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Tales of Old EDO Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan, Vol. 1 Paperback – Oct 21 2009
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About the Author
Robert Weinberg is Associate Professor of History at Swarthmore College. He is author of "The Revolution of 1905 in Odessa: Blood on the Steppes" (1993) and coeditor of a book-length edition of the journal "Russian History" (1996). Bradley Berman is the Associate Curator/Project Director for "Stalin's Forgotten Zion" at the Judah L. Magnes Museum in Berkeley, California. Zvi Gitelman is Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan and author of numerous books on Jews in the Soviet Union.
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As for the stories themselves: I can't imagine any serious lover of weird fiction wanting to be without them. As Robert Weinberg points out in an astute introduction, the Japanese approach to supernatural horror resembles that of the incomparable M.R. James; there is the same unsettling juxtaposition of the ordinary and the uncanny. There is also an admirable restraint in regard to explanation and exposition; strange things happen, and are all the more disturbing because of their inexplicability. The stores are tight, spare, and truly bizarre.
All the stories in this first volume are excellent, those by Okamoto Kito and Yamamoto Sugoro particularly so. Koda Rohan's story at first overwhelms the reader with an absurd wealth of irrelevant detail, which cleverly set off the extraordinary weird developments which ensue. But Weinberg is right in singling out Kyogoku Natsuhiko's "Where Had She Been?" for special praise. In its horrible, mystifying brevity, it reminds me of Bierce's outrageous classic, "The Spook House". It's criminal that more of Kyugoku's short fiction has not been translated. But perhaps this indispensable series will help change that.
The tales all have some connection with Edo - though many stories are not set there - and range in age from 1776 to 2005. Some are retellings of classic Japanese ghost stories, some are influenced by European and American horror stories, and some are entirely original.
"In a Cup of Tea", Lafcaido Hearn - Hearn's retelling of the Japanese tale "A Young Man's Face Appears in a Cup at a Tea Shop". Masao notes Hearn brought out the "tale's fantastic and nonsensical nature by editing out the last parts".
"The Chrysanthemum Pledge", Ueda Akinari - An old tale from the classic 1776 collection of Japanese weird fiction, Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Translations from the Asian Classics). It celebrates the virtues of loyalty and not hanging out with "superficial" people.
"Three Old Tales of Terror", Kyôgoku Natsuhiko - Three shorter stories all titled with questions: "Who Made Them?", "What Does He Want?", and "Where Had She Been?" and definitely in the tradition of enigmatic Japanese weird fiction
"The Futon Room", Miyabe Miyuki - A serving girl, replacing her dead sister's position, wonders what horror awaits her in her new job.
"Here Lies a Flute", Okamoto Kidô - Editor Higashi Masao implies this 1925 story bears the influence of W. W. Jacobs' "The Monkey's Paw".
"The Face in the Hearth", Tanaka Kôtarô - An enigmatic story on the dangers of being impolite? It involves a mysterious monk.
"Visions of Beyond", Kôda Rohan -- As Robert Weinberg and Higashi Masao note in the book's introductions, this story is not at all horrific and mostly a long piece on the intricacies of Japanese river fishing: the different fish to be caught and the techniques for doing so and the admonition that the goal of fishing is to enjoy and contemplate the whole experience, not necessarily catch fish.
"The Inô Residence, Or, The Competition with a Ghost", Inagaki Taruho -- A thoroughly delightful tale paced in a way that's very surprising for Western sensibilities. The translator notes for the story say that the story is based on the 18th century narrative An Account of Inô and the Spirit, and several Japanese authors have done versions of it.
"Through the Wooden Gate", Yamamoto Shûgorô -- In his introductory notes, Masao says this belongs to a subgenre of Japanese supernatural stories known as "kidnapped deity" stories.
"Three Eerie Tales of Dark Nights", Sugiura Hinako - A brief manga.
As usual with Kurodahan Press publications, the book comes with plentiful footnotes explaining relevant aspects of Japanese culture and history as they are alluded to in the stories.
The important subtitle of this book is "Tales of Old Edo," not "Tales from Old Edo." Along with stories by the great authors of Edo period weird tales, like Lafcadio Hearn (Kwaidan: Ghost Stories and Strange Tales of Old Japan), Ueda Akinari (Ugetsu Monogatari), and Okamoto Kido ("Strange Tales of Blue Frog Temple"), there are modern masters like Miyabe Miyuki (Crossfire) and Kyogoku Natsuhiko (The Summer of the Ubume). Some of these tales I knew very well, particularly the old classics. Some of these I was reading for the first time. But whether I knew them or not, I found the mix of old and new to be fresh and appealing.
None of the entries here could be mistaken for horror. Although populated with ghosts and monsters, Japan's storytelling tradition lends more towards strange experiences and odd phenomena than chills and thrills. Kurodahan Press was very careful in choosing the term "uncanny tales" for the title. There are nine stories collected in total, along with two essays on Japanese weird fiction, a short manga story, and an introduction by Robert Weinberg. Each of the stories has a different translator, some of whom do a better job than others, and which affects the quality of the stories.
I loved the 1959 story "Through the Wooden Gate," by Yamamoto Shugoroi. There supernatural undertones are subtle, and much of the story must be read between the lines. I also enjoyed the 1938 "Visions of Beyond," by Koda Rohan which takes you through page after page of various fishing techniques before finally getting to the story of the haunted fishing pole. Miyabe Miyuki's 2000 "The Futon Room" was a touching story of sisterly love, and Kyogoku Natsuhiko's "Three Old Tales of Terror" where a perfect recreation of the Edo style hyakumonogatari tales that were designed to be short and told around candlelight. I don't know that I would have chosen Lafcadio Hearn's "In a Cup of Tea" out of all of his available stories, but it is a good one that I hadn't read for awhile. I liked the inclusion of Hearn's essay "The Value of the Supernatural in Literature."
The translations in "Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan" where never bad, although there was variation in quality. Some of the translations seemed stiff and formal; more like an academic exercise than a book designed for pleasure reading. I spotted a few mistakes here and there, worked my way through a few clumsy turns of phrase that must have sounded better in Japanese than in re-worked English. But on the whole the various translators did a good job, and I found myself forgetting I was reading a work in translation and just disappeared into the story.
Kurodahan Press has a series of three books in this series, and I intend to pick them all up. The only disappointment is this is one of those books I would have loved to have participated in the making of not just in the reading of! Great stuff all around.