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…

Too Old for Ghost Stories?

TheWhisperingIn the early hours of the morning I finished reading Sarah Rayne’s The Whispering. I have to admit: I downloaded it under the false impression that it was crime fiction, because I don’t ‘do’ ghost stories.  Any more. I did love them when I was a teenager, especially the classics like M. R. James, The Turn of the Screw (which I still think is one of Henry James’ masterpieces), Edgar Allan Poe. But felt I had outgrown them.

Yet I read The Whispering in one day and started wondering why I am being such a pesky little genre snob even when I vow to myself that I will be open-minded. Have I not ventured into sci fi, chick lit, YA, historical or dystopian crime fiction and all sorts of other genres I was less enthusiastic about and been pleasantly surprised again and again? (Well, nearly everything, bar vampire stories.) What put me off supernatural tales after a while was that the stories tend to be rather implausible and ultimately depend very much on the reader’s willingness to believe in them.

This applies to this book as well: when you pick it apart at the end, there are some holes in the story. But ghost stories are not about logic and strong plotline: they are about build-up and atmosphere. On these two counts, this novel does not disappoint. It is a contemporary story about a researcher from Oxford University, Michael Flint, who sets off to a secluded country house in the Fens to visit the reclusive Miss Gilmore. She has family documents about the tragic fate of the Palestrina Choir at a convent in Belgium, so we know there will be a story within a story.

Of course we have all of the traditional and inevitable components of a haunted house mystery: the sinister, unwelcoming house, its strange mistress (whom Michael imagines to be a cross between Miss Havisham and Morticia Addams) the tree falling down and blocking the road, so that our main protagonist has to spend the night in the house. Michael finds it hard to contain his curiosity, even after an unsettling encounter upon his arrival at the front door with an elusive young man whispering demented things. The Fenland storms and mists may frighten a lesser man, but the library is well-stocked, the personal archives are beckoning as are the deep soft chairs and cosy fireplace, so ‘if the research took longer than the planned two days, it would be no hardship.’ Through careful perusing of archives, plus some supernatural inspiration, he begins to piece together the sad story of First World War soldier Stephen and his horrendous experiences at the German POW camp of Holzminden. So quite a topical subject in this centenary year of the start of WW1.

GhostNow, bear in mind that I haven’t read supernatural tales in a long while, so perhaps the fashions have changed and I am merely stating the obvious. But what seems to me to elevate this book above the run-of-the-mill chiller/horror stories is the modern humour and interplay of characters. I have heard that Michael and his partner Nell West feature as investigators into the supernatural in a series of other novels. The author also ably intersperses scenes from the house with the research being conducted elsewhere, which gives a nice respite from the piling on of horrors. Yet there are some genuine frissons to be had and not just one but a few climaxes.

Am I glad I read this book? Yes, it was an entertaining, chilling and thrilling fun-fair ride. Will I seek out ghost stories from now on? Probably not. But I won’t avoid them and prejudge them either.

Your turn now! Are there any genres you shun or dismiss? And have you ever read them by accident? If so, have they confirmed your negative impression or have they pleasantly surprised you?