Review of Kaiki Volume 3 in Wormwood
Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Old Japan
Volume 3: Tales of the Metropolis
Selected and introduced by Higashi Masao
Tales of the Metropolis is the third and final volume in a series presenting a selection of Japanese supernatural fiction old and new, and follows on from Tales of Old Edo (stories set in the Tokyo region during the era of the Shogunate) and Country Delights (tales set in rural areas away from the great cities). This third volume returns to a specific urban locale, the Tokyo of the twentieth century, and contains eleven stories and one manga published between 1915 and 1996.
The notion of the 'uncanny' being just another part of the background to ordinary life in Japan, along with a sense of life's impermanence and the overwhelming and still on—going changes over the last 150 years, has helped grow a rich and diverse body of work. In this latest sampling, the uncanny—in its widest sense—is alive and well in the Tokyo megapolis. Like the vast city itself it is defiantly modern and here to stay, yet is strengthened by roots reaching back to earlier but clearly no less unquiet times.
Toyoshima Yoshio's 'Ghosts of the Metropolis' (1924) and 'The Talisman' (1960) by Yamakawa Masao feature themes and entities strongly reminiscent of the work of Fritz Leiber—and presumably springing from much the same sort of twentieth-century blues that the American so memorably integrated into his supernatural horror fiction. In these stories Tokyo always seems fog-bound and shrouded in mist; it's always raining, and the threat of urban catastrophe (something the inhabitants of Japan's cities have never been stranger to) is always—and often literally—somewhere under the surface.
Other stories are more traditional in theme and execution, for example 'Spider' (1959) by Endō Shūsaku. This does involve spiders (another recurring Leiber motif) but more besides. Hisao Jūran's 'In Thy Shadow' (1939) explores the nature of sadism and death, and how they could be related to love and service. It is in such a singular story as this that the sheer otherness (at least to this European reader) of much of the culture and qualities of Japan, its people and a period in its history are powerfully brought to life. This volume's manga, 'A Sinister Spectre' (1973) by Morohoshi Daijirō, is presented in the Japanese way, so the reader has to turn the book upside down and read from right to left. Its depiction of a modern haunting also evokes Fritz Leiber's fiction, especially such an unnerving and doom-laden story as 'Smoke Ghost'.
As in the previous volumes, the stories are translated by different hands and so manage to keep the sense of the different styles of the various authors. Editor Higashi Masao contributes another detailed and informative introduction. (Note: in his foreword Robert Weinberg wisely advises the reader to read the introduction after the stories: it does sometimes
reveal too much!)
The three volumes of Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Old Japan are a fascinating introduction to the uncanny literature of a nation and culture very different to our own and still comparatively unknown. I heartily recommend these books and look forward—with expectancy mixed with trepidation—to further encounters with more Kaiki.
John Howard, writing in Wormwood No. 20, Spring 2013
Published by Tartarus Press