually absent from his book) named Oiwa, Otsuyu and Okiku, each dramatised hundreds of times over the centuries and each representing a particular variation on their kaidanshu setting.
Oiwa is killed by her evil, loutish samurai husband Iemon, but only after he bungled poisoning her; as Davisson puts it, “his first attempt did nothing more than cause the left side of her face to droop and run like molten candle wax” – a hideous detail that has become her signature visual trademark.
Okiku is the ghost of the well, a young woman accused of breaking one of the valuable plates of a wealthy family, she throws herself (or is thrown, in more sinister versions) down a well and forever afterwards emerges from that well as a yurei, with “her” picturesque semi-ruined wells drawing tourists all over Japan.
Otsuyu, star of Botan Doro – a ghost anthology written in 1666 and rewritten, adapted and retold ever since – falls in love with a handsome young man, pines for him, dies of her pining and returns as a yurei who eventually seduces him. When he’s found dead in the embrace of Otsuyu’s rotting corpse, Davisson writes, “his face is radiant and blissful”. Otsuyu’s story is retold by the famous author and Japanologist Lafcadio Hearn and is the most dramatically effective part of his bestselling 1899 book In Ghostly Japan.
If any actual human being could be said to haunt Davisson’s book, in fact, it’s Hearn, who a century ago wrote a string of popular books that effectively introduced the society and folklore of Japan to a new generation of outsiders through such works as In Ghostly Japan and 1903’s Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation. These books had a gigantic influence in shaping the reading public’s ideas about Japan, and this is especially true when it comes to ghost stories.
“When talking about yurei, all roads eventually lead to Lafcadio Hearn,” Davisson rightly concedes.
Hearn repeatedly wrote of the central role the dead play in Japanese culture, telling his readers, as Davisson relates, that without understanding that role, it’s virtually impossible to understand the Japanese at all.
It was a slight overstatement when Hearn made it more than a hundred years ago, and it’s much more outdated in the age of iPads and mobile phones – and yet, Davisson seems as comfortable with it in 2015 as Hearn was until his death in 1904. I cringed whenever Davisson confidently proclaimed “ask anybody in Japan today, and they’ll tell you ...”. The picture that results from such confidence is very romantic. “A country filled with ghosts might seem like the set-up for the ultimate horror movie, but these spirits are greeted with open arms by the living,” Davisson writes when this particular spirit moves him.
And this charming story, even if exaggerated, is amply aided throughout Yurei by Davisson’s energetic and often eloquent prose. He clearly loves his subject; his excursions into the long history of ghosts in books, in kabuki theatre and on the movie screen are uniformly fascinating and confident. And his observations about the quirks of the Japanese afterlife are sharply interesting, especially when drawn in contrast with the West.
He comments on the comparative ease with which “Western souls” slip from their dead bodies into the afterlife: “Japanese souls, on the other hand, have sharp edges like shards of broken glass or the ragged edges of a serrated knife blade. There is every chance that these sharp edges will snag in the fabric of the world ...”
The pointedness of yurei, their abiding sense of mission, is omnipresent in Davisson’s account – and in his book’s final segment, which consists of a series of excerpts from various kaidanshu, all very ably translated by the author.
Davisson is surely right when he points out that the rigid consistency of yurei is part of what makes them so frightening, as opposed to the more freewheeling supernatural creatures of other folklores. Vampires, for instance, now available in every possible pop-culture variation, are almost never genuinely frightening anymore.
“By contrast,” Davisson writes, “a glimpse of a white face with dark eyes and darker hair, black and wriggling like Medusa’s serpents, is enough to make even the most stalwart heart shudder.”
He partially dedicates his book to Oiwa, Otsuyu and Okiku – and pleads with them not to hurt him, of course.
Steve Donoghue is managing editor of Open Letters Monthly.