Yokai

Yokai

Photo

Two illustrations from Matthew Meyer’s “The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits.” CreditMatthew Meyer

Tanuki, the badger-like, shape-shifting creatures of Japanese lore, are a rascally, impetuous bunch. In one tale, a tanuki playfully transforms into a steam train but then gets flattened by a real train coming from the opposite direction. In another, a tanuki kills an old woman and makes soup out of her, then takes her form and feeds the soup to her husband.

Fantastical monsters like the tanuki abound in Michael Dylan Foster’s “The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore” (University of California Press), one of several books about yokai that have hit American shelves this year.

In June, Zack Davisson will publish “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost” (Chin Music Press), a critical look at the history of some of Japan’s most dreaded and beloved spooks. Both are scholarly texts enlivened by images of the beasts in scroll paintings, woodblock prints and original illustrations.

Michael Goldstein’s “Yokai Character Collection” (PanAm Books) is more pictorial. It has the gruesome look and feel of a Dungeons & Dragons manual, with Japanese peeping toms and anthropomorphic umbrellas taking the place of knights and gnomes. The book’s illustrator, Chip Boles, seemed to have fun imagining what beasts like a mokumokuren, a “sliding door filled with hundreds of eyes,” and a kappa, a water demon often blamed for drowning horses and humans, might look like.

Photo

Four illustrations from Michael Dylan Foster’s “The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.”CreditShinonome Kijin

And then there’s Matthew Meyer’s forthcoming “The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits,” an encyclopedic look at yokai that includes notes on each creature’s appearance, behavior and favorite hangouts. Mr. Meyer’s paintings combine the vibrant colors of traditional Japanese woodblock prints with references to Asian horror movies and contemporary manga. The result is a coffee-table book (self-published) that doubles as an illustrated guide, full of legends and obscure yokai trivia.

Why the recent crop of yokai books in the United States? Credit generations of Americans exposed to the creatures through a steady stream of Japanese cultural imports. Haruki Murakami has included several in his novels, while hordes have appeared in the films of Hayao Miyazaki (the clicking, bobble-headed kodama, or tree spirits, in “Princess Mononoke”; much of the cast of “Spirited Away,” which won the 2003 Oscar for best animated feature).

Even more have crept into American homes through video games and trading cards. Pokémon, the multibillion-dollar toy and video game empire, bases many of its characters on yokai. So does the most recent challenge to Pokémon’s cultural dominance, the best-selling video game and anime series “Yo-Kai Watch,” which makes no effort to hide its creative sources. All those monsters — altered and cuteified as they may be — have inspired fans to seek out the original texts.

Photo

Michael Dylan FosterCreditAaron P. Bernstein for The New York Times

“The students who come into the fields of Japanese literature and folklore as undergraduates are heavily influenced by popular culture,” Mr. Foster, a folklore professor at Indiana University and author of “Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yokai,” said. “They grow up with these things through anime and manga and want to know where they come from.”

Stories about yokai have been popular in Japan for centuries, from the 11th-century classic “The Tale of Genji,” in which they’re called mononoke, or “mysterious things,” to contemporary anime series. The yokai themselves are everywhere in Japan, in films and cartoons, on billboards and even on beer bottle labels. The latest yokai craze began in the 1980s and has been going strong ever since, part of a long history of booms that dates back to the Edo period (1603-1868). Last year, “Yo-Kai Watch” was the top-selling video game in Japan, and there are plans to release the game in the United States this year.

Relatively few of the thousands of texts and scholarly studies about yokai have been translated from Japanese, which makes these latest books all the more valuable to nonfluent seekers of the original tales. In “The Book of Yokai,” Mr. Foster draws from texts and folk tales dating back to Japan’s Heian period, from the works of the 10th-century writer Abe no Seimei (a midlevel bureaucrat who has been reborn in contemporary manga and anime as a young, beautifully androgynous sorcerer) to the tales of the early-20th-century scholar and avid story collector Kunio Yanagita, considered one of the founders of Japanese folklore studies.

Photo

A ghost depicted on an 18th-century scroll.CreditUC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive

New texts and stories are still being discovered and translated, and the abundance of source material can be a blessing and a curse for yokai researchers. How do you define a creature that can vary from period to period, or even town to town? “When I see yokai mentioned, it will often just say ‘a kappa is a so-and-so,’ ” Mr. Foster said. “So my responsibility is really to complicate that, so that people will understand that a kappa can be many different things, depending on where and when you’re speaking of it.”

There are also beasts whose stories have been lost, but whose images remain, like the tofu-kozo, a bigheaded servant boy holding a block of uncooked tofu. “There’s a number of images of that, but nobody knows why they exist,” Mr. Foster said. “It might have been an Edo period advertising campaign, but that’s all speculation.”

Among the creepiest of yokai are the yurei, spirits of the dead who look nothing like typical Western ghosts. In “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost,” Mr. Davisson, a translator of a number of classic manga, profiles several yurei. Two of the most famous are the tragic Okiku, a young girl who threw herself down a well (or was thrown) after breaking one of her master’s prized dishes, and Oiwa, a hapless wife cursed with just about the worst husband ever (she is usually depicted with her left eye dripping down her cheek, the result of her spouse’s botched attempt to kill her with poison).

Photo

An illustration by Chip Boles in Michael Goldstein’s “Yokai Character Collection.”CreditChip Boles

Yurei have inspired countless paintings and illustrations over the centuries, but perhaps the most influential is Maruyama Okyo’s “The Ghost of Oyuki” (1750), a portrait that the artist made of his recently deceased lover. Her ghost — long black hair, pale clothing, no feet — appeared to him in a dream, and his painting set the visual mold for every Japanese ghost to come, from paintings and prints to Kabuki characters and horror films. “After that painting,” Mr. Davisson said, “that’s how they all looked.”

Fans love tracking these evolutions over time, as well as learning every bit of information about as many yokai as they can. This might explain why a lot of these books, scholarly or not, have the look and feel of illustrated encyclopedias, with detailed descriptions of scores of creatures.

“When you look at pop culture in Japan today, a lot of it is really based on this desire to catalog, this sort of encyclopedic imagination,” said Bill Tsutsui, a Japanologist and author of “Godzilla on My Mind: Fifty Years of the King of Monsters.”

Why do the centuries-old monsters continue to fascinate, even for readers who don’t necessarily have a collector’s bent? “There’s the mystery of the world about them,” Mr. Tsutsui said. “You get that in this folkloric sense of the past: that the real world around us is beautiful and wonderful, and yet can be really horrible, too.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *