Ghosts of Taisho and Heisei
My only disappointment with “Kaiki: Uncanny Tales from Japan – Volume 3: Tales of the Metropolis” is that it is the final volume. I could easily read another ten volumes or more in this remarkable series by Kurodahan Press.
Japan’s history of weird and uncanny tales (not to be confused with horror stories) is probably more rich and extensive than any country on earth. As explained in the forward to this volume, “Earthquakes, Lightning, Fire, and Father,” Japan has a history of destruction and renewal, of a populace keenly aware of their own mortality with a horrific death only an earthquake away. Combined with the Japanese sense of art and aesthetic, this has led to the evolution of a style of weird storytelling that is both haunting and beautiful. Kurodahan’s “Kaiki” series is one of the few chances English speakers have ever had to experience this literary heritage.
To be honest, “Tales of the Metropolis” was the volume I was looking forward to the least in this series. My tastes tend to run to the earlier Edo period weird stories which are cruder in execution than the careful, refined prose of the Taisho era, but somehow more real and vital. Edo period stories are like traditional campfire stories, told by people who believed they were passing on a true story. Taisho era writers were fully aware that they were writing fiction.
But those writers knew what they were doing and were able to build on and refine Japan’s storytelling traditions. “Tales of the Metropolis” collects tales from some of Japan’s greatest writers, with stories ranging from 1915-1996. Names like Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Tanizaki Junichiro, Edogawa Rampo, and Kawabata Yasunari should be familiar to anyone with an interest in Japan. Some of the other authors may not be as well known, but they are carefully curated to deliver a slice of the best of Japanese weird fiction.
From the first page I was swept into this collection. Some of the stories here I have read before, like Kawabata’s “The Arm” and Tanizaki’s “The Face.” Both come from that tradition of “erotic-grotesque nonsense” that focused on the objectification of body parts, human deformity, and the celebration of the bizarre. Kawabata’s story is sensuous and nostalgic, while Tanizaki’s tale jams together modern technology and Japan’s yokai tradition for an unsettling effect. Rampo’s “Doctor Mera’s Mysterious Crime” is an interesting story featuring the author as a character.
But the stories that really affected me were the ones I was reading for the first time. Toyoshima Yoshio’s “Ghosts of the Metropolis” tells of a haunted Tokyo packed with billowing ghosts with an unmistakable debt to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Man of the Crowd.” Minigawa Hiroko plays a lovely game of “Who’s dead here?” with the story “The Midsummer Emissary” about a chance meeting between three people and the nature of lingering desire. Endo Shushaku’s “Spider” is a classic modern haunted taxi story with a twist ending that I wasn’t expecting. Yamakawa Masao’s “The Talisman” could have been an episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
My favorite in the volume was Akae Baku “Expunged by Yakumo,” a brilliant retelling and “finishing” of Lafcadio Hearn’s story “In a Cup of Tea” that began the first volume of the “Kaiki” series. Akae managed that delicious writer’s trick of leaving the reader in suspense as to whether this is a fiction or non-fiction story. Is there really an undiscovered ending to Hearn’s famous unfinished tale? Akae skillfully weaved a personal ghost story into this quest for the understanding of “In a Cup of Tea,” and the sequel here made me appreciate the original all the more. Brilliant stuff.
The translations for the “Kaiki” series have improved with every volume. I am a translator myself, and so I can be nitpicky when it comes to awkward phrases or poor word choice. Almost every story in “Tales of the Metropolis” accomplishes the goal of reading as if it was originally written in English. I got so engrossed in the tales I forgot I was reading translations, which is the mark of a job well done.
Hopefully Kurodahan Press will be able to publish further volumes of this series in the future, or a companions series in the same style. Anyone interested in weird fiction or Japanese literature is going to want the entire series on their shelf.