By Tom Baker / Japan News Staff WriterYurei: The Japanese Ghost
By Zack Davisson
Chin Music Press, 226pp
Love. Revenge. Crockery. These are among the things that draw spirits of the dead back to haunt the living in Zack Davisson’s new book, “Yurei: The Japanese Ghost.”
Davisson, who has translated works by mangaka Shigeru Mizuki and Satoshi Kon into English, and who claims to have lived in a haunted apartment in Ikeda, Osaka Prefecture, traces the evolution of Japanese ghost stories through folklore, paintings, kabuki and movies. The book’s 12 chapters of literary history are accompanied by color prints of relevant artworks, and are followed by 46 pages of ghost stories, some as short as half a page. The stories are arranged in the same order as the chapters, so it pays to flip back and forth as you go.
The book gives particular attention to the characters of Otsuyu, Oiwa and Okiku, known collectively as Three Great Ghosts of Japan.
Otsuyu is the ghost whose story underwent the most dramatic changes over the years. She is the star of a popular old tale called “Botan Doro,” or “The Peony Lantern.” Her motivation (like that of Patrick Swayze’s character in the Hollywood movie “Ghost”) is a love so strong that it reaches back from beyond the grave.
Davisson traces the origins back roughly 600 years to a Chinese story, also titled “Peony Lantern,” in which a man dies after being seduced by a ghost. The original story was meant to teach a stern moral lesson, as it involves a Taoist priest who summons up the ghosts of both the now-dead man and the already-dead woman, forces them to confess their sins, and then consigns them to hell.
The various Japanese retellings of the story take a more forgiving approach, sympathetically portraying Otsuyu as a heartbroken ghost who only longs to be reunited with her lover in death after being tragically separated from him in life. In a version told by 19th-century rakugo storyteller Sanyutei Encho, the morning after Otsuyu takes on the form of a living woman to achieve a night of passion with her beloved, the man “is found dead intertwined with Otsuyu’s rotting corpse, his face … radiant and blissful.” The couple end up just as dead as in the original, but hell has been removed from the equation. According to Davisson, rakugo audiences of the Meiji era (1868-1912) would have appreciated this romantic conclusion.
The ghost Oiwa had a less fulfilling love life: Her husband killed her to marry someone else. His first murder attempt failed, but left her face hideously marred. Oiwa comes back from the grave for good old-fashioned revenge, and her grotesque appearance has made her a favorite character in kabuki and movie productions.
Okiku is the saddest of the ghosts. She was a servant who was accused (accurately in some versions of the story, unjustly in others) of having broken one of a set of 10 irreplaceable dishes. To escape punishment, she flung herself down a well and died. Now she rises from the well again and again, counting to nine as she seeks the forever-lost 10th dish.
If you enjoy kabuki plays, manga comics or modern Japanese horror movies — or even if you’ve wondered why Japanese ghosts have no feet — “Yurei” will help you see the unseen a little more clearly.
Where to Read
Near a well, if you dare. Not only does the ghost of Okiku dwell in a well, but wells — tapping into mysterious underground currents — are often depicted as gateways to the next world. If you peer down into one, you may see something other than your own reflection staring back.