Saturday, October 31, 2009

Spookey Month: The Last Spookey Video!

And we wrap up our Spookey Month celebration with this blurry video of Hamamatsu's own punk trio Spookey. Happy Halloween, world!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spookey Month: This Is Halloween's Big Year in Japan!

I thought so. Ever since the Hamamatsu Freshness Burger restaurants decorated for Halloween in the middle of September, I had this inkling the autumnal winds of my favorite scary holiday were a-blowin' throughout Japan. Now the Japan Times has a news story confirming my suspicions.

And I couldn't be happier about it. This is much better than the screwed-up version of Valentine's Day that's prevalent here-- women have to give men chocolate on February 14th; it's obligatory in some cases! Everyone can enjoy the ghoulish fun of Halloween equally.

But this new emphasis on Halloween didn't stop workmen from erecting the giant Christmas tree at Entetsu Department store last week. Nor did it stop them from putting blue lights on the trees along Kajimachi-dori downtown. And Col. Sanders was wearing his Santa costume at KFC as of last Wednesday. Hey, I love Christmas too, but one holiday at a time, please!

Spookey Month: Junior High Students Tell Ghost Stories

Junior high and ghost stories seem to go together here in Japan. I was looking on YouTube for some clips of this old TV drama from the 1990s about junior high kids investigating ghosts and the supernatural, but found this instead-- an English class project where the students narrate ghost stories in English, with clever visual effects. Fantastic job by one and all!

And now here's a short clip of a ghost story involving junior high kids, directed by Shimizu Takashi, who also directed the Ju-on (Grudge) series. It's called "Katasumi" and features the first appearance of Fuji Takako, who would play the ghost in almost all the Ju-on films:

Lessons learned? First, never fulfill your obligations and certainly don't complain about having to do so. And second, never leave your injured friend alone by the rabbit hutches.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Spookey Month: Teke-Teke, the Woman Who Runs on Her Elbows

She has to run on her elbows. She doesn't have legs. Teke-Teke is another in our ghastly catalog of modern Japanese horrors. Once a normal woman, a railroad accident in Hokkaido cost her her lower body and now she wants to cut you in half as well. Teke-Teke crawls across Japan on her elbows, making the sound which provides her name: teke-teke-teke-teke-teke-teke.

If you hear this story (or perhaps if you merely read it... sorry...), within three days you will see Teke-Teke's lower half wandering around. I don't know if Teke-Teke's legs also have a name or if they do anything sinister. Teke-Teke herself preys on schoolchildren. And like many other Japanese ghosts, she inspired not one but two horror movies:

In the movie, she goes after high school kids; they make inviting targets for movie studios too!

The fun and informative site Scary For Kids also mentions a variation on Teke-Teke, the unfortunate Kashima Reiko. Kashima Reiko is another of those ubiquitous school toilet ghosts of Japan.

I don't know why Japanese school bathrooms attract the supernatural; perhaps there's something about the energy fields here in Japan and various social anxieties surrounding body functions in relation to bathrooms lead to psychic manifestations-- malevolent ones, indeed. Japan is a land haunted by many yokai and oni, so it may be that school bathrooms represent easy pickings to some of the nastier spirits here.

Whatever her motivation for haunting school bathrooms, poor Kashima Reiko lost her legs in an auto accident and now hangs out in toilet stalls where she waits for someone so she can ask them, "Where are my legs?" If you give her the wrong answer, she tears off one of your legs. There are different answers you can give her if she asks you. One is to say, "At Meishin Expressway." She'll then ask, "Who told you that?"

Just tell her, "Kashima Reiko told me that."

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Spookey Month: Shonen Knife's "It's a New Find"

The legendary Shonen Knife, one of my favorite-ist bands of all. This song is full of good advice.

And apparently, Shonen Knife are playing a Halloween show somewhere. Lucky you if you're going to it!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Spookey Month: I Have No Idea What This Is...

Who is she? She's delightful. She's mysterious. This video has a dreamlike David Lynchian quality that's perfect for Halloween. Do you like Shinjuku? Do you know Shinjuku?

Yes to both questions.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Spookey Month: My Melt-Banana Video... Again!

Because you just can't get enough Melt-Banana in your morning banana diet, here's the video I accidentally made last August at O-Nest. I thought I was simply taking a photo, but I'd switched my digital camera to the wrong setting. Amazingly, I didn't twitch too badly when I realized I was video recording.

Spookey Month is all about Halloween and my favorite Japanese bands.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Spookey Month: Oh, Look, It's Tomie! And Tomie!

Tomie. So lovely. Too beautiful to live, too immortal to die. Or... something like that. This is the trailer for the 1999 Japanese horror film Tomie, based on the grisly manga series by Ito Junji. Like Tomie's various body parts, the Tomie films have taken on a life of their own, the most recent being 2007's Tomie vs Tomie.

Isn't this trailer creepy? I think it's the semi-documentary presentation of the street scene with a farty electronica soundtrack. The furtive, anonymous guy with the mysterious bag and his protective reaction when the other man bumps him. If you're familiar with the Tomie stories-- as I am-- you don't need to see the denouement in order to feel gooseflesh. You already know what's in the bag and why he's so concerned...

The manga stories are generally set in high schools, though. Not having seen this film, I'm not sure how closely it follows the comic's very loose storyline. I don't remember Tomie kissing any girls-- in the stories she's aggressively hetero-- but in 1999, why not? A decade before Katy Perry and a billion YouTube videos of drunk suburban kids made girl-girl kisses aimed at impressing heterosexual boys blandly mainstream and even cliche, they were a sure-fire way to label your protagonist as dangerously transgressive. From expression of love to movie trope to cynical marketing scheme to lame attention-getting ploy in just ten years. That's progress for ya!

Tomie has been played by a number of young women over the years beginning with Kanno Miho. I'm loathe to cite Wikipedia, but their Tomie films article has this gem:

Tomie is played by a different actress in each film, and the role is as coveted by Japanese actresses as Emmanuelle is in France.

That really puts Tomie in perspective, huh? That's the best comparison you could come up with, Anonymous Wiki Contributor?

This is what happens when you let just any idiot edit your encyclopedia. Taken at face value, it may even be true. Just as porn actors covet parts in sleazy porn movies, many of us covet a lot of stupid-ass things as much as certain Japanese actors covet the role of Tomie, but most of us are sensible enough not to use our desires for crap as a basis for comparison. For example, "Tomie is played by a different actress in each film, and the role is as coveted by Japanese actresses as a cheeseburger is by me at lunch."

Also true, but no less ludicrous.

I want to see this added to the entry on the James Bond film series: "James Bond has been played by a number of different actors, and the role is as coveted by British and American actors as Emmanuelle is in France."

Notice how the statement is also unattributed. The only time you'll ever find a reference to the parts of Tomie and Emmanuelle being somehow equivalent in status is in the mixed-up mind of that particular Wiki editor. You won't find it in a quote from any of the Japanese actors who have played Tomie.

Nothing like third Tomie Sakai Miki telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "I wanted to be Tomie as much as I'm sure any French actor has wanted to be Emmanuelle. In fact, whenever we compare the desire for any part here in Japan, our standard of reference is Emmanuelle. Even though we have no idea who or what the hell Emmanuelle is."

Note to Wikipedia-- you might want to edit that sentence into something non-idiotic.

Tomie vs Tomie's Tomie looks the most like the comic Tomie as far as I'm concerned. They even gave her Tomie's little beauty mark, just below her left eye:

Monday, October 19, 2009

Spookey Month: Battle Royale

Someone put the first 8 or so minutes of the infamous dystopian sci-fi/horror flick Battle Royale on YouTube, but I'm not going to link it here. Go check it out for yourself. Or, better yet, go rent or buy the DVD. Right now. Watch it in its entirety, then come back here and read this blog post. Or read the blog post, then go watch it. Either way is fine by me.

Adapted from a novel by Takami Koshun and directed by Fukusaku Kenji, Battle Royale tells the story of a junior high class taken (along with two sinister ringers) by the government to an island and forced to kill each other off until only one remains-- the "winner." Both the novel and the film have engendered quite a bit of controversy over the ensuing years, but they also have their share of cult followers, of which I happen to be one. More so of the movie; the book left me kind of cold.

The movie stars the invincible master-of-all-trades Kitano Takeshi, otherwise known as "Beat" Takeshi; this guy is omnipresent on Japanese TV hosting various shows, teaching filmmaking, writing art criticism, making his own movies. A universal genius who's seemingly tireless. It also features Maeda Aki, Shibasaki Kou and Kuriyama Chiaki in key roles. Maeda plays Noriko, the perennial outsider and nice girl who becomes the story's co-protagonist. Shibasaki is Mitsuko, one of the many villains in the story, a crazed bad girl who decides to play the game to the hilt. And Kuriyama is Takako, an athletic and somewhat independent gal whose vanity proves at least one luckless kid's undoing... and her own.

Shibasaki and Kuriyama impressed Quentin Tarantino so much he wrote parts for them in Kill Bill; unfortunately, Shibasaki was unable to participate.

Her fight with Uma Thurman's character would no doubt have been the stuff of cult film legend. As it stands, Kuriyama does the honors, basically playing an even more insane variation of Shibasaki's Battle Royale character.

The movie's full of cheesy moments and nagging plot holes. How does a junior high teacher become an official in the BR program? If the result of each year's battle is such a media frenzy, why don't the students know anything about it? And while most of the young actors were actually teenagers, few of them look nearly young enough to be junior high kids. Not even Kuriyama Chiaki, who was-- as incredible as it may seem now-- only about 15 or 16 years old when she made this movie:

But flaws aside, it's the little moments that make Battle Royale such a pleasure. Maeda's awkward outsider's charm-- at the movie's start, no one bothers to tell her the entire class is taking the day off-- and the way silent killer Kiriyama (Ando Masanobu) uses a megaphone to broadcast a dying girl's final squeals to her friends on the island:

And then we have the "Lighthouse Girls," a group of cheerful, popular students who set up a peaceful little society in an abandoned lighthouse. All the best of friends, their plan to somehow escape the game ends tragically when paranoia and secret jealousies erupt in a close-quarter gunfight:

But don't worry. Shibasaki, Maeda and Kuriyama are all still alive, doing well. They're always popping up in movies, TV dramas, on magazine covers or simply wearing gorgeous blouses in the fashion spreads within. But I'll always remember their desperate 48-hour stint on some nameless island off the coast of Japan where they dared ask-- and answer-- the question, "Could you kill your best friend?"

Friday, October 16, 2009

Spookey Month: Former Prime Minster Koizumi Junichiro's Silver Mane to Inspire Ultraman to Greater Heights of Heroism

It's not very frightening news-- unless you're completely phobic about controversial and charismatic retired prime ministers-- but Koizumi Junichiro will provide the voice for Ultraman King, mentor of the Ultras, in the upcoming release Dai-Kaiju Battle: Ultra Ginga Densetsu, The Movie (Great Monster Battle: Ultra Galaxy Legend, The Movie).

This is, if its title is to be believed, a movie of some sort. I'm guessing it features monster battles. Perhaps even great ones.

In other entertainment news, Mr. Koizumi's incredible swept-back hair has been signed to a multi-album deal by SonyMusic.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Spookey Month: Anatomical Monstrosities of Japan!

Ever wonder what Gamera and Godzilla look like underneath their skin? Wonder no more!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spookey Month: Kappa, Kitsune and Tanuki

Kappa are some sort of spirits or creatures that live in various bodies of water here in Japan. They're generally small, have physical features such as turtle shells and web hands and feet, are sometimes helpful... and are always polite.

This can come in handy. For a kappa also has a bowl-shaped depression on top of its head. It's filled with water and is the source of the kappa's power on land. If you meet a malicious kappa, one way to defeat it is to bow deeply. The etiquette-happy kappa will feel compelled to return the bow, spilling its head-water and becoming quite helpless.

Kappa are a mixed lot. They're credited with teaching the Japanese the medicinal art of setting broken bones, but also frequently steal children to eat them. Interesting trade off, huh? Kappa are also known for their delicious kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi. In downtown Hamamatsu, there is a homeless man sometimes found sitting on a bucket in front of the 7-11 on Yuraku-gai; he has a large domed head fringed with hair and bears the nickname "Kappa."

Kitsune are magical foxes. Like foxes in Western folklore, kitsune are tricksters. Highly intelligent, they sometimes assume human form, usually that of a bewitchingly beautiful young woman. In this guise, they sometimes marry mortal men. Kitsune have been known to possess people; again, usually young women.

Rain while the sun shines is known in Japan as kitsune-no yome-iri, or the "fox's wedding." Master filmmaker Kurosawa Akira includes a striking fox wedding in his film Yume (Dreams):

This proves unfortunate:

Tanuki, or "raccoon dog," is another magical Japanese animal spirit. Like the kitsune, tanuki are shapeshifters. They are frequently mischievous, but at least one was downright malicious-- this wicked tanuki clubbed an old woman to death and made her into soup which he then served to the woman's husband.

But most tanuki are relatively harmless, preferring a life of alcoholism and gluttony. Tanuki are also known for their oversized scrotums, referred to as kintama. Sometimes these scrotums are larger than the tanuki itself.

I first learned of tanuki from Tom Robbins' delightful novel Villa Incognito, part of which is set around the Lake Biwa region of Japan. This novel features a young woman who may or may not be descended from a tanuki. Japanese noise band Melt-Banana has a song called "Chicken Headed Racoon Dog;" it wasn't until after I read the Robbins novel I realized the song was about a tanuki... sort of. Tanuki statues are a fairly common sight around Japan. They and their magical scrotums typically stand in front of restaurants or shops to invite commerce and prosperity. Sing it now:

Tan-Tan-Tanuki no kintama wa
Kaze mo nai no ni
Bura bura bura

(Tan-tan-tanuki's balls
there isn't any wind
but still they swing swing swing)

Monday, October 12, 2009

Spookey Month: Have a Cosplay Halloween!

Sure, you can drag out last year's Sarah Palin costume. Or be zombie Michael Jackson... just like those other 3000 people you'll see Halloween night wearing that costume. The Scooby Gang? Yawn. It's been done. The Simpsons? How 1991. Why not do something different this year?

Why not cosplay for Halloween? J-List has a ton of ready-made cosplay outfits and accessories from manga and anime like Hell Girl (perfect for this holiday), Inuyasha, Evangelion, Naruto and Bleach. I'm not trying to get you to buy from them-- just to check them out for some cool ideas. There are lots of cosplay suppliers online to choose from. What I mostly want you to do is just look at how cute and cool the models on J-List look.

Doesn't that inspire you? No?

Okay then. How about this?

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Spookey Month: More Spookey For You. And You.

Spookey rocks the Devo glasses in Berlin.

Yesterday was the 3rd Annual Yaramaika Music Festival here in Hamamatsu. Bands played in various locations around town-- the station, Zaza City, in front of the former Joshin store and others. I watched a little rock combo do a credible cover of the Bill Haley and the Comets 50s chestnut "Rock Around the Clock" followed by Elvis' "Can't Help Falling in Love With You." Full-on katakana pronunciation made them a lot more interesting than any versions by someone like me would have been.

Some bands on the schedule: Boogie Woogie TINA, BLUE STONE, Vio Ray, GlayBerklee, Elephant Flow, MOJO KINGS, CLAYCLAW-AKIRA, Place In The Sun, FromSnowFlow, Heart Warm Company, THE BILLY ON DOLLARS, @mikan', Shiny Gospel Singers, ICE CREAM CAKE and-- my favorite-- Masturbation Love Session.

But no Spookey.

Saturday saw performances by various junior high and high school brass bands down at the station. I watched a large band consisting of about 40 sailor-uniformed girls and one uniformed boy (smartest kid in his school, evidently) doing a lively take on the Bill Conti classic "Gonna Fly Now (Theme from Rocky)," complete with towel-waving choreography. Pretty neat!

Friday, October 9, 2009

Spookey Month: More TsuShiMaMiRe

It's TsuShiMaMiRe again. I'm loving this band, especially when the singer/guitarist botches the lyrics and cracks up at her own mistake. Someone down in the comments on YouTube claims she says, "Baka da ne" under her breath. Under the giggles.

There are so many great bands in Japan.

And thanks to the person who shot this video and posted it. Or people.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spookey Month: TsuShiMaMiRe

Wow! Here's another all-girl rock band from Japan. I was looking for more Spookey on YouTube and came across this. TsuShiMaMiRe. My first experience hearing them and they rock. Oh how they rock.

"Ebihara Shinji" the song is named after Ebihara Shinji the man. During their earliest days, like a lot of Japanese bands, TsuShiMaMiRe played street lives. These are performances... well... on the street. You can sometimes see bands doing this around Shinjuku Station and in other places in Tokyo. Or even here in Hamamatsu from time to time.

On this particular day, their first ever street live, TsuShiMaMiRe faced a thunderstorm, which meant their audience consisted of but one homeless man. And that man was Ebihara Shinji.

Part of my mission here during this Spookey Month celebration is not only to explore the mysterious and supernatural aspects of living in Japan, but also the musical. To uncover sounds that are new to my ear via my fannishness for Spookey. Here's one instance where it's already paid off!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Spookey Month: A Wild and Windy Night!

The first typhoon to make landfall in Japan in two years came ashore in Aichi prefecture, just west of Shizuoka, at 5am this morning. One man was killed while delivering newspapers, and 24 others suffered various injuries. JR officials halted some shinkansen lines and airports in affected areas cancelled flights.

We had lashings of rain and strong winds preceding the storm here in Hamamatsu last night, so much so my A/C unit made popping noises as the outside vent cap flapped up and down in the gusts. It was definitely the kind of night you'd expect oni or yokai to be abroad, wandering about and spreading terror and bad luck. This morning, we have broken cloud cover and just a bit of blue peeking through.

Spookey Month: More Spookey!

The wonders of YouTube. Once again, this is Spookey. Spookey is an all-girl punk trio from Hamamatsu, Japan. They're not scary, just cool.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Spookey Month: Japanese Ghost Videos and Photos

Have you ever had a photo developed and discovered something surprising in the background? The undead or a spirit from the other side, for example?

These kinds of stories show up on Japanese TV every once in a while. Last year around New Year's, while I was staying in a Tokyo hotel, I watched a fun documentary about unexplained phenomena around the world and in Japan; UFOs and the like. The best part was the bit on ghosts appearing in the backgrounds of amateur videos and snapshots. The host was the multi-talented and omnipresent Kitano Takeshi. His celebrity guests really got into the ghost segment, squealing, oohing and ahhing, and laughing at some of the more obvious fakes. During a video of a hip hop dancer practicing his moves outside around sunset the camera revealed what appeared to be a severed head lying behind one of the concrete planters behind him.

Kitano snickered and said, "That's not a ghost. That's a homeless guy sleeping back there!"

Some of the video clips in the YouTube offering I'm linking here today are from Japanese TV dramas-- hey, if you accidentally capture a crew member in the background of one of your shots, it's a sign of incompetence, not supernatural intervention.

A popular "ghost" image is the unexpected hand. You see them eerily protruding from figures in the photographs. I saw one where a hand pokes out from between the sweaty thighs of a soccer player. There are probably plenty of people who would like to get their hands into exactly that position. But during a match? Another shows a hand on top of the head of a Chinese national team basketball player during a game. Most of these I discount as either optical illusions or outright fakes.

Lock the door as twilight falls. Dim the lights. And check out the creepy video and decide for yourself which are which. But beware... for those of you with a sensitive nature, perhaps more attuned to the sinister forces lurking just beyond the ordinary in our universe, some of these photos may prove... quite unsettling.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Spookey Month: Rokurokubi, the Ultimate Rubber-Necker

Rokurokubi are a type of oni (demon) with the appearance of ordinary women. They may even marry and live completely blameless lives during the day. At night, however, they reveal their true nature-- their heads rise as their necks stretch to impossible lengths. These snake-like necks allow the heads to swirl about and appear around corners when least expected.

Which is what the rokurokubi enjoy most of all. Being oni, they love to scare ordinary mortals. They also like to spy, which is only natural when your neck allows your head to roam independently of its body. You can probably find all kinds of weird hiding places for eavesdropping or windows to peer into and find out everything there is to know about your friends and neighbors.

I'm not sure how dangerous rokurokubi are, or if they have any supernatural powers beyond stretching their necks. In the film clip, the rokurokubi doesn't actually do much to either of the men. She just swirls around on her neck stalk, cackling, and they keel over from fright. I thought at one point she was going to go anaconda on that one jerk-ass and squeeze him to death, but no.

A missed opportunity.

Sure, rokurokubi enjoy shocking people. But I've known non-rokurokubi who delighted in doing the same and with much less justification. They certainly seem less frightening than Kuchisake-onna, who wants to kill you. Perhaps rokurokubi depend primarily on surprise or their victim's weak stomach. If you don't have much a problem with a rokurokubi's bizarre appearance, you can probably get away easily.

Or make a new friend. Or hire her to work for your company; she may come in handy in matters of corporate espionage.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Spookey Month: Kuchisake-onna, the Slit-Mouthed Woman

I love urban legends, and I especially love them when they deal with ghosts.

A while back I did an entry about Toire no Hanako-san. You know, the tale of the ghost Hanako, who haunts a particular bathroom stall in a school somewhere here in Japan. With Halloween coming up this month, I want to write a few entries about supernatural Japan and with Hanako-san already out of the way, it's time to turn to Kuchisake-onna, the woman with the big smile.

About a week ago, during a discussion of Halloween and ghost stories, a student laughingly reminded me of Kuchisake-onna. While it's fun to read about Japanese ghost lore, it's even more fun to have someone here actually tell you a story. Somehow that makes it seem more authentic, more real. And, like all good Japanese ghost stories, there's a movie version:

Kuchisake-onna is a strange apparition-- according to lore, on some foggy night she may approach you wearing a surgical mask. That in itself isn't so strange. People wearing surgical masks are a common sight here, especially these days when everyone's talking about the "new influenza."

But you can tell you're dealing with Kuchisake-onna when, instead of merely passing by and going about her business, she stops you and asks you, "Am I beautiful?" The correct answer, of course, is, "Yes!" To make absolutely certain, Kuchisake-onna will then remove her mask...

Revealing a grinning mouth that stretches from ear to ear, full of wickedly sharp teeth.

"Am I beautiful, even like this?" she'll ask. And here's where it gets tricky.

Obviously, you don't want to say, "No." This is Kuchisake-onna and she will rip you to shreds instantly. You might think to answer, "Yes" again. But this only buys you a short reprieve. Because the Japanese word for pretty is kirei, which sounds a bit like kire, meaning "to cut," Kuchisake-onna will follow you home and slice you into little pieces right in front of your own house. You also shouldn't try to run away without answering, because Kuchisake-onna is a sprinter who makes Usain Bolt look he's like running underwater. She can cover 100 meters in 3 seconds!

What you want to do is say, "Ma-ma," which is Japanese for "so-so." Or tell her she's average. This pleases her enough for her to let you go. Another strategy is to ask her if she thinks you're beautiful as well. That really confuses her and gives you time to flee to safety, and perhaps you can exchange keitai information and go shopping together one day and maybe have crepes or om-rice in some cute little restaurant. You might even toss her some fruit. Carry some blueberries or a pineapple whenever you take a walk alone at night as a safety precaution. If you meet her in Shizuoka prefecture, try strawberries-- they're especially popular here.

While this story may date back to the Edo period-- Kuchisake-onna began as an ordinary woman, punished horrifically by her samurai husband for infidelity-- the modern take became popular around 1979, in a version where Kuchisake-onna preyed especially on children. In other versions, an inept plastic surgeon caused her disfigurement, or a motorcycle gang, or an auto accident. She may not kill you, but may instead simply cut you in the same way she is. And she might possibly attack you if you smell of pomade.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Spookey Month: Is This Halloween's Big Breakthrough Year in Japan?

There's something in the air. Fall mysteries, cool breezes blowing dry leaves (wet today), thinning sunlight and lengthening shadows. Perhaps the land is haunted now. If we had to judge by Freshness Burger in Act City, we might come to a definite conclusion. They put up their Halloween decorations in early September; I'm guessing the Freshness Burger in the station did, too. Of course Toys-R-Us has had Halloween costumes and decorations for sale since then as well. New supermarket Pare Marche has some small "Happy Halloween" banners hung in various locations, including one in the meat section.

I'm not sure how Halloween-y raw cuts of meat are, unless you're planning some kind of cannibal display. Or, better yet, a Halloween cook-out with a lot of friends in costume.

I was a little disappointed not to see Halloween cakes in the refrigerated foods section at Circle-K tonight. Little sweet cream cakes with orange pumpkin shapes were nowhere to be seen. They did, however, have Nightmare Before Christmas Jack and Sally for sale up front. At least Meiji, maker of delicious foods, is getting into the spirit with some helpful Halloween treat recipes and a fall ad campaign featuring Hirosue Ryoko.

As Christmas becomes increasingly popular here, and so does Japan's unique take on Valentine's Day, perhaps Halloween is the next big thing. Why not? Halloween is pure fun-- a few safe scares, a chance to dress in a crazy costume, sweet chocolate candy and black cats, ghosts, vampires, witches and whatever creatures of the night strike your fancy.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Spookey Month: The Literary Ghost Story

It's October, that haunted month. Here in Japan, we've greeted it this year with a splash of rain. This will soon give way to dry sunny days and cooler temperatures. Today's dreary weather is just perfect for kicking off Spookey Month with a ghost story...

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite writers and has been since I read Kitchen a few years ago. Her spare prose may sometimes seem overly subtle but that only gives it more emotional resonance. The meaning is not only in the text, it's also in what's left unsaid. Hardboiled Hard Luck is my favorite Banana Yoshimoto book, two novellas joined by their similar titles. Hardboiled tells the story of a woman who decides to take a hike in the mountains on her way to a small countryside hotel. At first, the woman is caught up in her observations, rendered by Yoshimoto in delicately understated prose...

And then the story takes an unexpected Lovecraftian turn, complete with an adverb that the old horror master would no doubt find very familiar. The narrator finds herself in a "slightly more remote part of the mountain, beyond the reach of the streetlights" and reports:

I was overcome by an extremely unpleasant sensation. I had the illusion that space had bent itself gelatinously out of shape, so that no matter how long I walked, I would never make any progress.

At this point, Yoshimoto chooses to have the narrator reveal a past, failed relationship with another woman, one who could "see things other people couldn't." She wonders if somehow this supernatural bent has colored her perceptions and describes how their friendship became more intimate and their ultimate break-up. Almost immediately at the conclusion of this expository a passage, she encounters a small mountain shrine, but one lacking Jizo statue, or "any one of the other figures one might expect to find in this place." Despite the flowers and chains of origami cranes, the woman thinks:

Something incredibly evil is resting here -- something that used to live in the vicinity. I'm sure of it.

She feels something heavy and strange in the air, finds a strange grouping of black stones nearby, arranged in a circle and walks away to escape. She thinks of other places she's been where she's felt similar dark or foreboding emotions drifting in the air. She decides:

There are, without doubt, places in this world where something has settled, and it's best for us little humans not to get involved.

Yes, I'm sure H.P. Lovecraft or even Stephen King could tell us a thing or two about such places. I just finished reading King's 'Salem's Lot, where the Marsten House symbolizes just such a place-- a citadel of pure evil brooding over the more banal kind of the small American town below. Yoshimoto's tiny mountain shrine seems connected in space and time with all of these sinister places, but in a more indefinite way. What does it mean?

The woman finally makes it to her hotel and that's where the fun really begins. There's a fire in the local udon shop where she has an unsatisfying dinner. She finds herself feeling empathy with ghosts and after a hot bath, finds herself in their company.

It starts with a series of dreams about that past lover, now named Chizuru. Chizuru prays in a shrine, Chizuru seems more beautiful than in life, but less substantial. After the dreams, the narrator wakes to a knock at her door and meets a naked woman who claims to have been shut out of her room. This leads to an extended flashback where the narrator describes her childhood, and offers more details of her relationship with Chizuru, including the strange detail that Chizuru "always went to bed wearing an array of objects that glowed or lit up," in order to ward of ghosts. During lovemaking, where Chizuru always topped, these objects frequently poked the narrator and hurt her.

After their break-up, she has a final phone conversation with Chizuru and later learns Chizuru died in a fire. You know-- the day before they talked on the phone.

Back in the hotel, the narrator talks with the strange woman, then decides to call the staff and help her. She learns her visitor is actually the ghost of a woman who came to the hotel with her lover to commit suicide together. It's a long, fitful night full of more dreams of Chizuru, hot tea and sympathy from the hotel staff woman. In the morning, the narrator regains some sense of normalcy and closure with Chizuru.

This is a story of deeper emotions hidden just under the surface of Banana Yoshimoto's nuanced prose. I enjoyed especially the narrator's matter-of-fact approach to these strange events, and the way they're intertwined with her unresolved feelings about leaving Chizuru and her guilt at what happened afterwards, paralleled by her unfinished udon and the fire at the restaurant. It's interesting, too, how Yoshimoto involves the hotel staff woman. The narrator hardly has to convince her. The unreal is evidently always close at hand in this rural place with its sinister shrine nearby. Ghosts are real. The ghosts in our lives definitely are.