Preface: Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1
Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan
Volume 1: Tales of Old Edo 【江戸の物語】
Preface: An Ordinary World, Interrupted
by Robert Weinberg
Perhaps the greatest failing of anthologies and collections of supernatural fiction published in the past one hundred years has been the lack of representation of stories from Asia and the Pacific Rim. Volumes and volumes of ghost and spook stories are filled with tales from North America, the United Kingdom and Western Europe. Less common but still included in the more comprehensive collections are narratives from South America, Eastern Europe, and Africa. However, few if any books contain stories from China or Japan. Though supernatural fiction is a mainstay of Oriental storytelling and culture, just about none of it has ever been published in the West. Until now.
This volume, Kaiki, Uncanny Tales from Japan, is the first of three collections of uncanny stories edited by Higashi Masao, scheduled to be published by Kurodahan Press. It offers a fascinating and informative glimpse at the best supernatural fiction printed in Japan during the past hundred years. Unlike books of western ghost stories, which are usually arranged in strict chronological order, each Kurodahan collection gathers together stories sorted by time and location. Thus, this first volume is devoted to tales of "Old Edo," the capital of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868, when the city was renamed Tokyo. The two following books will contain stories about "the provinces," and "Tokyo."
This collection begins with an exhaustive and informative introduction by the editor, Higashi Masao, on the origin and history of the Japanese supernatural story. Higashi makes the interesting point that while there is a long tradition of strange and unusual fiction in Japan, the classic horror elements so common in the English and European ghost story are not always present in the Japanese story. Thus, this volume contains tales that are not the least bit horrific - such as "Visions of Beyond" by Kōda Rohan. The long narrative tells of two fishermen who find what they suspect is a haunted fishing pole, and what they do with it. Told in a relaxed narrative style and filled with a wealth of information about how to fish Japanese rivers using all manner of equipment and what sort of fish one might expect to catch doing so, the story's supernatural element is so mild that it hardly registers on the reader's awareness. Indeed, except for the minor supernatural riff at the conclusion of the story, the tale might have been categorized as a "fishing story" instead of a "ghost story." Which perhaps is the point.
Not all Japanese ghost stories are horrific, or even violent, in nature. Most of them treat the ghostly manifestations as a part of the natural order of things. Though, sometimes that order is helter-skelter and not what we expect it to be. Take, for example, the tale titled "The Face in the Hearth" by Tanaka Kōtarō, written in 1938. The story begins with a high-born samurai warrior on vacation at a hot springs, playing a game of go with the manager of the spring. From there, it takes a slightly unexpected turn as a wandering monk comes along and challenges the samurai to a game. The story drifts along at a slow but steady pace until the samurai makes an unexpected and horrific discovery in the woods. Suddenly, the tale speeds up and another, greater and more unexpected horrible event takes place, leaving the reader to wonder if the events of the story were an example of destiny taking hold of a situation or was the gruesome end a result of the samurai not listening to the advice given to him early on in the story by the monk? No hint to an answer is given, leaving the reader to puzzle out the true nature of the horror encountered.
One of the most fascinating aspects of this collection is that the stories contained within are very similar and yet oddly different than the English ghost story as best demonstrated by M.R. James that were all the rage in England at approximately the same time as these were written. Though there is no evidence of crossed-storytelling, it is astonishing to read the best of James and then pick up this book and read several stories which, except for the unusual settings, could have been written by the master himself.
In all such cases, the basic genesis of the plot comes from the notion of "an ordinary occurrence, interrupted." By ordinary, we mean, the usual, normal aspect of life as practiced in both England and Japan. Thus, the event could be a man going on a long needed vacation trip in Europe, or a samurai balancing the books at his master's estate in Edo. The normalcy of the setting is extremely important, as without it, the uncanny events that follow would not be as powerful.
An ordinary occurrence could be the events of a day, the passage of time, the normalcy of life in a well-defined surrounding. What is most important is the feeling of absolute calm, that life is what it is and reality is unchanging. The violation of that principle is what makes the horror of the situation so much more frightening. Take, for example, the most unusual story in this entire collection, Kyōgoku Natsuhiko's very, very strange tale, "Where Had She Been?"
In this deceptively simple story, a beautiful young servant working in the mansion of a wealthy samurai disappears one day. No one can find her. She has not returned home, nor does she seem to have run off with some bandit. She had no quarrels with anyone and there is no reason to think she has died. It is a mystery as to where she has gone. Until, weeks later, the girl is discovered alive and living in a place no one would have ever suspected. (We will leave that discovery to the reader!) Here is where the Japanese and British ghost story veer in different directions. If composed by M.R. James, once the girl's location is found, supernatural violence would follow. There would be deaths and some explanation of what had taken place.
But, this being a Japanese weird story, there is no violence. More important, while the story hints at supernatural events, no supernatural events actually take place in the entire adventure. Questions are raised but there are no answers given. An explanation is mentioned but never verified. Still, the story makes a strong impression long after the book is closed. Is it a horror story? Or is it merely a strange story, an uncanny story? Or more precisely, a Japanese ghost story?
We'll leave that decision to the reader. Prepare then, to be captivated, puzzled, enchanted, and, from time to time, horrified. This is a collection of stories that you won't soon forget. These are tales of an ordinary world, interrupted by intruders from somewhere else. Enjoy.
July 28, 2009