Monday, 18 January 2016

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things - Lafcadio Hearn (1903)

A copy of this intriguing book was given to me as a secret santa present about four years ago (by my oldest brother I strongly suspect). It had been on my mind for a while so I decided to finally read it. I’m glad I did because this charmingly idiosyncratic book was a source of great fascination and entertainment. Written by Greek born Lafcadio Hearn during the last years of his life living in Japan, Kwaidan is a collection of Japanese supernatural folk tales, many of which are centuries old. Hearn traveled to Japan in 1890 to work as a newspaper correspondent but soon abandoned journalism for teaching, which eventually led to teaching english literature at the Tokyo Imperial University. Along the way he married and became a naturalized Japanese citizen. Unfortunately he died at the relatively young age of 53 from a heart attack. I wonder if he haunted anyone?

The collection opens with one of its best stories, The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi. This story was somehow familiar to me, although that didn’t stop it from being creepy. Set seven hundred years in Japan’s past it recalls the tale of a blind monk called Hoichi, whom was proficient with the biwa instrument, and his encounter with the ghosts of the Heike clan who had perished in a famous battle. Hoiche is tricked into playing the biwa for the ghosts deep in the forest at night and has to be saved by his masters who come up with a workable but flawed plan. Like many of the stories in the collection the narrative style is sparse yet evocative; the scenes described come to life with an unnerving clarity. Many of the stories are no more than a few pages long, such as Diplomacy. Diplomacy is a simple tale of a Samuri who cleverly tricks the man he is about to execute so he will not return as a ghost to take his revenge. Reading stories like these made me realize just how steeped Japanese culture is in ghost stories and other bizarre supernatural phenomena. It is no wonder they make such disturbing horror movies such as Ringu (1998). In fact four of these stories were made into a critically acclaimed film called Kwaidan in 1964.

Perhaps the best story here is Rokuro-Kubi. A Samuri named Isogai Heidazaemon travels through an isolated mountainous area. Deciding to settle down to sleep for the night a woodcutter happens upon him and warns him that he’s in a dangerous area and offers him shelter for the night. Little does the Samuri know that he’s being tricked and the woodcutter is a Rokuro-Kubi, a being whose head detaches from its body to rampage through the night. The Rokuro-Kubi heads plan to eat him while he sleeps, but Isogai has other ideas. This story is disturbing but at the same time reminded me of the giant slapstick heads in the classic Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away (2001). No doubt there are many references to centuries old supernatural tales in many of the brilliant Studio Ghibli films.

It’s a pity that this collection did not end with Horai, a story about a place where the atmosphere is made up of ghosts and the people never grow old (where did the ghosts come from then?). Instead Hearn ends by including some of his own studies of butterflies, mosquitoes and ants and their cultural significance in Japan. These pieces are moderately interesting but after the ghostly atmospheres of the preceding stories my interest began to wane and the book ended on a low note. Despite this flaw Kwaidan’s supernatural charms were enough to make this collection memorable and it has reignited my interest in Japanese literature. Many years ago my brother lent me a number of books by Japanese authors, many of which I enjoyed immensely. Lately I’ve bought a few books by Yukio Mishema, which coincidentally was one of David Bowie’s favourite authors. I’ll have to read them sooner rather than later, along with Murakami’s last novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (2013). Maybe on a long flight to Japan? Who knows....

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