Review of Kaiki Volume 1 in Wormwood

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Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Old Japan
Volume 1: Tales of Old Edo

Selected and introduced by Higashi Masao

This is the first of three volumes reprinting a selection of Japanese supernatural fiction old and new. The stories are arranged by the period and place in which they are set: this volume takes in Edo, the name for Tokyo during the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan between 1603 and 1868. Of the stories here, the earliest originally appeared in 1776; the most recent in 2005.

The editor contributes a highly informative Introduction, exploring the tradition of the strange and unusual in Japanese fiction. The origins of the supernatural tale in Japan go back hundreds of years, and published anthologies such as Tales of Cause and Effect and Tales of Moonlight and Rain date from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries respectively; the birth of the supernatural 'genre' is regarded as having occurred in the mid nineteenth century. Higashi explains that Kaiki can be translated as 'fantastic' or 'strange'—which evocatively resonates with the fiction of Robert Aickman. In the same way, Japanese uncanny tales take as a given the idea that ghosts and supernatural manifestations are just a part of the natural order. This approach should be familiar to devotees of such European authors as Arthur Machen and M.R. James. Also contributing to the distinctive formula is Shinto, the Japanese 'religion' with its spirits, essences, and energies which are understood to pervade all aspects of the landscape and its natural features. The starting point for an uncanny tale can be summed up nicely as 'an ordinary occurrence, interrupted'. Higashi takes the reader through a selection of basic supernatural writings, setting them in context. This is very useful, and opens the door on the history of an entire literature that I, for one, knew nothing about. The only criticism is one of too much information being given: reading the text is rather overwhelming due to the provision for each title of a transliteration in the Latin alphabet together with a reproduction of the Japanese characters.

Volume One of Kaiki contains nine stories. Each is translated by someone different, thus keeping the style varied and the feeling of reading an anthology of work by different authors. The names of all authors were unfamiliar to me except for Lafcadio Hearn (1850–1904) who moved to Japan and made his home there, publishing many stories using Japanese themes or based on legends and folk tales. Also included is the text of a lecture by Hearn, 'The Value of the Supernatural in Fiction'—which sets the scene with its declaration that all great art is about ghosts, and that almost all that is beautiful in literature dealing with what lies beyond everyday experience has its source in dreams. As the reader will discover in the fiction presented here, these sentiments are common and constant features in Japanese supernatural fiction. And finally, the short and very definitely uncanny manga 'Three Eerie Tales of Dark Nights' concludes things most effectively.

Hopefully Kaiki will cater to a clear gap in the market. Japanese supernatural fiction (in contrast to film and manga) is little known in the English language world. A whole new experience—yet one sometimes strangely familiar—is out there and waiting.

John Howard, writing in Wormwood No. 13, Autumn 2009
Published by Tartarus Press

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