January in Japan: Tales of Moonlight and Rain

Ugetsu Monogatari by Ueda Akinari is a collection of Japanese ghost stories written in the 18th century. The influence of this collection on subsequent Japanese literature (and film) can be compared to Edgar Allan Poe’s in the English-speaking world. And yet these stories are very different from the tales of the supernatural we are familiar with in the Western world. There are no jump scares, no steady build-up of horror, no Gothic twists – in fact, these stories may not frighten you at all. Instead, they blend folk tales, Chinese literary tradition, historical elements and both Buddhist and Confucian philosophy.

Does that sound deathly dull? Possibly. And certainly not easy to read without extensive footnotes, which makes up more than half of this book translated by Leon Zolbrod (published by good old Tuttle, which, together with Kodansha International, was THE best friend of the student of Japanese, at least in my days). This edition also has beautiful pictures (in black and white only, but perhaps that adds to the sense of old-time atmosphere).

Many of the stories feature a traveller who comes across a somewhat eccentric individual, usually at dusk or at night, hears their story, converses with them, only to find out the next day that they were in fact ghostly apparitions. Another type of story is about spirits (especially animal spirits) that co-inhabit a human body. Akinari clearly believes that anything is possible, that in the darkness ‘demons might appear and consort with men, and humans fear not to mingle with the spirits.’ However, when dawn comes, ‘the gods and devils disappear and hide somewhere leaving no trace.’ Virtually all of the stories are set in the past and are critical of the medieval era of feudal lords and constant wars. Some of the ghosts are bloodthirsty rulers, others are victims of their constant fighting. The endless list of names (and having to turn to the endnotes to make sense of who fought with whom) doesn’t make for smooth reading.

As students of Japanese, we were told to examine the elegant use of language in Ugetsu Monogatari. We struggled, of course, because it’s a little like expecting modern readers to understand Shakespeare instantly. The author is clearly well-educated and knows his Chinese classics, but gives them a Japanese twist. He has absorbed the language of the Heian period (think Genji Monogatari) and is clearly also influenced by Nō plays, and the result is a dramatic and dynamic prose, designed to appeal to a wider audience. Yet there is also a wistful, poetic, melancholy strand, full of oblique references to classical poems. All of these nuances are difficult to convey in translation, but the translator has managed to make it feel remarkably easy to understand and not pretentious at all. You need to read longer passages for the cumulative effect, but some of the briefer descriptions of landscape and especially of abandoned buildings may convince you of the beauty of the language:

At the mountain cloister there remained no sign of habitation. The towering gate was smothered with brambles and thorns. The sutra hall stood empty and covered with moss. Spiders had spread their web across the Buddhist statuary, and the altar, where burnt offerings had once been made was overlaid with swallow droppings… Then the darkest part of the night came. Without a lamp it was impossible to distinguish even nearby objects, and the roar of the stream in the valley sounded close at hand.

What I had forgotten since the first time I read these stories is just how misogynistic they are. Women are there to be subservient and faithful, or else if they become angry because of abandonment, they turn into evil spirits. Meanwhile, men behave as abominably as they please and yet seem to escape ‘ogrification’. The second story, The House Among the Thickets, particularly incensed me. It forms the basis for the Japanese film Ugetsu (1953), directed by Mizoguchi. It’s the story of a couple: the man Katsushiro has frittered away the family fortune and is desperate to make some money, so he decides to go to Kyoto to sell their silk in an attempt to set up as a merchant. His wife Miyagi begs him not to go, but cannot dissuade him and ends up praying for his safety instead. He promises to return by autumn.

While he is away, war breaks out in the province, but Miyagi does not seek refuge elsewhere, so sure is she that her husband will keep his promise and return soon. She bolts her doors and manages to avoid intruders lusting after her renowned beauty (echoes of Penelope). But Katsushiro doesn’t return, needless to say.

At first he seems to make a nice profit in the capital, but then he is waylaid by robbers and loses all his money. He hears that war has broken out and blithely assumes that his wife has been killed. So instead of checking, he returns to Kyoto where he sponges off a rich man. He falls ill so postpones his return till spring, which is fair enough, but then ‘before he knew it seven years had gone by as if in a dream’. Oops! How do seven years just slip by without you noticing? So he finally decides to return home and what is the excuse he gives upon being reunited with his far too patient wife?

I heard that our province was nothing but scorched earth and that horses had trampled every foot of ground. You must have passed away to dust and ashes, I thought, or if not that, I imagined, perhaps you had drowned. Eventually I went back to Kyoto where I managed to live for seven years on other people’s good will. But recently I found myself wondering more and more about old times, and I decided that the least I could do was to return and pay my respects. Even in my wildest dreams, you see, I never imagined that you might still be alive.

She gently chides him (in tones reminiscent of Anne’s passionate defence of women in love in Persuasion): ‘I’m very happy now but you should know that a woman could die of yearning, and a man can never know her agony.’

The story is given as an example of how bitter feudal wars affect ordinary everyday people, and the film version certainly blames the husband more for neglect of the family (there is a child involve too in the film version). But it still leaves a bitter taste in my mouth and makes me be firmly on the side of the uncontrollable female stalker in the story The Lust of the White Serpent. Of course in that story the woman is the dangerous villain and her evil nature has to get exorcised.

That tricky white serpent and her maid throw themselves into a waterfall to escape pursuit.

In The Cauldron of Kibitsu we have another couple: the wife’s justifiably jealous of her philandering husband, yet he manages to trick her into giving him money, which he then uses to set up house somewhere else with a new lover. Although it’s the jealous wife who gets transformed into a fox spirit, at least there is some come-uppance for the real villain of the story.

I suppose the difference between reading these stories at the age of 20 and at my age now is that I can no longer quite skate serenely over the content and simply admire beautiful language. That’s why I keep putting off rereading Mishima, who was a great favourite of mine at the time…

15 thoughts on “January in Japan: Tales of Moonlight and Rain”

  1. I’ve always found legends and other such traditions to be fascinating, Marina Sofia. So, the connection between these stories and the legends is appealing to me. And, although I don’t speak Japanese, I do appreciate the elegant language, and it’s good to know that aspect has been preserved (what you shared really is fine). Not sure how patient I would be with the misogyny, though, if I’m being honest. Even a well-written story grates on my nerves if it has characters like that…

  2. This does sound beautifully written but the extensive footnotes are a bit off-putting as it would really fracture the reading. Maybe I’d just have to decide to read it twice, firstly with all the notes and then just straight through. I have some Mishima in the TBR but I’ve yet to try him. Fingers crossed…

  3. I loved this collection, and I gave my copy away one year as a prize for the Japanese Literature Challenge. Now I almost wish I had it back! Hopefully, it is being enjoyed elsewhere. The stories were so atmospheric, such a lovely collection. I am glad you reviewed it here for us.

  4. Can you read this without an extensive knowledge of Japanese culture and history? It’s sounds like a difficult read for non-specialists.

    1. This edition has an extensive section explaining all the cultural background, as well as endnotes, so it provides enough information to enable you to read it. It does of course impede the flow of the narrative a bit…

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