TOKYO (TR) – Toho film veterans Godzilla and Mothra are well known to followers of Japanese pop culture. Less famous — but equally fearsome — are the yokai, a group of Japanese mythic monsters and humanoids.
Certainly they were less widely known until last year’s publication of “Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide,” a tongue-in-cheek field guide to some of these imaginary beasts, which roamed Japan’s forests, canyons and villages centuries ago — at least via fables and lore — and have found their way into aspects of modern society.
“Each character has a basis in a Japanese folktale,” says American co-author Matt Alt, 35, who, along with his Japanese wife, Hiroko Yoda, 37, assembled the list of 42 yokai, including the Kappa, a green, reptile-like amphibian with a sizeable beak found in rivers, and Onibaba, an elderly hag who preys on pregnant women in order to collect the livers of their unborn children, In all, the illustrated 191-page book reads like a who’s who of nightmarish characters.
According to Alt, however, the few dozen yokai featured in the book are merely a sampling. “Given the vastness,” he says, “it was important for us to not only represent the breadth of yokai out there, but also to ensure that they weren’t too obscure.”
Beyond the myth, “Yokai Attack!” explores the origins of these beings, which were often created as a means to explain inscrutable natural phenomena. Azuki Arai, for example, which means “bean washer,” is a short, balding creature that utters an onomatopoeic tune as it goes about its rinsing along riverbanks. Apparently, locals invented it as an explanation for “the disorienting acoustics of river canyons, which tend to amplify ambient sounds.”
While it is true that these beasts are not fact, they are not entirely fiction, either. “The impact upon Japanese culture, both popular and traditional, is very real,” Alt explains. The aforementioned Kappa, which enjoys cucumbers, lends its name to kappa maki, a sushi roll stuffed with that vegetable. Similarly, kitsune udon (noodles covered with tofu) is named after the wily, fox-like Kitsune and its proclivity for such a topping.
Japanese literature, anime and films are filled with yokai, too. Toei Animation’s anime series “Mononoke” features a Nue, a creature with the legs of a tiger, body of a raccoon dog, a monkey’s head and snake’s tail, while director Takashi Miike’s 2005 fantasy film “The Great Yokai War” sees actress Chiaki Kuriyama star alongside numerous scampering critters.
“Yokai Attack!” is organized like a scrapbook. Split into chapters with titles like “Annoying Neighbors” and “Gruesome Gourmets,” the book details the basic characteristics of each entry, as well as a spot of advice should the reader meet one. For Hashi Hime, a scowling, long-haired female with a penchant for breaking up happy couples, for example, the books believes “your only chance is to swear to break up with your significant other. Don’t have one? Uh…”
Accompanying the profiles are reproductions of woodblock prints and colorful illustrations by Tatsuya Morino, an assistant to famed horror manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, whose friendship with Alt was sparked by a mutual interest in antique, die-cast metal robot toys from the 1970s.
To research the project, Alt and Yoda spent many hours at the National Diet Library digging through microfilm. The 1776 book by Sekien Toriyama, Gazu Hyakki Yako, a kind of satirized yokai encyclopedia, provided the basis for the couple’s work.
The guide is dedicated to Setsu Koizumi, who, a century ago, assisted her husband, the Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn, in penning numerous yokai-inspired ghost stories for foreign readers. Their partnership proved inspirational for Alt and Yoda, who met while at the University of Maryland in the United States.
“Cross-cultural communication can’t be a one-man show,” explains Yoda. “I really feel that Lafcadio and Setsu’s example sets the standard for when it comes to dealing with multicultural material. When we first heard about them, Matt and I saw a lot of ourselves in the way they worked.”
The authors, who run a Tokyo-based translation company that produces English-language versions of Japanese video games, animation and comic books, say that the book’s content reflects a theme common in many different cultures and evident in such literature as the old Grimm’s collection of fairytales from 19th-century Germany.
“Japanese people like scary stories just like many people around the world,” Yoda says. “I don’t think most people in Japan generally think of yokai as gruesome. Some of them definitely are, but many others are cute or weird rather than disgusting.”
Note: This article originally appeared in the June issue of iNTOUCH, the magazine of the Tokyo American Club.