Up front I must admit that I have been a long-time fan of Lafcadio Hearn’s writing on Japanese folklore especially Kwaidan(1904), the final short story collection published during his life time. Through his writing, based on research, oral tales from neighbors, and tales read to him by his wife, he became the first non-Japanese author to retell the folklore for readers of the English language.
Three of the retellings in this compilation are from Hearn’s final collection of “ghostly sketches”: “Nuki-kubi,”” Riki-Baka,” and “A Dead Secret”. An earlier work, Shadowings (1900), is also represented by three tales: “Reconciliation,” “Corpse Rider,” and “Screen Maiden.” The seventh tale, “Before the Supreme Court”, is from A Japanese Miscellany (1901). Author Sean Michael Wilson states in his brief source note that he has attempted to retain Hearn’s original wording as much as possible while adapting them to the manga format and I am happy to report that he has done what he had set out to accomplish. The source notes are adequate offering basic background information about Hearn and the retellers as well as information for finding the original tales and discovering more on your own.
The illustrations are evocative and heart breaking, focusing on facial expressions and emotions of all the characters, spectral and human. The large format of the publication and the simplicity of the backgrounds and panel arrangement add to the accessibility of the tales. It also reads right to left in traditional manga format. All seven folktales are about the complex interactions between the living and dead and while they are indeed ghostly, they are not all inescapably terrifying. But rather, they are instructive in offering glimpses of the beliefs and practices of Japanese society at the time Hearn collected and retold the tales.
I am not sure which one of the retellings is my favorite. The first tale, “A Dead Secret” is primarily about the return of a mother as a ghost but the underlying layers uncover hidden truths, love stories, and preserved secrets. “The Screen Maiden” tells the passionate and alarming tale of a young man who is almost fatally obsessed with a woman in a painting. As for the painting, “The space that she had occupied upon it remained a blank.” It is followed by a much darker tale of a masterless samurai and his adventures with deadly headless goblins. The images and antics in “Nuke-kubi” of the exasperated severed heads remained vivid long after I finished reading the story. “The Corpse Rider” is equally as visual, horrific, and memorable as it tells the story of a wife’s revenge on her ex-husband. The following entry, “Riki-Babka,” while horrifying did not leave this reader with a heavy heart, a ghost story with a more satisfying outcome, so to speak, reminiscent of one of my favorite clay figures, the golem of Jewish folklore. Hearn indicated that this tale was a personal experience narrative written exactly as it happened with only the names changed. And, if you can assert a ghost story as cheerful and redeeming, the penultimate tale “Before the Supreme Court” is exactly that. The initial horror is massaged by the very sensible conclusion. The compilation is completed by the eerie story of “Reconciliation” which leaves the reader contemplating the juxtaposition of justice and remorse.
This compilation was a refreshing read and highly recommended for those who appreciate exploring folklore and the genres of horror and ghost stories.
Manga Yokai Stories: Ghostly Tales from Japan
By Lafcadio Hearn Sean Michael Wilson
Art by Inko Ai Takita
Publisher Age Rating: 14+
Series ISBNS and Order
Title Details and Representation
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16)
Character Traits: Japanese Buddhist
Creator Highlights: Irish, Japanese
Related to…: Book to Comic