Friday, July 17, 2015

Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan, by Lafcadio Hearn

Dover, 2006; originally published 1904
159 pp


I'm late to the Lafcadio Hearn party, having only read two stories in this collection before picking up this book -- "The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi" and "Yuki-Onna," which have long been personal favorites. There are seventeen actual "Kwaidan" ( kaidan)  in this book, and then a section by Hearn called "Insect Studies," three compositions that in their own right are definitely worth reading.  From what I've been able to discover, Hearn's wife Setsu related a number of these tales to him, but as Oscar Lewis notes in his introduction, Hearn spent a lot of energy and time trying to
 "unearth some quaint legend or trace down some curious bit of superstition...and he worked with the same slow patience to render his discoveries accurately and without distortion into English."
He was so keen to get it right that
"he made her [Setsu] enact again and again a part of some ancient legend, studying her every gesture, insisting on the exact intonation of every word."
Now, I don't know about anyone else, but to me, that's a prime example of unshakable passion at its peak.  Luckily, his admiration and persistence have paid off in spades -- these are some of the finest weird folk tales, legends, and  ghostly tales to be collected in a single volume. Ranging from out-and-out creepy ghost stories to monks roaming the countryside where various monsters and other creatures seem to abide, there is never a bad note struck throughout the entire collection.

At seventeen stories, I'm not about to go into each one, but I'll highlight my favorites.  As mentioned earlier, I am quite partial to "the Story of Mimi-nashi Hoichi," a tale in which a blind biwa player is summoned to recite the Tale of the Heike (平家物語Heike Monogatari -- another personal favorite) in front of a distinguished audience. He is asked to relate the part about the battle at Dannoura, "for the pity of it is most deep."  Unfortunately for our blind biwa player, his recital is magnificent -- and he is called back for another performance.  Then there's "Yuki-Onna," in which a young woodcutter is about to meet his death, but is miraculously saved by a strange woman he encounters in a cabin in the woods. What happens afterward is just downright freaky creepy.  While all of the tales in this collection are excellent, I also loved "Rukoru-Kubi," the story of a high-ranking samurai turned wandering priest after his master's house was defeated in the ongoing warfare of the time and the house fell. Kwairyō (the priest)  makes a habit of sleeping outdoors, but accepts a humble woodcutter's offer for shelter. Insomnia gets the best of him, and he literally stumbles into a closely-held secret that will literally stick with him for some time. Another fine entry is "The Dream of Akinosuke," in which the dreamer is whisked off to a sort of fairyland in order to marry the king's daughter -- but on waking from the dream, discovers exactly where he's been.  Just super.

Miminashi Hoichi playing his biwa

The stories are short but their length doesn't affect their potency; by virtue of being stories that have been handed down over several centuries, the reader also gets a look at ancient Japan from different angles, from the world of the samurai on down to that of the lowliest peasant. It is a world of constant upheaval in terms of the physical world and also vis a vis the traditional social order.  One major exception is "Hi-Mawari," a story that takes place in Wales, obviously penned by Hearn himself.  After the kaidan section is finished, the reader moves into Hearn's "Insect Studies," where he dwells on butterflies, mosquitoes and ants.  While you might be tempted to skip them, don't. They're absolutely fascinating, drawing on traditional folklore, etc.  from Japan and China.

I realize that not everyone is going to admire these stories like I do, but I love all things Japanese and this collection was simply superb. It might just be a good opening into all sorts of kaidan for a novice reader, and there are several works available in English that would make for great follow-up reading.  Another thing worth noting here is that there is a movie called Kwaidan, based on Hearn's stories, two from this book and two more from other works he compiled.  The two from this collection are "Yuki-Onna" and "The Story of Miminashi Hoichi;" these are joined by dramatizations of "The Reconciliation" (from Shadowings) and "In a Cup of Tea," (which is delightfully creepy) from his Kotto: Being Japanese Curios and Sundry Cobwebs.  [as an FYI, these links go to Amazon, and I get nothing if you click there.]

I loved this book and I can't recommend it highly enough.

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