ZACK Davisson’s black book Yūrei – The Japanese Ghost is both very knowledgeable and very entertaining. You couln’t imagine a better guide on Japanese ghosts.
A Western ghost can be anything, Davisson writes. Japanese ghosts (幽霊, yūrei), ”on the other hand, follow certain rules, obey certain laws. They are bound by centuries of culture and tradition.” ”And to most Japanese people, yūrei are very, very real.”
Zack Davisson is a writer, translator and scholar of Japanese folklore and its many strange creatures (妖怪, yōkai). For a long time, he has been researching entities called yūrei – that is, ghosts, spirits of dead people.
Davisson lives currently in Seattle, Washington, but he has lived for several years in Japan. His recent book Yūrei – The Japanese Ghost (Chin Music Press, 2015) is partly based on his master’s thesis Yūrei: A Study Across Time and Media for the University of Sheffield.
He maintains an excellent website named Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai. The site has many translations of Japanese weird tales (怪談, kaidan) and descriptions of numerous weird and interesting yōkai.
Davisson’s name may be familiar to many readers of manga. He has translated into English manga by Shigeru Mizuki, as well as by Satoshi Kon and Mamoru Oshii. He also is the specialist on Japan in the working group which creates the American graphic novel series Wayward. The other creators are Jim Zub, Steve Cummings, Tamra Bonvillain and Marshall Dillon.
DAVISSON begins his ”ghost story” with a personal experience. In Japan, he and his wife found a very cheap apartment. The rent was no more than a third of the normal level.
The reason for the cheap rent was revealed gradually: There was a strange atmosphere in the apartment. You had to turn mirrors against the wall to avoid seeing them at night. The landlord gave strict orders not to open a certain door, without explanation. The indelible red spots on the ceiling seemed to be spreading and even attacking you. Japanese visitors had no problem putting a name to it: ”Ahhh… yūrei ga deteru…” – ”There is a yūrei here.”
Then the story moves on to the Edo period, somewhere near the year 1750. The talented young artist Ōkyo Maruyama (1733-1795) wakes up in a hot summer night, seeing a strange visitor. Beside him is hovering a pale beauty, her black hair hanging in a mess. A woman who has no legs. The lady is her dead lover Oyuki. Maruyama jumps up from his futon and paints his vision exactly as he saw it.
Thus was born the first known picture of a yūrei. Despite his young age Maruyama was already a well-respected artist. Above all, he was known as a strict realist. He even used live nude models, which at that time was considered quite inappropriate. When Maruyama had painted something, everyone was confident that the object really existed, exactly as Maruyama had painted it.
This painting kind of fixed the image of a Japanese ghost: Pale, almost bluish skin. Bushy hair messed up. Dressed in a bonewhite burial kimono. And, above all, no legs. This image has been preserved through the centuries, all the way to the present day Japanese horror movies.
OF COURSE, Japanese ghosts had a long history before the Edo period. Ghost stories have been told at least as long as there is written history. One of the earliest works of history is Kojiki (”Records of Ancient Matters”), which was compiled some 1300 years ago, in order to bolster the emperor’s power. Like many other things in Japan, many of the early ghost stories came from China, but also a number of Japanese places had their own ghosts.
Yūrei are creatures that actually belong to the other world. However, they remain in this world after death. There are two common reasons: love and hate. Sometimes, however, a dead person may remain on this side simply to thank his or her benefactors.
A yūrei may be a young lady who died before she never experienced love. Perhaps the best known such maiden is shown in Kenji Mizoguchi’s 1953 film Ugetsu monogatari. The film is based on Akinari Ueda’s book dating back to 1776.
A yūrei may also be a murdered person, who remains in this world to demand revenge. Such one is the lady Oiwa. A man married her because of the family’s property. The man harassed his wife endlessly, and finally murdered her, to be able to marry his lover.
A yūrei may also be dependent on a location, like the maiden Okiku. In her life she was a servant girl, who was wrongly accused of losing one of ten valuable plates. Eventually, she was killed and thrown into a well. Every night you can hear Okiku’s desperate voice as she counts up to nine plates and never gets to ten. There is, of course, a number of candidates for the actual location of this well in Japan.
KABUKI theater plays an important role in the history of yūrei, and yūrei play an important role in the history of kabuki. Nearly every play has at least one ghost.
Kabuki began when a woman called Okuni performed a provocative dance on a dry river-bottom in Kyoto in 1603. Along the way kabuki changed: later, only men were allowed to perform it. Kabuki is theater for the common people, whereas nō existed for the elite. Kabuki draws it’s ideas from anything that excites the audience.
The first ghost appeared in kabuki already in 1698, but horror stories exploded into great success only in 1744, when Onoe Matsusuke I scared the audience in a play written by Tsuruya Nanboku IV. In the play a maiden passionately in love transforms into a serpent and kills a virtuous young priest. The special effects were unprecedented.
Today a yūrei’s makeup in kabuki is called aiguma, and it is a strongly exaggerated version of Ōkyo Maruyama ghost of Oyuki. The makeup appears also in modern horror movies, where special effects technology has given completely new possibilities, for example, for showing a yūrei’s wild hair.
Another favorite passtime in the Edo period was hyakumonogatari kaidankai (百物語怪談会, ”a gathering of a hundred weird tales”). A group of people gets together, lights up a hundred candles, and everyone gets a turn to tell a scary story. Each time a story is finished, one candle is extinguished.
Who is brave enough to listen to the hundredth story, when the last candle is put off, and full darkness falls? This tradition still lives, especially during the hot summer nights of Japan.
GHOSTS, the spirits of the deceased, are still an important part of the Japanese society. A dead person’s road to the other world is not easy, and a yūrei may remain on the wrong side of the border if there is even a small error in complying with tradition and ritual.
The deceased are respected. They have their own annual celebration, the three-day-long Obon, during which the walls between this world and the other world are thin. The easiest way between the worlds passes by water; wells, streams, rivers and the sea.
Obon is one of the most important annual festivals. For centuries, it began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Today obon is celebrated, depending on the area, either in mid-July or mid-August. During three days, the dead are celebrated. They are invited to visit homes and thanked for protecting the family during the year. In the end of the celebration they are carefully guided back to the other world.
The deceased can also shake international politics. In the Yasukuni Shinto-temple there rest two and a half million spirits of Japanese people who have died in wars. They are not called yūrei, but eirei, the hero spirits.
Every visit to Yasukuni by Japan’s leaders causes anger in China and Korea, which suffered severely in World War II. Among the Yasukuni spirits there are 1068 condemned war criminal, including Japan’s wartime Prime Minister general Hideki Tōjō.
WHEN reading Zack Davisson’s book, it may at first seem that the text wanders erratically. All of a sudden it is not about ghosts, but, say, about kabuki face painting techniques, about the white triangle hat of the dead, about the partly mythical ancient history of the empire, about the coming of the printing press to Japan, or about Japanese movies of the 20th century.
Soon, however, it turns out that every side path is meaningful, and taken with good intentions. A large number of details of Japanese culture are explained exactly to the extent necessary to understand their connections to the main subject. Thus, the reader needs hardly eny previous knowledge on Japan.
The reader gets much more than he would get if the book focused exclusively on ghosts. In the same way, lets say, to understand stories about European vampires you need some knowledge on the meaning of garlic, a wooden stake and the cross. Otherwise, the stories lose a lot of their power.
However, I would have liked one additional assistance to the reader: The book uses a huge number of Japanese expressions. Although they are explained in the texts, I would have wanted a glossary. Then the reader would not have to look for the explanation in the text, when an expression appears a second time.
The glossary would have been rather easy to expand from the ghost list at the end of book. In the list Davisson gives names and details of 32 kinds of different Japanese ghosts.
THE BOOK’S Publisher Chin Music Press is a small Company in Seattle, established in 2002. It creates ”beautiful, engaging and affordable books”. The company is focused on Japan, but the topics have been gradually expanded to include China and South Korea.
I don’t know about affordable, but Yūrei – The Japanese Ghost is a beautiful and elegant book. The layout designed By Carla Girard is a little old-fashioned, just like a book on ghosts should be.
On the totally black cover, there is a still blacker image of Ōkyo Maruyama’s painting The Ghost of Oyuki. In a corner there are the kanji 幽霊 (yūrei), in a style like a Japanese signature stamp. Also the back cover is totally black, and the texts that normally would appear on the back cover are printed on a removable sheet.
Fifty pages at the end of the book are dedicated to Japanese ghost stories themselves. The stories compiled and translated by Davisson are a great addition to the rest of the book. A brave reader could maybe also begin from these tales – it might add yet a bit to the understanding of Davisson’s knowledgeable text.
The book is illustrated with many fine paintings, woodprints and drawings on Japanese ghosts.