Literacy 2008: Exhibition Round 2: Yokai Attack!

yokaiattackcover.jpgThere’s no way I’m going to finish my resolution to read 26 books by the end of 2008, but even out of desperation I can’t in good conscience include this book to pad out the list. But it’s still neat enough to be worth an exhibition round.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda, Matt Alt, and Tatsuya Morino

Like the excellent book The Field Guide to North American Monsters, but with yokai. Contains entries for several monsters of Japanese folklore, with information on their origins, habitat, and what to do in the event of an encounter.

Great introduction to yokai, making absolutely no assumptions about the reader’s familiarity with Japanese folklore, language, or pop culture. Includes the kanji name for each monster, a translation of the name into English, and notes on the etymology of the names and their use in idioms, which are great for people trying to learn the Japanese language. Each entry includes a full-page illustration of the creature done in the style of Shigeru Mizuki and the original source. Images from the original source material are also included wherever possible. Has an excellent bibliography and reference section, recommending plenty of related books and films. Mentions each creature’s “relevance,” indicating which creatures are the best-known and which are more obscure, or are only part of the folklore of certain regions.

Because the book is intended as an introduction, it’s pretty shallow. Each entry is limited to 2 and a half pages at the longest, the bulk of it dedicated to the height/weight/habitat information which keeps the “field guide” gag running. The descriptions keep a light “isn’t all this stuff wacky?” attitude, which can deflate the coolness of it all somewhat.

Although I personally prefer SHMorgan’s Obakemono Project website, both for the art style and for the number and depth of the entries, Yokai Attack! is a better general introduction. The book’s format and its use of popular expressions, idioms, and the monsters’ appearance in popular culture give a better sense of how this aspect of Japanese folklore fits into the country as a whole, and how many of them came about. It’s a fun book, highly recommended for anyone interested in this stuff. You should also check out the book’s official website.

Ge, Ge, GeGeGe no Ge

My favorite TV show of the moment is called “Nounai Este I.Q. Supplement” [that link is in Japanese], a game show where a panel of celebrities answers Brain Age-type puzzles. It’s not subtitled, so I understand 0.01% of what’s going on, but for me, that’s a large part of the appeal. When I am able to solve the occasional “spot the difference” puzzle, I feel smart, and when I can solve a kana puzzle, I feel like a genius.

The episode that aired here last week was themed to GeGeGe no Kitaro a manga series by Shigeru Mizuki. (Presumably because one of the frequent guests on the show starred in last year’s live action adaptation). The characters kept popping up in the show, effects were superimposed on the celebrities, and the whole thing seemed like a ton of fun.

I was aware of Mizuki’s work, mostly from SH Morgan’s excellent Obakemono Project website and a mention on the Drawn! blog. His artwork directly inspired the parade scene in one of my favorite movies, Pom Poko, and just about anything that deals with yokai (Japanese goblins and spirits) is drawn directly from his interpretation. Plus, there’s a museum and a road lined with statues of Mizuki’s characters in his hometown. But I’ve got to admit that I’d dismissed it as a cultural blip, like Rat Fink.

You can’t really appreciate what a huge impact GeGeGe no Kitaro has in Japan — and is slowly, gradually getting outside Japan — until you see a bunch of people who grew up with the comics and cartoons and are really getting into it. And really, how could you not get into it? It’s early 60s cool combined with Japanese folklore, and I think it’s time we in the US admit that Japanese ghosts and monsters beat ours by several orders of magnitude. I’m guessing the closest equivalent we have in the US would be if The Munsters had been based not on a bunch of movies, but on centuries-old folk tales. Or if Charlie Brown had magic powers and lived in a graveyard with the eyeball of his father and was charged with keeping peace between the human and goblin worlds.

And had a really catchy theme song. Here’s the opening to three of the manga’s animated incarnations on TV. The late 60s (unquestionably the coolest):

The mid 80s:

And last year:

Now I’ve got to make a pilgrimage to Sakaiminato to see the yokai up-close and in person.

And here’s a clip of “I.Q. Supplement” in case anyone’s wondering what that’s all about. If it helps anybody figure out what’s going on: the only one I could get was around 0:50,because a Japanese word for “squirrel” is risu.