A wild monster chase: yokai and Haruki Murakami

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2013/06/06 Column

A wild monster chase: yokai and Haruki Murakami

by Matt Alt

If any one word sums up the canon of Haruki Murakami's fiction, it is "weird." For the record, I mean that as a compliment. But even the most ardent fan of Murakami in translation—and as we all know, there's a lot of them these days—would be forgiven for missing the echoes of traditional Japanese horror that lurk within the pages of his books.

Among those echoes are the footsteps of strange creatures called yokai. All but unknown in the West, the yokai are the original weirdos of Japanese literature. They are the things that go bump in Japan's night, and it seems they have always been here. Their history is long—in some cases, well over a thousand years. Yet their role in Japanese literature and entertainment often sails right beneath the radar of non-Japanese fans.

Japan is said to be home to yaoyorozu no kamigami—eight million gods, though this is a euphemism rather than a specific count. The yokai number among this multitude. Unlike the holy gods on high, however, yokai are more down to earth. Personifications of natural phenomena and terrors of the night, they inhabit a plane of existence that isn't precisely accessible by us, yet parallels and occasionally intersects with our own. Particularly during that literal twilight zone between day and night, when our sense of sight begins to fail us and—wait, did you just hear that?! What was that?!

For those of us living in an era of bright cities with 24-hour convenience stores and ready access to flashlights, it's easy to forget that not so long ago, once darkness fell, it reigned until daybreak, and the yokai along with it. As the old saying goes, there are no atheists in foxholes. The same could be said of Japan's nights before the advent of electricity.

Originally passed down from generation to generation as oral folktales and stories, yokai tradition proved a rich foundation for printed stories and illustrations during the dawn of Japanese popular culture in the late 17th century. This makes them the direct ancestors of Japan's booming market for character merchandise. Ever wonder how the Japanese can make a mascot out of nearly anything by sticking a pair of eyes and a mouth on it? It's largely thanks to the infinitely anthropomorphic yokai, many of which take the form of "haunted" household objects.

Frightening though they might be, yokai aren't all bad. Unlike goblins, ogres, and demons of Western lore, yokai are more like forces of nature than forces of evil. While some are inherently dangerous, so too are natural phenomena like lightning or earthquakes. Some yokai are actually good to have around, and more than a few harbor more fear of humans than we do of them. (Only the Japanese, I suspect, would invent Aka-name, a monster whose raison d'etre is licking dirty bathtubs clean.) This sort of inherent unpredictability, more than malice, is what makes the possibility of a yokai encounter so terrifying. You never quite know what you're going to get when you run into one.

Murakami pointedly avoids using the word "yokai" in his stories, a tendency shared by director Hayao Miyazaki, another celebrated Japanese pop-culture creator with a flair for the supernatural. Yet the yokai, or rather their traces, are undeniably there. The emphasis is on "traces": Japanese writers who drop yokai into their stories are a dime a dozen, but Murakami's genius is in distilling them so thoroughly into his own idiom that their presence is subtle, almost subliminal?something like folklore remixed.

Here are a handful of those traces to get you started.

The Sheep Man
A Wild Sheep Chase and Dance Dance Dance
At first glance, the Sheep Man appears to be a human, albeit a strange one with an even stranger, allruntogetherwayoftalking. But while he may be perpetually dressed in filthy sheepskin, the Sheep Man isn't your ordinary "furry." He acts as a guide to our nameless protagonist, assisting him in sojourns between our world and a strange shadow-world that exists behind the backdrop of our reality.

Adding "-Man" or "-Woman" to the end of a word sounds comic book-y in English, but in Japanese, it evokes the strange human hybrids that abound in the yokai world. For example, there's Nure-Onna, the "Wet Woman," who takes the form of a sea serpent with a woman's face. Or Yuki-Onna, the "Snow Woman," who's a personification of the concept of dying of hypothermia. On the other hand, there's Yama-Otoko, literally "Mountain Man," a kindly giant of the hills. (It's largely for this reason that Western heroes such as Spider Man are usually rendered phonetically (Supaidaa Man) rather than translated directly into Japanese. Trust me, Kumo-Otoko sounds like something you wouldn't want to run into in a dark alley.)

Set against this tradition, Sheep Man feels like he's in good company. For one thing, he's an anthropomorphic sheep (or, if I might be permitted to invent a term, an ovinopomorphic man). But is he here to help? We're never quite sure, and that is part of the charm. His neutrality maps closely to the chaotic nature of the yokai. For example, take Snow Woman above. In her most famous tale, about a pair of woodcutters caught in her clutches, she quietly lets the younger of the two survive and even becomes his wife. Again, you never quite know what you're going to get when yokai are involved.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
When the protagonist takes refuge from his pursuers via a mysterious closet, he finds himself in a strange waterworld that connects the sewers and subways running deep beneath Tokyo. Dark and dank, it is inhabited by a society of dangerous water-dwelling creatures called yamikuro, a combination of the Japanese words for "dark" and "black." For the English edition, translator Alfred Birnbaum evocatively rendered this made-up word as "INKling"—an acronym for "Infra-Nocturnal Kappa."

Kappa are a constant presence in Japanese folklore. Frog-like humanoids with tortoiseshell backs, they are feared for pulling swimmers to their deaths in streams and ponds. (They also happen to be fond of cucumber, which is how kappa-maki sushi got its name.)

"Aside from the play on the English word [ink], I wanted something that faintly suggested the hidden satire of closed-door Japanese politics," says Birnbaum of the choice. "The whole adventure takes place under Kasumigaseki [the real-life center of the Japanese government's bureaucracy], a no-go zone beyond most common mortal understanding."

One of the criticisms leveled against Dance Dance Dance by foreign readers is the lack of a concrete description of the INKlings. Chalk it up to simple cultural differences. For a Japanese reader, the concept of "dark" creatures lurking in bodies of water needs no explanation, thanks to years of familiarity with creatures such as the kappa. Something to chew on along with your cucumber rolls next time you read the book.

The Well
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
An old, dried-up well is one of the central plot devices in The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. For Toru, our protagonist, it's a metaphysical wildcard, a portal to another world, or at least another plane of consciousness.

We can all agree that deep, dark holes in the ground are unpleasant sorts of places. But why a well specifically?

As it turns out, wells play a prominent role in Japanese folklore. One of Japan's most famous classical horror stories, Bancho sara-yashiki (The Dish Mansion of Bancho), involves a young maid tossed down a well to die for the crime of breaking one of her master's ten china plates. Every night thereafter, her spirit rises from the darkness to count aloud to ten, over and over again, throwing the house and its inhabitants into chaos. If this sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it's also a direct ancestor of the smash-hit "J-Horror" film The Ring.

Wells are scary around the world, but they seem to evoke a special terror in the hearts of Japanese. In fact, according to Japanese law, the presence of an old well on a property, even one long since filled in, is one of seven criteria that can qualify a real estate listing as "potentially psychologically harmful." (Others include more obvious failings such as a murder or suicide on the premises, a history of flooding, or proximity to waste treatment facilities.)

Sheep Men, sewer monsters, and wells are merely the most obvious examples of yokai-like imagery in Murakami's books. If anything, his aversion to using the actual word is appropriate, allowing the motifs to dwell in the spaces between the sentences just as the yokai dwell in the space between light and darkness.

And in the words of the author himself at a recent speech at Kyoto University, "I do not usually appear in public, but this is a special occasion, so I have emerged like a kappa." Perhaps his inspirations aren't so secret after all.

Matt Alt (1973–) was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in its suburbs. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a BA in Japanese, he spent four years as an in-house technical Japanese translator for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. In 2003 he moved to Tokyo to co-found AltJapan Co., Ltd., a company that produces the English versions of Japanese video games, manga, and other entertainment. Together with Hiroko Yoda, he is the co-author of Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide; Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws; and Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide (all from Tuttle Publishing).