Friday, June 26, 2015

Tales of Moonlight and Rain (雨月物語) -- Ugetsu Monogatari -- by Ueda Akinari

Columbia University Press, 2007
235 pp

Anthony Chambers, who is a professor of Japanese literature and literary translation at Arizona State, has brought together these little tales of ghosts, spirits and other things in this slim little volume. The title "alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with the lingering moon," and if you look at the kanji characters, they literally read "rain moon tale."  To me, it's a great book to read on a dark night when all is quiet  -- rain is a definite plus -- and it goes well beyond just the stories.

There are a couple of different ways a reader might approach this book.  Chambers offers information about each story just prior to its beginning, offering information and history on Title, Characters, Places, Time, Background and Affinities.  If you're not at all interested in literary, cultural, political or other areas of Japanese/Chinese history (i.e., the scholarly approach)  you might want to skip directly to the story itself. The downside of that approach is that in footnotes, annotations, etc., there are references to other literary works, so just watch out.  If the reverse is true and you're into discovering the history of these works and their forebears, there are several wonderful little gems of information under each of these headings, very much worth the time it takes to read them. I would skip the intro and return to it after you've read the entire book, but of course, that's my own preference (I do that in every book I read) -- but it is also very interesting in terms of historical background so do not miss it.

As for the stories themselves, there are nine.  I have to say that I've recently discovered Hulu's 900+ collection of Criterion films, and watched one called "Ugetsu."  I fell instantly in love with this movie, so I did a bit of research on it.  It turns out that the movie is a combination of two stories in this book -- "The Reed-Choked House" and "A Serpent's Lust", and I was elated to discover that I actually had this collection in my home library.

Machiko Kyō as Lady Wakasa
[These eyebrows for some reason totally creep out my husband; I'm not sure why]
The story list is as follows:
"The Chrysanthemum Vow"
"The Reed-Choked House"
"The Carp of My Dreams"
"The Owl of the Three Jewels"
"The Kibitsu Cauldron"
"A Serpent's Lust"
"The Blue Hood"
"On Poverty and Wealth"

The collection itself dates back to the 18th century; it is a classic in the world of Japanese literature.  A number of these tales have been borrowed by Ueda from Chinese literature; he changed them to Japanese settings and adapted them to fit into Japanese culture.  Samurai abound, for example; Buddhism and Shinto also play major roles in these tales.  All of these little stories are quite good (with the exception of "On Poverty and Wealth," which I did not particularly care for),  but my favorites were "The Reed-Choked House" and "A Serpent's Lust," followed by "The Kibitsu Cauldron" (the tale of a very faithful wife), "The Chrysanthemum Vow" (two men whose love conquers death) and "The Carp of My Dreams," the greatness of which is in the author's ability to  blur the line between dreams and reality to an extreme.

While not exactly the mainstream fodder of modern readers of supernatural tales, this collection is beyond outstanding. Anyone who is one-hundred percent serious about literary horror/dark fiction should have this book in his or her library; for me it's a beautiful blending of works from two cultures I love and it perfectly suits my need for reading something different every time I pick up a work of dark fiction.  Just so I feel like I'm being honest here, it is not always an easy read -- you have to read, think, and do both slowly.

It is an absolutely stunning collection I can highly, highly recommend.  Even if you want to bypass the scholarly approach, the stories themselves are amazing.

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