Review of Kaiki Volume 2 in Wormwood
Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Old Japan
Volume 2: Country Delights
Selected and introduced by Higashi Masao
Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Old Japan (Volume 2: Country Delights), selected and introduced by Higashi Masao (Kurodahan Press) is the second of three volumes intended to present a selection of Japanese supernatural fiction old and new. The first, Tales of Old Edo, contained stories originally published between 1776 and 2005 and set in the Edo region (Edo was the name for Tokyo during the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan between 1603 and 1868). The nine stories (and one manga) gathered in this volume were originally published between 1906 and 1993, and look away from the megapolis of the Tokyo region during the century or so following Japan's forcible opening up to the modern world after 1853. As in the first volume, aspects of the Japan portrayed in Country Delights seem both recognisable and unfamiliar. And the title is an ironic one: the delights of the country are no protection from the sort of encounters involving kaiki—the 'fantastic' or 'strange supernatural'. There are worse things waiting for those who try to leave behind them the hubbub of the fast-expanding cities or the terrors and privations of the civilian population of the World War II home front.
The undoubted centrepiece of the anthology is 'Midnight Encounters' (1960) by Hirai Tei'ichi, which at ninety-five pages long is an entire short novel in its own right. This is fiction told on the slant. Hirai makes use of many well-known devices such as delving into a family's possibly shady history, a journey into an unfamiliar landscape to an unknown destination with an arrival at a large and mysterious house: a somewhat Aickmanesque scenario (which Hirai on this occasion ends perhaps a little more conclusively than the English writer would have done). 'Midnight Encounters' is a fine story that operates on more than one level, with a vein of dark humour underlying and bringing out a piece of Japanese Gothic firmly rooted in the legends of the remote hills in which it is set.
Not all of the stories have a Japanese setting. 'The Clock Tower of Yon' (1961) by Hikage Jōkichi and 'The Mummy' (1942) by Nakajima Atsushi take place in France and Egypt respectively. The manga 'Only Child' (1992) by Akiyama Ayuko is a strange and beautiful piece, certainly fantastic but showing that death need hold no terrors.
As in the first volume, the stories are translated by different hands, thereby retaining the varied styles of the authors. Higashi Masao contributes another informative introduction in which he discusses the evolution of the Japanese weird fiction tradition from the mid-nineteenth century and into the twentieth. The idea that the uncanny is just a natural part of the background to life in Japan remains true, despite the tremendous changes that the society has gone through and still is going through. This second volume of Kaiki continues the high standard of fiction showcased by the first; and a further welcome sampling of Japanese supernatural fiction has been made available and placed in its context.
John Howard, writing in Wormwood No. 16, Spring 2011
Published by Tartarus Press