Tokyo Damage Report

INTERVIEW: HIROKO YODA and MATT ALT

 

Hiroko and Matt are professional translators who also publish their own books.

They just released a rad tome called YOKAI ATTACK – the only book in English about Japanese folk monsters (all the other books are either in Japanese or the even more inscrutable dialect of Academic ) . They were nice enough to let me ask them a ton of questions.

But first – "Where can I buy this book?" you ask.

IN JAPAN: any Kinokunia bookstore or TOWER RECORDS. Or online , at amazon.co.jp

IN AMERICA: amazon.com – or, pretty much any RL bookstore!

EUROPE: amazon.uk

Matt also does a blog about Japan!


YOKAI ATTACK!!!! INTERVIEW!!!

TDR : Let’s start with a warm-up question :how did you first get interested in yokai?

 

HY: I love yokai! First, I grew up with yokai. Not only TV shows, but I was in the generation when there was a fad for Kuchisake Onna (“The Slash-Mouthed Woman”). It’s not like we really believed in her, but my friends and I had so much fun talking about her! And second, because yokai are so integral to Japanese culture. Matt and I are a bi-lingual, bi-cultural, international married couple – and I wanted to harness that to give an introduction to yokai, so that foreigners could enjoy something about Japanese culture in the same way that we Japanese enjoy it! Even though yokai are really popular in Japan, once you leave the country, almost nobody knows what they are.

 

MA: Except for real yokai maniacs. (Laughs)

 

HY: Exactly. And even if they DO know about a yokai, it’s often just another character to them. But yokai are more than just characters – they have a historical background. They mean something. For a long time I’d been thinking and saying, “I wanna do yokai! I wanna do yokai!” And that’s basically how the book came about.

 

TDR: So, if Yokai Attack does well, do you think you’ll have a chance to translate some of Mizuki’s books about yokai?

 

MA: Of course, that would be an honor. But right now, we’re into creating our own thing. These days when you say “yokai,” most people automatically think of something Mizuki sensei created. It’s kind of like when you say “robot” to an American and they immediately think of R2D2 or C-3P0, even though George Lucas didn’t invent the concept. Mizuki’s work is incredibly popular for both genders, and it’s really great, but…

 

TDR: He’s kind of monolithic, and inescapable?

MA: Yeah. He deserves a lot of credit for popularizing yokai, but, he didn’t invent them. And he’d be the first to tell you that. So we wanted to take it back to the roots, explore the origins.

 

HY: And there’s so much more to yokai than just manga, of course. There are the original woodblock prints, there are modern anime, there are films. And Japan makes a lot of games featuring yokai. They’re in lots of places, actually. But in a lot of cases, when these things pop up in translations, instead of describing them as ‘kappa’ or whatever they really are, they get renamed ‘water monsters’ or ‘goblins’ or something in the English version. Which isn’t a huge surprise because most foreigners don’t have the background knowledge to know what a Kappa or Tengu is off the top of their heads.

 

MA: Here’s a couple of examples of that. In Super Mario Brothers 3, the US version, Mario wears a Tanuki suit part of the time. Or Sonic the Hedgehog – his sidekick is a two-tailed fox, a kitsune straight out of Japanese legend. But I’m sure the connection to Japanese folklore sailed right over most players’ heads.

 

TDR: So a lot of foreigners have been exposed to yokai but we don’t know what we’re getting.

 

HY: Right. Some of Mizuki’s manga have even been translated into English – Kodansha released bilingual versions of several Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro compliations — but those are direct translations. So if you don’t know Japanese culture, you won’t really get the full meaning. If you don’t know the folklore, you can’t appreciate these characters in the way Japanese people do. So our book is like a stepping-stone, a tool you can use to understand what you’re seeing when yokai appear in Japanese books or films.

 

TDR: To write the book, you had to quantify and analyze lots of different kinds of yokai. Did that give you an idea of fundamental traits they share?

 

MA: Certainly, our research helped us make a system of categorizing them – the book is structured in sections of scary ones, wimpy ones, hungry ones, and so on. We felt it was necessary to categorize them a little bit. The concept is so vague – they’re not good guys, they’re not bad guys, they’re not fairies, they’re not ghosts or monsters. . .

 

HY: And don’t forget, many yokai are characterizations of specific natural phenomena.

 

MA: They’re basically walking hypotheses! Back in time, people didn’t know about lightning. . . or acoustics, or physics. . .when you walk around a canyon with a river at the end, sometimes you can hear the river even though you’re nowhere near it. You’re walking through the forest and you hear a babbling brook but there’s no water in sight. Where is that sound coming from? Japanese in times of old came up with their own explanation: there was a guy named Azuki-Arai – he’s washing these red azuki beans in a bucket, which sounds similar to a babbling brook. “Hear that? There’s an Azuki-Arai around here!”

 

TDR: Is that idea – that yokai are the personification of a phenomenon – something you came up with yourselves?

 

HY: No, that’s how they’re often defined here. Of course, Japanese culture isn’t alone in using a supernatural explanation for a natural phenomenon for which there was no scientific explanation at the time. But what’s unique is the way Japanese always seem to want to put faces on them, make characters out of them. The kappa is a really good example. “Don’t play in the river, kids -the kappa might eat you!” Basically the Kappa is a characterization of the dangers of a river.

 

TDR: That’s a whole category of monsters, all over the world. . .what I call Moral Monsters – “Don’t do this specific bad thing X or Y will get you!”

 

MA: Right. “Don’t mistreat a cat, it could come back as a Neko-Mata (“two-tailed cat”)! Many yokai are like that.

 

TDR: One of the most fascinating things is the plethora of origins – some are from China, some are b-list yokai that only one tiny village cares about, some are really scary stories, some are moral fables, others are urban legends. . .And they all fall into the category of yokai.

Maybe my favorite yokai roots was- In the intro to Yokai Attack, you say that an illustrator/scholar, Mr. Sekien, he wrote this definitive yokai book . . . but he just made up some yokai, to poke fun at trends in Japanese society at that time, and he snuck them into his book next to “real” yokai. When I read that, I was like, “Rad!”

Can you give more examples of “social satire” yokai?

HY: We didn’t put this one in the book, but there’s the Nebutori – the monster housewife that , you know, the husband is out working and the wife is eating bon-bons all day. . . . “If you just lie around bed all day, you’ll turn into this horrible monster!!” So that one is definitely a joke.

 

MA: This is totally made up off the top of my head, but a lot of these are like if you took the old expression, “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back,” and then used it to come up with a character called, say, “Back-breaker.” That kind of embodies how sayings are anthropomorphized into yokai.

 

TDR: Word! That’s YET ANOTHER whole category of yokai, right? Monsters – based on puns ? which are based on old sayings. . . crazy! Is there another culture on Earth that does that? In the book, you had another example of such a yokai, right? Something about the shamisen (musical instrument)?

 

MA: Oh yeah, the Shamisen Choro! The Japanese have a saying similar to “ Rome wasn’t built in a day” – they say “SHAMI kara CHORO ni wa narenu” (literally, “A monk in training can’t become a master in a day.”) . . .and that expression became the yokai called Shamisen Choro, which is an animated shamisen! You can hear the alliteration when you say it out loud.

 

HY: Some of these yokai are really Oyaji gags!

 

MA: Actually, Kosode-no-te and Boroboro-ton, the shambling futon of death, are also believed to be Sekien’s creations. What’s really interesting is that both Boroboro-ton and another yokai called Tearai Oni both seem to be based on archaic expressions that nobody even remembers anymore. As in, even Japanese yokai experts aren’t exactly sure as to what their specific origins are. The figures of speech have passed out of usage and even human memory, but the characters live on. Maybe Tearai-oni is a parody of some long-forgotten local figure of speech, or even a parody of some specific guy! In many cases, we’ll just never know. That’s really fascinating to me.

 

TDR: Earlier, you said that part of the motivation for the book was cultural exchange . . . did researching yokai give you some insight into Japanese culture? I mean, it must have taken a certain kind of culture to create folk-tales with these unique traits ?

 

MA: Normally when you see yokai illustrations and wood-block prints you see them in a museum, in a textbook, in a very academic setting very divorced from how they were actually consumed back in the 1700s. One of the things that really struck me is how cosmopolitan and well-developed the Japanese sense of humor was, even hundreds of years ago. They’re filled with gags, satire… These illustrations overflow with humanity. These books, particularly Sekien, weren’t some formal thing that was presented to the Emperor on some special holy day – they were like the best-selling manga of that time. People gathered around, reading and laughing. “Hey, I know a guy like that!!” kind of thing. So to take that and live it day in and day out, and appreciate it and experience it the way that the people at the time experienced it, was one of the great things about doing this book.

 

TDR: What’s up with Tsukumo-Gami (inanimate object yokai)?? To me, that is one of the most unique aspects of yokai – it doesn’t fit into any of the vampire/ghost/demon monsters that other cultures usually have.

 

In your book, you explain how the Tsukumo-Gami represent “the revenge of objects which were created with care and artistry, but then thrown-away or neglected!” It’s an intriguing concept, but why do you think only Japanese found that idea so compelling that they needed to make a yokai out of it?

MA: Anthropomorphism, and personification! That tradition extends way, way back in society – it goes back to the roots of Shintoism.

 

HY: Japan is an agricultural country. You depend upon the sun, the seeds, the rain. You can’t prepare the field on your own — it’s too much work! You need other family members, villagers…. It’s interdependence! Giving thanks to the things that help you, even if they are natural phenomena or even inanimate tools, is at the root of the animistic philosophy. I get the sense that America is more of a hunting-based country – you can do that on your own, so you have more of an independent sprit. Japan is small and isolated, and that fostered an appreciation of our surroundings. And I think those are the roots of Japanese animism.

 

TDR: (nods blankly)

 

HY: I mean, for example . . . (points to my eyeglasses) Actually there is a monument, a shrine to eyeglasses, near Ueno zoo! They say that if eyeglasses hadn’t been invented, Japan would never have been able to become an industrialized country. If you can’t see something properly, you can’t manufacture a good product. So someone wanted to say thanks to eyeglasses, and they made a shrine to them.

MA: They’re a tool.

 

HY: Yes! They’re tools. And animism is just a way to understand or respect the world. It’s not like Japanese people really believe there’s a sprit living in your glasses or anything, but. . . Look, we don’t believe there’s a “table god,” either, but without this table we’re sitting at we couldn’t be eating as comfortably, right? So we want to show our appreciation.

 

TDR: The appreciation of carefully crafted objects leads to a, um, taboo against abusing them, and that taboo is, ah, personified as a Tsukumo-Gami? Then I can dig it!

 

MA: Japan is such a polytheistic, animistic culture, and that expresses itself in all sorts of ways. The yokai are one of the more charming and visible ways but. . . Our first book, “HELLO PLEASE! VERY HELPFUL SUPER KAWAII CHARACTERS FROM JAPAN,” was about super-cute kawaii mascots and characters. If you just walk down the street in Japan, you’ll notice anthropomorphized, personified versions of telephones! Of books! Of every kind of object : just put two google-y eyes on it and some little arms. Or in instruction manuals: “Don’t pour water on this CD player : it’ll start crying!” Not that anyone here really believes their CD player will start weeping, but the human features make you realize, “Hey : I’d feel bad if someone poured water on me! This is a bad thing to do!” There’s this kind of. . . sympathy with the things around you, and I think that comes from animism. And it’s everywhere!

 

TDR: Like at the dentist’s office where their logo is a pink bear in a skirt, surfing on a giant toothbrush?

 

MA: Well, all over the world, you’ll see cute animals as mascots. But in Japan, anthropomorphic versions of inanimate objects are really common. Many Japanese prefectures use inanimate objects as their mascots. “Hey! Mt. Fuji’s in our prefecture, so let’s give it some legs and a face!”

 

TDR: One other theme I noticed in your book – there’s a bunch of guys like malevolent but largely harmless lurkers : Nobiagari, Nuppeppo, Enenra. . . That surprised me, because in the West, if you see something supernatural, he’s either going to eat you, or anal-probe you , or , you know, he has an AGENDA.

 

But over here, there’s monsters that seem to exist just to remind people: “Hey check me out! I’m just hanging out, being occult! Your world is much more mysterious than you thought! KTHXBYE!” So, what do you make of this theme?

 

HY: Actually, Nupeppo is imported from China.

 

TDR: D’oh!!

 

HY: But in general, we feel that yokai -if you are looking for a Western analog – they’re probably closer to fairies than monsters.

 

TDR: Dude! I forgot about fairies. That analogy makes sense: They don’t necessarily eat or probe Europeans, they just hang out doing their thing.

 

MA: I heard that in Iceland, a whole highway was re-routed because the original plan had it going through some kind of fairy breeding ground or something. And this is Iceland! These are modern people – they’re not running around in loincloths. . .

 

TDR: How rad is Iceland : save the fairies, and kill the whales! Next question- what’s the difference between yurei and yokai?

 

HY: Yurei are ghosts. They’re spirits of dead humans.

 

TDR: But are there any yokai that were once human but got cursed or something? If it was once human, is it by definition a yurei?

 

MA: That’s… It’s kind of an oversimplification. There are always exceptions. Like, Hashi-hime.

 

HY: She’s borderline. She’s more of a legendary… Thing. Creature.

 

MA: See, these are the kinds of discussions that we had non-stop while we were writing the book! But that being said, it’s pretty amazing to think that there’s over a thousand years of history with some yokai, like the Tengu.

 

HY: There’s multiple origins for all of them. That’s what makes them so hard to pin down sometimes.

 

TDR: Regional appropriations! That suit the needs of a particular community at a particular time. . .

 

MA: Yeah! If you look at all the versions in all the different villages, in all the different centuries, eventually you’ll find one that’s comedy, or scary, or wimpy – that’s why you can spin it any way you want.

 

TDR: I got a theory that everything in Japan exists in three different forms: the “real world” form, the super-deformed kawaii version, and the hentai version. If you look hard enough, you’ll be able to find a kawaii or hentai version of anything.

 

HY: Ha!

MA: Onibaba is a perfect example of that! It’s one of the most gruesome yokai : this woman killed her own daughter, who was pregnant, and ripped the fetus out, and cooked and ate the fetus’ liver . . .and yet here (points to picture in Yokai Attack) they’re selling a kawaii version of her! Nothing is immune!

 

HY: They made a mascot out of her!

 

MA: They have a theme park! It’s like the Jeffery Dahmer theme park.

 

TDR: That is burly.

 

MA: Grody, even.

 

TDR: I’d like to change topics to the, uh, the business side for a sec. Why is this book the size that it is? Why 43 yokai?

 

HY: Page count. This 192-page format is a standard size for Japan.

 

MA: It’s a set thing.

 

TDR: I knew books had a standard size, but a standard number of pages? Deeyamn.

 

HY: Of course you can make it longer if you want, but this is the basic format for a book of this physical size.

 

TDR: You’re published by Kodansha – a huge company. Who approached whom?

 

HY: We approached them with the idea, pitched the book to them, and got the deal.

 

TDR: They make books in English?

 

MA: A company that big, of course it’s going to have a lot of divisions! Our book is published by Kodansha International. It’s their branch that specializes in English books, a lot of cultural topics, like the tea ceremony, martial arts, katana …

 

TDR: What was the most headache-inducing part of creating the book? Research? Writing? Proofing and re-writing? Or layout/design?

 

MA: Coming up with the four-page-per-yokai format! For sure!

 

(sure enough, the book is set up in four-page sections: Statistics page, then full-color illustration, then two pages of anecdotes and reproductions of historical paintings)

 

MA: Even though we had a very definite idea of what we wanted to write, we had to spend months just dealing with the nuts-and-bolts: trying to shrink the really popular monsters like Kappa or Tengu – we could write a whole book on Kappa alone! – and trying to get more material on the more obscure yokai, to fit this four-pages-per-yokai format.

 

HY: We handed in all our text on the deadline, and they said, “Oh, that’s too much text.” So we had to cut out a lot of information, then they called back and said, “OK, now we need double the amount.” “Of text?” “Yes.” And then of course, we knew from the start that text only would be boring, so we wanted to drop in lots of other imagery. So we’d have to clear the rights to those. We would go back and forth, trying to make the amount of image and text fit.

 

MA: We started with a huge amount of information on Kappa – he’s one of the top three yokai, along with tengu and tanuki.. It (the four page format) was a good exercise for all of us, trying to distill it down to its core : what’s interesting? What’s fun? What’s the most important thing about this guy, really? There’s so many legends about him.

 

TDR: I was watching that thing last week, when the naked Englishman went swimming in the Emperor’s bathtub ? I kept wanting to Photoshop a kappa head onto him. . .

 

MA: Har! But you know, that kind of thing is exactly where yokai comes from! A hundred years from now, when somebody discusses that, and all the details are lost to time, they’ll say, “There was this big, naked monster in the moat!”

 

HY: Like Namahage! (page 118) These guys are traditional yokai from Aomori prefecture. They even have a festival of namahage there! They say that the legend started with Russians! Russian sailors. Basically the sailors came to Aomori, maybe fishermen blown off course, and the locals flipped out. . .

MA: And the story kept snowballing, like the telephone game. At first he was just a big scary man, then: “He had red skin! And horns! And he spoke in this weird grunting dialect!” Some probably had long hair… Then that became a wild shock of hair down to their asses… That’s how it goes. Imagine before newspapers and TV, this is how word would spread. This is how people would communicate, and of course it would get blown out of proportion! That’s another way yokai were created.

 

TDR: One more question : these are postcards by Keisuke Matsumoto . He does these amazing illustrations of contemporary yokai that he makes up – the vending machine yokai, the subway yokai. He seems to be concerned with a supernatural world that is repressed by modern, rational life, but keeps coming back to haunt us.

 

I’m fairly convinced that this is part of a larger trend, but I can’t think of examples! Do you know any other Japanese artists depicting the traditional/spirit world lurking behind, or poking through the cracks of our modern, plastic world?

 

MA: Spirited Away, of course, that’s the most famous example. The Princess Mononoke has it too, where humans are actually trying to kill the forest yokai. Or the Takashi Miike film Yokai Daisenso (“The Great Yokai War”). And Haruki Murakami’s books, like A Wild Sheep Chase, they’re filled with that kind of imagery.

 

HY: I think that yurei is a better match with what you’re talking about. That ambiguity, that closeness between the real and spirit worlds, is the basis of the whole J-horror genre!

 

TDR: Thaaat’s why I couldn’t think of examples!! I have never seen any yurei or horror movies!

 

MA: Movies like The Ring, the Grudge, Ju-On, All of those are about the very tenuous boundary between what we know and what we don’t know – the metaphorical darkness outside the campfire.

 

HY: Yokai are usually seen as being kind of weak, but yurei generally had something pretty terrible happen to them. No one is like, “I had a great life, my family loved me, I died peacefully . . .and now I’m going to come back and be a ferocious yurei.” It’s often because they were tortured and killed. That’s what makes yurei more chilling and scary. There’s usually a grudge involved.

 

MA: It’s a manifestation of that anger and ill-treatment.

 

TDR: OK, final question, for real this time : What do you think about the current state of (non-anime, non-academic) English-language books on Japanese pop and traditional culture? Any recent favorite books?

MA: Well, we both love JAPANESE SCHOOLGIRL INFERNO by Patrick Macias and Izumi Evers! It’s a beautifully illustrated guide to female juvenile delinquents. Kind of like a yokai guide, actually, except all the monsters are schoolgirls. (Laughs)

 

HY: There’s a lot of books out there where a foreigner comes to Japan and writes a book: “I went there and this is how it is!” And I don’t think they’re trying to be condescending – it’s not a bad thing to go to somewhere and write about your experiences. But there are very few books in English that give the Japanese point of view. And that’s why it was critical to me that we write the book together.

 

MA: This is Hiroko’s gig, really. She taught me everything I know about the yokai. It was important to have both viewpoints working together, to make this book happen.

 

TDR: That is right-on, boss! Thank you both for being so generous with your time and insights, I enjoyed talking with you.

 

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  1. […] autres bouquins en anglais sinon : Yokai Attack d’Hiroko Yoda, Matt Alt et Tatsuya Morino. Une interview des auteurs est en ligne sur le blog Tokyo Damage Report mais allez également faire un tour sur leur site […]

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