Japanese Cultural Books


       For those of you that are looking for something to do with your spare time other than watching anime, or you need to find a book to read at the beach or pool, every now and then I’ll do a book review of some title related to Japanese/Asian culture. So, the first review follows.

 

     So, my first book review will be of Haruki Murakami’s After Dark,  Haruki Murakami is a very popular Japanese writer, over 14 of his books have been translated and published in English. After Dark  is what I’ll call a light/summer read, it is 244 pages in length, and is available in paperback, ISBN 978-0-307-27873-9, price 13.99.

      After Dark’s  story takes place in Tokyo’s Shibuya ward, in the “after dark” period (the period between when the last trains and buses stop running for the night and the first trains and buses begin to operate just before daybreak) the story takes place over only about 6 hours.

       At it’s heart After Dark  is a story about two sisters longings for human connection, the story is told form the perspective of the younger sister, Mari Asai, 19 years old, and a college freshman. We first meet Mari at a Denny’s restaurant around midnight, where she is smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, and reading a book.

      We get to know Mari and her story through a bunch of chance encounter she has with the various residents and night dwellers of the Shibuya ward; a old double date of hers, a love hotel manager, a Chinese prostitute, and many other interesting characters that reside in the area. But, one of the most important characters is the city itself, vibrant, electric, massive, and foreboding, it almost seems like at times it is willing to devour Mari without a second thought.

      Like I said earlier, this is a story about two sisters longing for human connection, and it is also a story about running away. Mari the younger sister, plain looking as she would describe herself, but others tell her she’s cute, spends her nights almost invisible to the city around her, until a chance encounter with a old double date forces her to realize what she is fleeing from and what she must do to establish the connection that she so desperately needs.

     Then we have the older sister Eri Asai, 21 years old, beautiful to the point of almost being unearthly, a model and photo book girl, ever popular, but her life is never her own. One day, two months after eating dinner with her family, Eri tells everyone that she’s going to sleep now and goes off to bed to and has not woken since. She eats, washes, uses the restroom and shower but never when anyone can see her, 99% of the time she slumber like sleeping beauty.

      Through Mari’s chance encounter with Takahashi, Mari comes to understand things about herself and her sister that they should have said to each other but for one reason or another never did, and through this new understanding they might be able to establish the connection that they both so desperatly need.

Several years ago a friend of mine wanted me to give a little presentation on Japanese ghosts stories on so forth, right before Halloween, at our local anime club. So I delivered a thirty minute presentation featuring supernatural stories and picture slides showing how a lot of anime feature ghosts, demons, and the supernatural that originate from real Japanese folklore, and mythology. So in the coming months I’ll feature and review several books covering Japanese folklore, mythology, and other historic topics that anime fans might find interesting.. The first book I’ll review is Japanese Ghosts & Demons, Edited by Stephen  Addiss,  (c) 1985, ISBN 8-80761126-3 Price $29.95.

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This book is 192 pages long, and contains around 100 pictures and illustrations of Japanese ghosts, demons, and other supernatural things. The book has a great introduction by Akira Yamamoto about the history of supernatural Japanese myths and legends and how these beliefs show up in artwork and stories.

Chapter one covers the Hyakki yako (night parade of one hundred demons) very popular during the Heian period, and how various versions still live on to this very day.

Chapter two is about Yurei (female ghost stories), this chapter cover several famous female ghost stories, most of these tales are about wronged females returning from the grave to take revenge on those whom wronged them.

Chapter three is about the portrayal of the male ghost on the kabuki stage, and in the Ukiyo-e art-form (woodblock prints, called pictures of the floating world). This chapter coves how the supernatural was portrayed on the kabuki stage and how these portrayals influenced the Ukiyo-e art-form.

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Chapter four is about the Sennin, the immortals of Taoism. Belief in the Sennin started in China between 480-221 B.C. These Taoist ideas then mixed with Confucianism and Buddhist beliefs and were then brought to Japan as Buddhism came over from China. One anime featuring several Sennin characters in it’s story is the Twelve Kingdoms.

Chapter five is about Shoki the demon hunter. Shoki was legendary Chinese demon queller who aided the Emperor Kao-tsu by saving him from a demon, and he then told the Emperor it was his mission to rid the world of demons. This idea spread from China to Japan to become the basis for many demon hunter story lines.

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Chapter six covers the Oni (the Japanese demon), every anime fan has seen numerous anime featuring the Oni. The Oni can be good but are most often portrayed as evil, they can travel easily between the human world and land of the dead, and unlucky people attract them more often than lucky people.

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Chapter 7-9 covers Japanese Tengu (mountain goblins), Tanuki (raccoon-like dog), Kitsune (fox), snakes, serpents, and how these creatures fill Japanese folk tales and scary stories. We’ve all seen many anime featuring these supernatural creatures, and in these anime the creatures show many of the powers they had  in the old folk tales. In the anime Inu Yasha Shippo often transforms into a female when he needs to trick someone or play a joke on someone, well Japanese folk tales have many stories of the Kitsune transforming into females to trick, seduce, or even reward human males.

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The last chapter is about the merging of the human and animal world where it is shown that in many cases humans describe their behavior to animals, drawing them or portraying them as having human gestures or behaviors, and vice versa. In conclusion this book can be a great help to any fan of Japanese culture, or any anime fan who would like to have a better understanding of the supernatural.