Brain Diving The Ghost with the Most
by Brian Ruh, Aug 9th 2011
Back in March I wrote a Brain Diving column on Otsuichi's Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, bragging about how nice the weather was in Austin and that I was getting in the mood for summer. Ugh, what was I thinking? Now that we've broken the record for the most number of consecutive days over 100 F, I feel that by writing that I was like Homer Simpson running around shouting “No comeuppance!” You can have summer – I'm thoroughly done with it. Unfortunately, no end to this oppressive heat is in sight, so I'll just partake in some more mental chills by taking a look at another book of Japanese horror.
This time, though, instead of a fictional book about the supernatural I'm going to be examining a nonfiction book about Japanese ghosts – Patrick Drazen's A Gathering of Spirits: Japan's Ghost Story Tradition: From Folklore and Kabuki to Anime and Manga, which was recently self-published through the iUniverse service. This is Drazen's second book; the first one, Anime Explosion! The What? Why? & Wow! of Japanese Animation, came out in 2002 from Stone Bridge Press and was an introduction to many of the genres and themes that can be found in anime.
I think the switch from a commercial press to self-publication may indicate the direction English-language anime and manga scholarship may be heading in. A few years ago, when Japanese popular culture seemed like the Next Big Thing, there were more publishers that seemed like they were willing to take a chance on books about anime and manga.
Unfortunately, as I know firsthand (and as I've heard from other authors, confirming that it's not just me) these books didn't sell nearly as well as anyone was hoping, which in turn meant that these publishers didn't want to take risks with additional books along these lines. After all, all publishers need to make money in one way or another to stay afloat. In the last few years, the majority of books on anime and manga have been published by university presses, perhaps most notably the University of Minnesota Press. But I already gushed about them in my last column, so I'll spare you from any additional public displays of affection.
However, this puts books like Drazen's in an odd predicament. It's not really an academic book, since it lacks the references and theories something like that would entail, which means it's not a good candidate for a university press. However, since few popular presses have seen their books on anime and manga reflect positively on their bottom lines, there aren't many other options these days other than self-publishing. Of course, these days publishing a book on your own doesn't have nearly the same connotations it did decades ago, when vanity presses were the domain of those with more money (and ego) than sense. These days you can self-publish a quality product, get it up on Amazon for all to see, and (if you're savvy about these things) perhaps even make a tidy profit.
Since Drazen established his credentials with Anime Explosion! and his work on the annual Mechademia journal, I was very curious to see what he had come up with in A Gathering of Spirits. He begins by recounting a tale of a policeman's encounter with a nopperabou, or faceless ghost. It is a short tale taken from Isao Takahata's film Pom Poko, but, as Drazen notes, a similar story can be found in Lafcadio Hearn's 1904 collection of scary Japanese stories called Kwaidan. This type of ghost will also be familiar to anyone who has seen the first episode of the recent Dororon Enma-kun anime. The story of the nopperabou is, as Drazen says, “part of Japan's long and rich spiritual tradition” and is an example of how manga and anime “can refer back to ancient source material.”
Drazen's goal with A Gathering of Spirits seems to be relatively modest – he wants to show the reader “a sampling of Japanese ghosts and spirits, from sources that include the world's oldest novel, the urban legends of contemporary Japanese schoolchildren, movies both classic and modern, anime, manga, and more.” In order to accomplish this, the book takes on the structure of the hyaku monogatari, which Drazen says is a tradition that was begun in the Edo period. Literally meaning “one hundred stories,” the hyaku monogatari is a kind of a game often played with a group of people in the summer. A hundred candles are lit, and the participants each take turns telling a ghost story, after which a candle is blown out. When the final candle has been extinguished, something spooky is supposed to happen, like a ghost appearing or an extra voice calling out from the darkness. In the book, Drazen covers a hundred different Ghost Stories, divided by theme into thirty different chapters. These include chapters on spirit guides, cemeteries, suicide, household ghosts, school ghosts, and train ghosts, just to name a few. He has chapters on ghosts in noh and kabuki theater, Japanese films, and classical literature, although most of the examples are drawn from anime and manga. The titles Drazen chooses run the gamut from kiddie fare like Pokémon to more serious (and bloody) works; they also range in genre from shonen fighting titles like Yū Yū Hakusho to romantic comedies like Maison Ikkoku.
Since Drazan aims to provide a “sampling” of Japanese rich, ghostly heritage, I'd say that the book is definitely a success. He has chosen some really solid examples, and he often ties them together very well. It's obvious that a lot of reading and research went into compiling this book, and I'd certainly recommend it for anyone fairly new to anime and manga (or Japanese culture) who is interested in learning more about spooky or the supernatural. These kinds of stories in comics and animation keep older folkloric traditions alive by presenting such tales in new contexts to new audiences.
In presenting such “samples,” though, the bulk of A Gathering of Spirits consists of rephrasings of previous literary works (such as Hearn's Kwaidan) and plot summaries of various anime and manga. There is some analysis, particularly in how Drazen arranges and presents the stories. Although it may sound straightforward, there is an art to presenting plot summaries in a way to both gets the point across with enough detail, yet doesn't bore the reader. This is made even more difficult when discussing a ghost that crops up in a long-running series whose characters and settings would be familiar to most viewers, but which may be foreign to the readers of his book. For the most part, Drazen is able to walk this line, crafting summaries that get at the point of the Ghost Stories without bogging the reader down.
At times, I wished this were more of a scholarly book, since these Japanese Ghost Stories would make good fodder for some in-depth analysis. With the J-horror boom a few years ago, there have been plenty of academic articles on Japanese ghouls and demons, and recently there have been quite a few books on mythological Japanese monsters. Some of these books, like Noriko T. Reider's Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present, even bring up anime and manga in their discussions. I would have loved to have seen Drazen engage with what some of these academics have written about Japanese ghosts and creatures, but, as I mentioned earlier, this is not his stated goal.
There are a few issues I had with the book, though, that I think may indicate where traditional publishing may still have a leg up on self-publishing – the active involvement of a skilled editor. Although I'm certainly no expert, I've been involved in this writing business both as an author and as an editor (notably on Mechademia, where I've worked with Drazen). I know how much a good editor can improve a piece, helping to tighten up wording and clarify half-formed ideas. Every good author has a good editor behind them, making them look good and allowing them to claim all the credit. (Hi Zac!)
I have no firsthand knowledge of the writing process involved in creating A Gathering of Spirits, but it seems to me that a good editor could have made things flow a little more smoothly. Take, for example, the basic description of the hyaku monogatari, the series of hundred Ghost Stories that forms the backbone of the book. This is described in a fair amount of detail in the very first chapter, titled “To Get Things Started.” But then Drazen explains the basic concept all over again a little while later in chapter six, appropriately titled “Hyaku Monogatari.” Similarly, Drazen recounts multiple times the tale of “Hoichi the Earless,” a blind musician ordered by ghosts to play before them. Another place where an editor could have come in handy is in the chapter on school ghosts, in which Drazen discusses the anime series Ghost Stories, or Gakkou no Kaidan. This title was somewhat controversial when ADV brought it over in 2005 because they decided to give it an intentionally silly “parody” dub instead or a straightforward English rendition of the original Japanese dialogue. Although viewers could still watch the show subbed, in this chapter Drazen digresses for a number of pages with a discussion of the changes the dub made, and how they deliver a “reading that says much more about the Americans than the Japanese, and none of it is flattering.” He then goes on to discuss anime editing and dubbing in general and at great length. Although I can understand Drazen's frustration with some of the editing and dubbing choices that have been made in the past, a screed against such practices seems out of place in the middle of a chapter on ghosts in school. All in all, these are relatively minor issues, but I think they may point to the necessity of a good editor and the downsides of self-publishing.
One problem with the “sampling” approach is that by jumping around and presenting various tales to the reader, the origins of such stories can be muddled. It is often unclear whether the stories are new twists on ancient stories, or are modern inventions themselves. It's also not entirely clear how the various stories relate to Japanese religions. Drazen states that Japan has a dual religious nature of both Shintoism and Buddhism, giving the figure that 84% of Japanese believe in both religions at once (although he provides no citation to back up this claim). While it is true that Shinto and Buddhism currently co-exist in the Japanese religious consciousness (this wasn't always the case, though), other studies have shown that the majority of Japanese are not particularly religious. Indeed, in an NHK study conducted over many years nearly 2/3 of the respondents said they do not have a personal religious faith. However, it should be noted that a lack of faith doesn't necessarily mean a lack of belief in the supernatural. The same survey showed that the percentage of Japanese who believe in gods, buddhas, and a soul after death were 35.9%, 42.8% and 54%, respectively. I think these survey results indicate that while Ghost Stories may play an interesting and culturally significant role in Japanese life, they are not necessarily something the majority of people actively believe in. Thus, when Drazen writes something like, “One thing that you seldom hear in Japan, even in the 21st century, is that ‘there's no such thing as ghosts.’ Most Japanese know better,” he is painting a somewhat skewed picture of the role of belief and spirits in the daily lives of most Japanese. (For those curious, I'm getting my information from the article “Religion in Contemporary Japanese Society” by Jan Swyngedouw in the book Religion & Society in Modern Japan.)
In spite of some of these caveats, I'd definitely recommend Drazen's A Gathering of Spirits: Japan's Ghost Story Tradition: From Folklore and Kabuki to Anime and Manga if you want to see how folk tales of Japanese ghosts have been adapted and transformed in modern media. Even if you're very familiar with these stories, you may see some connections you had previously missed. The book is available as an e-book (which is how I read it) and as a physical paperback.
Brian Ruh is the author of Stray Dog of Anime: The Films of Mamoru Oshii. You can find him on Twitter at @animeresearch.
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