Exploring “Japanese Gothic Tales”

“The blues makes me happy.”

That is not a direct quote, but I remember some blues musician saying something like it on what was probably CBS’s 60 Minutes when I was maybe 10 years old (two minutes of lazy Googling did not turn up a firmer memory, so be content with the ambiguity!). At that age, I did not understand the statement. Why would a sad thing make someone happy?

A decade later, I have a guess: sadness is of course tautologically sad, but the act of accepting that sadness through a medium like the blues has cathartic value. Facing sadness might not make a person happy, but it might make them less sad.

I am not exactly sad at the moment, but I may be having one of those lonely moments that creep up on people living abroad. In the past month, my usual cure-alls have faltered: the anime this season is mostly bad, no games or TV interest me at the moment, my language study has once again plateaued, and several weeks of ongoing rain have kept me indoors. So, thinking of the blues and sadness, I asked myself what genre or medium peddles in loneliness? I had an oblique answer in another question: what better time to read a horror story than alone at night?

So on a whim, I decided to pick up Japanese Gothic Tales, a collection of four short stories by the late Meiji-into-Taisho-period writer Izumi Kyoka (and beautifully translated by Charles Shiro Inouye, professor of Japanese literature at Tufts University). Though half of the stories perhaps did not live up to the label “gothic” or even “horror,” the entire collection is some of the most interesting Japanese modern literature I have read.

Published by the University of Hawaii Press and complete with sizable note-section bibliography in the back, Japanese Gothic Tales seems primarily intended for an academic audience rather than a popular one. Inouye has a scholarly argument to advance about Kyoka’s significance domestically within the Japanese literary canon and cross-culturally as a “gothic” writer akin to Edgar Allan Poe. With that in mind, the book’s four stories approximate something like a representative sample of Kyoka’s literary career (as much as such a thing is possible for a writer with hundreds of publications), perhaps selected more for their strength as primary evidence in advancing Inouye’s thesis than their readability as fiction-for-pleasure.

The two longer stories, “The Holy Man of Mount Koya” and “One Day in Spring,” stand out as the best of the bunch. As Inouye identifies them, “Koya” is one of Kyoka’s most famous pieces and “Spring” is one of his best. Set within frame narratives of holy men spinning magical, barely believable tales, both stories make for some of the most effective folklorish horror I have read. To avoid spoiling the suspense, I won’t say more but I really do recommend them.

However, I can’t say the same for the other two stories. Within the academic context of Inouye’s argument, they become bookends on a survey Kyoka’s work: “The Surgery Room” was Kyoka’s first significant published piece and “Osen and Sokichi” was typical of his late career. But as pleasure-reads, they just aren’t very interesting. “The Surgery Room had a great body horror moment and a sharp conclusion but otherwise felt empty. Meanwhile, “Osen and Sokichi” jolted from scene to scene in such a vague, confusing way that I often stopped to reread whole pages. (On that, in the afterword Inouye wrote: “The difficulty of this fragmented style is trying.” To quote “Osen and Sokichi” itself, “heh heh”).

With that said though, in a fascinating discussion essay Inouye uses even the two weaker stories to detail a convincing evolution of Kyoka’s literary career. Though I did not exactly enjoy “The Surgery Room” or “Osen and Sokichi” as captivating fiction, within the afterword they did help to contextualize Kyoka’s more interesting work. Complete with Inouye’s essays and the short stories, Japanese Gothic Tales thus gives a solid sense of Kyoka as a writer at various stages in his life. Considered in an educational sense, the book then becomes an excellent introductory course for those interested in Kyoka specifically or modern Japanese literature more generally. At the very least, “The Surgery Room” and “Osen and Sokichi” are short enough to breeze through without complaint.

Interestingly, the selected stories work as a representative sample of Kyoka’s entire fiction corpus because he did not venture far from a handful of basic plot and character templates. Inouye explains that throughout his career, Kyoka continued to retread the same concepts over and over again: lone travelers and lonely monks, beautiful, tragic (and sometimes magic!) women, impossible romances and love suicides, white and crimson imagery, and water-as-death symbolism marking the halfway point between reality and the realm of Japanese religious folklore. Anyone familiar with Noh or Bunraku puppet theater will recognize beat-by-beat similarities with classic stories in those mediums. As a self-consciously backwards-looking writer, Kyoka does not have much original to say.

However, the way he said it was wonderful. If nothing else, the collection features some of the most gorgeous prose-in-translation I have ever read, even in the two shorter stories. Kyoka’s (and Inoyue’s!) masterful descriptive talent alone makes him worth reading. As much as I hate to agree with the far-right novelist Yukio Mishima, his assessment of Kyoka’s writing (quoted in the foreword) seems apt: “[Kyoka] drew from a vocabulary as rich as the sea to craft sentences of lasting stone and to plunge into the deep forest of Japanese mysticism and symbolism.” I opened a few pages at random and reencountered this gem from “One Day in Spring:”

See this glorious grass? These trees? They have blood and passion. They’re hot beneath the sun’s red light, and the earth is warm like skin. The light penetrates the bamboo grove, and the blossoms are without shadows. They bloom like fire, and when they flutter down onto the water, the stream becomes a red lacquered cup that slowly floats away. The ocean is blue wine, and the sky…

Inouye explains that Kyoka’s lack of originality in his subjects meant that he focused more on the metaphor and imagery and prosody of the prose itself. All four stories writhe in unsettling language. Inouye describes it like this: “What Kyoka discovered as a modern writer was that words themselves are bakemono [monsters] — deformed and deforming locations of sight and sound.” Kyoka’s horror does not come from his derivative plots or his stereotypical characters. Instead, the words themselves produce an unsettling haze somewhere between an indifferent reality and a tempting but dangerous world of magic. The story’s best moments occur during transitions between those worlds, when the protagonists’ skepticism convinces them to press on even as Kyoka’s words warp the mountains and sky into something unnatural. The character for “bake” in “bakemono” means change, and the real horror in the collection comes when the characters slip into that borderland between sanity and madness.

The horror elements work best in the frame narratives of “The Holy Man of Mount Koya” and “One Day in Spring.” Both stories begin with holy men entertaining lone travelers in something akin to an American-style campfire story. However, neither storyteller seems fully trustworthy; their first motivation is to captivate their audience and keep them listening until the end regardless of the literal truth of their words. In “One Day in Spring” especially, the priest seems to drag out his story with almost comically well-timed embellishments simply because he is lonely and doesn’t want the traveler to leave.

This produces an interesting double-blind ambiguity between worlds: within the holy men’s narratives, the protagonists have crossed into the mad, magical world of Japanese folklore. But back in the real world and within the safety of the frame narrative, the storytellers might have simply spun a good yarn. As a result, when the travelers (and the reading audience) part with the holy men, their skepticism has been corrupted by a little of that classic horror anxiety, like a child still fearing a monster under the bed despite checking a dozen times. Regardless of the literal truth, the stories have succeeded if they can produce even a shadow of suspicion about the existence of some mysterious horror.

Did Japanese Gothic Tales cure my loneliness? Perhaps not. Despite the weird and unsettling worlds, the stories never exactly scared me (though some of the philosophical ideas from “One Day in Spring” did horrify me). But overall, I very much enjoyed the book and would recommend it to anyone with even a slight stomach for horror. To reiterate, Kyoka’s metaphor and Inouye’s prose-in-translation are just gorgeous. Though “The Surgery Room” and “Osen and Sokichi” might disappoint, they make for quick enough reads that really supplement Inouye’s excellent discussion in the afterword. Regardless, “The Holy Man of Mount Koya” and “One Day in Spring” alone made the whole collection worth reading. Kyoka may not have been the most original modern Japanese writer, but he was certainly one of the best.

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