Category: Narrative/Verbal Art — Folk/Fairy Tale

Kaiki: Uncanny Tales From Japan, Volume 1: Tales of Old Edo

Edited by Higashi Masao. 2009. Fukuoka, Japan: Kurodahan Press. 271 pages. ISBN: 9784902075083 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Michael Dylan Foster, University of California, Davis

[Review length: 1231 words • Review posted on March 27, 2013]


This three-volume series of “uncanny tales” consists of translations of short stories and other narratives from some of the finest writers of Japanese supernatural fiction. The tales were selected by Higashi Masao, a prodigious anthologist and expert on horror literature, and translated into English by a range of translators, including several accomplished scholars of Japanese literature. Most of the selections would be classified as popular or literary fiction, as opposed to folklore, but the influence of folkloric narrative genres, as well as specific beliefs, tales, and motifs, makes this collection an invaluable contribution to the study of supernatural folklore in Japan, or for that matter, anywhere else in the world. As an added bonus, these fantastic tales also make for fantastic reading—at turns, frightening, creepy, funny, lyrical, surreal, moving, but always entertaining.

The authors in the first volume, Tales of Old Edo, range from Edo-period (1603-1868) scholar Ueda Akinari and Meiji-period (1868-1912) literati Koda Rohan to the contemporary bestselling mystery writers Kyogoku Natsuhiko and Miyabe Miyuki. All of the stories, however, take place during the early-modern Edo period (1603-1868) and most of them draw directly on folklore and beliefs of the time. Kyogoku’s contributions, for example, are explicitly modeled off a popular Edo-period collection of “urban legends” called Mimi bukuro. Of the many contributions to this volume, the one that stood out most viscerally for me was “The Ino Residence,” a dramatic day-by-day account of eerie occurrences in the home of an oddly calm young samurai. The story, by Inagaki Taruho, is a modern rendering of a folk narrative first put in writing in the eighteenth century, and gives the contemporary reader a window into the startling range of uncanny possibilities conjured up within the Edo-period imagination.

All the stories in the second volume are from twentieth-century authors with the unifying theme being their setting in the countryside. Here, too, there is much for the student of folklore to discover, as the authors draw on traditional Japanese monster, ghost, and demon imagery. This sometimes includes specific allusions to folk belief, such as the kudan, a bovine-human hybrid creature that foretells the future, in Komatsu Sakyo’s “The Kudan’s Mother.” Fittingly, Higashi begins this volume with a short selection from Yanagita Kunio’s “Legends of Tono,” the foundational work by the putative father of Japanese folkloristics. This not only sets the folkloric tone of the literary narratives that follow, but also alerts us to the constant dynamic interplay that has always informed folklore and literature in Japan.

The final volume of stories returns the reader to the Metropolis, in this case specifically the modern city of Tokyo. Of all the volumes, the narratives collected here draw least on specific folkloric themes, but they evocatively demonstrate the sense of mystery and fear that comes with living in close, but often anonymous, contact with so many other human beings. With works by the popular mystery writer Edogawa Rampo as well as Nobel Prize Laureate Kawabata Yasunari, the stories in this volume have a surreal edge to them, powerfully mixing supernatural elements with science and psychology to evoke the isolation of life in a modern metropolis.

Each volume in the series includes a brief preface by Robert Weinberg followed by an extended introduction to the tales, authors, and historical context by Higashi Masao. These introductions are particularly helpful because they locate the historical and social circumstances that inform the plot of each tale, and also provide a brief literary history and general background for each author. The reader with an interest in folklore will learn a great deal from Higashi’s explanation of the cultural contexts out of which these tales developed; he includes, for example, a discussion of the Edo-period practice of oral ghost-tale telling, known as hyakumonogatari, as well as an introduction to some of the fantastic creatures of the Japanese pantheon. Through Higashi’s contextualization it is clear that some of the narratives are explicit retellings of legends and memorates, while others draw implicitly on motifs and belief systems common in the folk imagination.

As is inevitable with such a large range of contributors, the translations themselves vary in quality, but most of them are extremely well written and read smoothly and crisply; it is clear the translators and editors have worked hard to make them pleasurable to read while still accurately reflecting the tone and nuance of the original Japanese. Without being intrusive or excessive, the translators have also helpfully provided footnotes to explain folkloric or cultural references. It is also worth noting that most of the stories here are being translated into English for the first time. A few of them have been translated before, but of course one point of an anthology is to bring tales together in a new and distinct combination, and all the selections here resonate productively with each other.

It is hard to find fault with this important collection, and indeed, the main quibble I have is not so much with what is presented, but with what is not presented. I wish in particular that there was a little more explanation about how the volumes came into being; such an ambitious collaboration between a renowned Japanese literary expert, an English-language press, and a group of skilled translators is all too rare, and it would be fascinating to have some background on the process.

I was also a little mystified by how the stories were categorized. Higashi points out in the introduction to the first book that, “the three volumes are divided into the spatial categories of ‘Edo,’ ‘The Provinces,’ and ‘Tokyo’” (3). I was, therefore, confused by the first book in the series: although all the stories contained therein are indeed set during the Edo period, several of them take place far from the city called Edo (modern-day Tokyo). “The Ino Residence” mentioned above, for example, is famously associated with the region of current day Hiroshima Prefecture. This inconsistency does not detract from the stories themselves, nor from the overall impact of the collection, but a little more information about the criteria for selection and organization would have been helpful.

But these are exceedingly minor quibbles with an outstanding set of publications. This is an invaluable contribution to scholarship on the supernatural in literature and folklore in Japan and elsewhere. The stories are accessible and entertaining; they could easily be used in an undergraduate class where they would illuminate some of the sources and motifs so prevalent in contemporary Japanese horror film, manga, and anime. Moreover, these stories provide an introduction not only to a variety of important authors—many of whom are underappreciated even in Japan—but also tempt the reader to venture more deeply into the cultural and folkloric contexts that inform them. In short, the series is a perfect entree into some of the enduring traditions of Japanese supernatural folklore and supernatural literature, and the cross fertilization between the two.

I should add that the books themselves are good quality and relatively inexpensive paperbacks, making them affordable to a general audience. This is an impressive achievement given that Japanese-to-English translation projects are rarely celebrated for their profitability. The publisher of these volumes, Kurodahan Press, is a small independent publisher located in Fukuoka, Japan. Over the last several years Kurodahan has slowly but consistently produced affordable books to help bring Japanese literature and scholarship to English-language readers. I hope they will long continue to do this.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.