Let’s Read Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things [Part 2]

who’s that Pokémon?!

We’re still reading Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things! Check out Part 1 if you haven’t already, in which I talk about the writer Lafcadio Hearn and go through the first five stories.

Kwaidan is a collection of old Japanese ghost stories and folklore. “Ghost stories” isn’t the most accurate term for Kwaidan, but essentially, yeah, it’s a bunch of ghost stories. There are 17 stories, ranging from spooky to funny to sad to just kind of mundane. In any case, I love a ghost story and looking at old horror is fun because you can’t help but notice how we’ve never stopped conjuring the same strange things.”

This post’s a little long so let’s just get right into it!

Tale VI: Of A Mirror And A Bell

I recommend reading this one beforehand for two reasons: 1.) it’s particularly neat and 2.) the end is funny, and it won’t have the same effect if you just read my recap of it. This story is also implicitly split into two parts, so here’s the first part all about A MIRROR:

The priests of Mugenyama wanted a new bell for their temple, so they asked the women of their parish to contribute bronze mirrors they could melt down. One woman donated a mirror that she later realized had been in her family for generations. This realization, combined with remembering the old saying about a woman’s mirror containing her soul, drove her to deeply regret her decision. She did not have the money to buy it back, nor would she risk stealing it, so she simply stewed in regret. When they began melting the mirrors down, they found one mirror simply would not melt. The priests figured that someone did not wholeheartedly donate the mirror, and thus their selfish soul is keeping the mirror cold and unyielding. News spread, and eventually people found out who owned said mirror. The exposure was too much to bear, and the woman drowned herself. She left a message saying that while the mirror will melt now, her ghost will bestow “great wealth” upon the person who breaks the new bell by ringing it. As we know, the last desire of someone who dies angry possesses a supernatural force, and many took her promise seriously. Once the bell was forged, people tried their hand at breaking the bell, hour after hour and day after day. The resulting cacophony plagued the priests, and eventually they rolled the bell into a swamp where it remains to this day. Only its legend remains.

Another story about A Supernatural Grudge! I appreciate how the “break the bell, get some cash” curse initially seems like a blessing. The whole point of it thought is to just, sic everyone on these priests’ new bell and have them make their own lives unbearable. Sure, Ms. Mirror could have been like “anyone who rings the bell will freaking Die” but that would have been so boring. The priests are ultimately the ones who get rid of the bell, and in such a way that they can’t re-use the metal for another bell. And in the process, homegirl has everyone revering her. Scammed!

A little bit about mirrors and the folklore here:

before anyone says anything: it’s the other side of them that you’d see your reflection in

The whole “a mirror is the Soul of a Woman” thing is specifically identified as a Chinese myth within the story, which explains that the Chinese character for soul is etched into the backs of most bronze mirrors. Whether or not that latter part is true, bronze mirrors did make their way from China to Japan. Around the time this story takes place, bronze mirrors were used as much for symbolic purposes as they were for vanity. They were thought to connect humans to the divine, were used in burials to light one’s way to heaven and ward away malevolent spirits, and often were inscribed with religious or otherwise culturally significant scripture. I couldn’t find an origin to the “a mirror contains your Soul” aspect of the folklore, but we can see the same thing come into play in other works. For example, in the 11th century Tale Of Genji, a prince’s mirror sort of acts as a receptacle for his feelings and his self. In that story, he recites a love poem into the mirror and presents it to his love, meaning for the mirror to act as a stand-in for him while he’s gone. You can find bronze mirrors playing a similar role all the way in Rome too.

The titular mirror in this story has images of pine, bamboo, and plum inscribed on its back. And what do you know, this trio of plants has heavy ties to Confucianism and is known as The Friends Of Winter. The three plants came to represent longevity and perseverance since they were all evergreen and grew during the winter. Maybe the woman worried she was trampling over that symbolism by giving away this family heirloom. Tragically, I suppose she wasn’t wrong. She’s the last owner of the mirror, and there’s no mention of her having anyone survive her.

I could keep talking about what I dug up but I mean, mirrors are just weird. On a visceral level, I can pretty easily accept a mirror’s role as an otherworldly intermediary. As a kid I was legitimately terrified of mirrors, and there isn’t really an “origin” to that (at least, I don’t. . . think there is??) I was afraid I’d see something in the mirror that wasn’t there “in real life,” a la that horror movie trope of closing the medicine cabinet and seeing the reflection of Something right behind you. Mirrors are fertile ground for the strange and fantastic: from doppelganger stuff to alternate universes to revealing something you can’t see with your own eyes. In any case, it doesn’t surprise me at all that mirrors have, across different cultures, always been linked with the Otherworldly, the Spooky, and the Soul.

And on a completely different note:

These strange Pokémon, Bronzor and Bronzong, are 100% inspired by this story! We’ve got a bronze mirror (Bronze + Mirror = Bronzor) evolving into a bronze bell (Bronze + Gong / Bianzhong= Bronzong)!! But wait, there’s more! One of Bronzor’s potential abilities is called Heatproof, which reduces the damage it receives from Fire-Type moves. It’s an exclusive ability (well, up until the most recent games in which little Rolycoly has it too), and seems very clearly a reference to the story mirror’s refusal to melt. It’s a very thoughtful origin that makes up for the fact that the Pokémon’s other potential ability is typically way, way better. We can go even deeper and look at Bronzor’s back, which is engraved like the bronze mirrors of yore.

I always thought it looked like a plant or leaf of some sort, but now I’m thinking it might be one of the three friends of winter: bamboo!

Nandina domestica, a species of bamboo native to eastern Asia [Source: BotBln]

“Uh why are we talking about Pokémon all of a sudden?” I love Pokemon! It’s wild that this relatively simple looking Pokémon that I truly thought was a floating plate has so much thought put into it. It’s fun to see how old folklore and ghost stories trickle down into contemporary pop culture without us noticing. Anyway, on to the next part, about A BELL!

Hearn breaks the 4th wall here and gives us a little cultural lesson before getting into another part of the story. I’m gonna quote him on his explanation of nazoraeru, and then recap the story bit.

Now there are queer old Japanese beliefs in the magical efficacy of a certain mental operation implied, though not described, by the verb nazoraeru. The word itself cannot be adequately rendered by any English word; for it is used in relation to many kinds of mimetic magic, as well as in relation to the performance of many religious acts of faith . . . the esoteric meaning is to substitute, in imagination, one object or action for another, so as to bring about some magical miraculous result.

For example: you cannot afford to build a Buddhist temple; but you can easily lay a pebble before the image of the Buddha, with the same pious feeling that would prompt you to build a temple if you were rich enough to build one. The merit of so offering the pebble becomes equal, or almost equal, to the merit of erecting a temple.

I love the idea of “mimetic magic.” Some other examples: inflicting pain on someone via a wax doll, and burning someone’s feet by setting footprints they left behind on fire. In another case of Old Folklore Informing Pop Culture, the latter example sort of appears in N*tflix’s The Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina, in which driving a spike through a witch’s footprints binds her in place. That being said, nazoraeru is a little more complicated because of its inherent ties to Buddhism. We’ll talk about that in a bit, so for now let’s move on.

((Once again, I recommend reading this one. The stinger of this story is fun and it definitely won’t be the same just reading a recap. ))

Even with the bell at the bottom of a swamp, its legend and the promise of fortune remained in people’s minds. A woman named Umegae, legendary for her relation to a famous warrior of the Heike clan ((recall, this was the losing side of the Battle of Dan-no-ura which was an important part of the first story, “Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi”)), found herself in a pinch and banged on a bronze basin, invoking the the bell and crying out for 300 pieces of gold. A nearby innkeeper heard the ruckus and upon hearing her story, actually gave her the gold. Story of this spread, and people were re-invigorated. One man who tried to replicate Umagae’s success was a “licentious” farmer who squandered all his money on “riotous living.” He made a clay-model of the Bell Of Mugen using mud from his garden and smashed it, crying out for wealth. A ghostly woman appeared with a covered jar, and told him that she’d come to “answer [his] fervent prayer as it deserves to be answered.” The man excitedly brought the jar into his house, and when he opened it, he found it was full of [REDACTED].

If you didn’t read it, here’s your last chance before I start talking about it!!

Alright . . .

Like, it’s full of shit, right? That’s what my mind immediately jumped to at least. If you didn’t read it, you need to know that the narrator doesn’t actually tell us what’s in the jar.

And they found it was filled, up to the very brim, with . . . But, no! I really cannot tell you with what it was filled.

At the very least, comic and squeamish tone here makes it clear that the jar is not filled with gold pieces like our farmer hoped. But like, it’s definitely poop, right? Or something icky at the very least.

Anyway, re: naozoraeru and this mimetic magic: there’s a lot of careful, intentional wording with Mr. Farmer’s part of the story. He’s “licentious” and he’s “wasted his substance in riotous living,” so we already know he’s probably a bit of a sleaze. His Bell Of Mugen is just made from “the mud in his garden,” so it didn’t take any effort to gather the materials or build it, nor was the bell itself actually worth anything. This culminates in Ms. Ghost telling him that she’s answering his prayer “as it deserves to be answered.” With a jar of [REDACTED] instead of the immense wealth advertised in Mugen-Kane.

Remarkably, this isn’t [just] an act of vengeance or spite on Ms. Ghost’s part. Important to consider here is the concept of “merit,” which is a Buddhist ethical concept tied into the idea of karma. Put as simply as possible:

1.) Your actions put energy (karma) into the world

2.) The kind of karma you put out (good or bad) determines the kind of merit, a sort of spiritual force, you accumulate (merit or demerit)

3.) You experience consequences according to the kind of merit you’ve acquired

There’s a lot more to merit, like how it strengthens your mind because It’s Nice And Good To Do Good Things For People etc. etc. Nirvana, etc. etc., but basically just imagine you’re in elementary school and your teacher gives you a little ticket every time you do anything, but you don’t know if it’s a good or bad ticket until you redeem them all at the end of the year for a mystery prize.

Based on what we know of Mr. Farmer, we can infer that he probably wasn’t planning on using any wealth he was magically bestowed to settle debts, improve his farm, or turn his life around in any way. He acted out of greed and laziness, as he most likely did his entire life. This is all a long-winded way of saying Mr. Farmer had real bad karma so when he appealed for help, his [de]merits were cashed in for a jar of [REDACTED]. On the other hand, we have Umegae, a notable and honorable woman who we can assume probably accumulated a decent amount of merit in her life. Her part of the story doesn’t explicitly involve any ghosts, but it’s implicitly linked to this idea of merit.

Of course this is partially (mostly?) thinking backwards. Ultimately, this is the sort of story where we know Umagae is Good because she’s rewarded and Mr. Farmer is Bad because he’s punished. It’s fiction, with morals! “Aw man, Greg, I thought this was gonna be all spooky ghost stories and lore, not RELIGIOUS MESSAGING!” Sorry, folks!! I don’t know what to tell you!! Lots of ghost stories are didactic, whether they’re subtle about it or not. What better way to spread morals and ethics than via ghost stories, one of the few things a craven degenerate (or like, a child) might actually listen to? The bright side is that if these stories are to be believed, you’ve got a good chance of seeing a ghost regardless of whether you’re Good or Bad.

Tale VII: Jikininki

While on his travels, the priest Musō Kokushi found himself in need of shelter for the night. He meets an elderly priest who brusquely denies him lodging at an anjitsu (small housings built for traveling priests) and redirects him to a nearby village. Musō makes his way there, and thankfully, a young man is happy to provide him with food and a bed; however, before night falls, the man informs Musō that his father passed away only a few hours before Musō arrived. It is village custom that no one remain in the village the night after a death occurs, save for the corpse, and he advises the priest to journey with the townspeople to a neighboring hamlet. Apparently, strange things happen in the house that houses a corpse. The priest, unafraid and not entirely understanding this custom, declines. That night, after performing funeral rites for the deceased, the priest witnesses a “shape” enter the room with the corpse and devour it whole before vanishing into the night. The villagers are not at all surprised to find the corpse gone when they return in the morning. In fact, they tell Musō this happens all the time, but no one has ever dared stick around to learn the cause. At this revelation, Musō questions if the elderly priest he ran into has ever stayed the night to perform burial rites . . . but the villagers have no idea who he’s talking about because there’s never been a priest in the area. Curious, Musō visits the anjitsu again. This time the elderly priest invites him in, apologizing profusely for denying him lodging. He reveals that he was the dark shape from the previous night, and explains that an impious life of performing funeral rites for profit led him to be reborn as a jikininki, literally a “man-eating goblin.” The “priest” begs Musō to free him from this cursed existence, but immediately disappears along with his shelter. Musō finds himself alone in front of an ancient, over-grown tomb.

A twist! And one you’re [probably] deeply familiar with. The whole “But, Greg…nobody’s lived there for years!” or “Large Marge died years ago!” sort of revelation that makes a character realize they’ve been talking to g-g-g-ghosts. It’s been a little hard thinking of specific examples of this trope, but it seems like most people know what I’m talking about.

I saw this as a kid and ran out of the room because I was so scared

Like the story describes, a jikininki is the spirit of someone who lead an especially impious, greedy, or sinful life. They’re doomed with an insatiable hunger. In a jikininki’s case, it’s for corpses. In the case of their cousin, the gaki, it could be a specific hunger for anything, usually something considered taboo or repulsive. The term gaki finds its origins in a Chinese word for “hungry ghost,” which is a nice segue into mentioning that so-called hungry ghosts, like pretas and rakshasha are prevalent in a bunch of different cultures.

While jikininki seem to be a clearly Japanese evolution of the hungry ghost concept, it’s pretty difficult nailing down An Origin for these other guys (without spending, weeks and weeks of in-depth research). For example, the term “preta” names similar supernatural entities in Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. Rakshasha in particular seem pretty dramatically different across Hinduism, Buddhism, and Chinese Folk Religion. But even if it were possible, I’m not particularly interested in delineating where everyone is from. I just wanted to acknowledge their spread and prevalence to give us some perspective on how this story is part of the Larger Hungry Ghost Narrative, and to connect back to what I mentioned in the first post about the Long Telephone Game that is telling ghost stories.

I’m a weeb who plays anime video games so I was familiar with these spirits from their appearance in Shin Megami Tensei (left: preta, right: rakshasha)

In any case, what strikes me the most about this story is how deeply ashamed Mr. Jikininki is of himself. He’s apologetic and embarrassed that Musō had to even see him. His exact words are “I have been obliged to feed upon the corpses of the people who die in this district: every one of them I must devour.” It’d be a different case if he at least enjoyed eating people, or if he was at least some feral, demonic creature. Instead, he’s kind of just a Regular Person Who Is Now Compelled To Eat Corpses. His punishment for an impious life is a pitiful afterlife defined by crippling shame and self-loathing. We’ve seen a few malevolent, vindictive beings in Kwaidan thus far and it’s funny that the explicitly named “man-eating goblin” isn’t one of them.

Luckily, there’s a way out! Mr. Jikininki asks Musō to perform a cleansing ceremony called a Segaki-service. Segaki literally means “feeding the hungry ghost,” and this ritual ends a hungry spirit’s suffering (alternatively, it’s a ritual that sends them to hell, which is one way of ending their cursed existence I guess). Segaki is a Japanese ceremony, but similar rituals exist throughout countries that house hungry spirits.

None of this explains why Mr. Jikininki suddenly disappears before Musō does anything though. I wonder if his seemingly sincere repentance and the act of asking for help was enough to “free” him from this accursed existence. Alternatively, maybe he just disappears because it’s dramatic and makes for a good spooky ending. Who can say?

Tale VIII: Mujina

If you are only going to read one story in Kwaidan, please, read this one. It’s extremely short and loses a lot of is charm when recapped. Most importantly, this is the story that made me want to do these posts in the first place.

On the Akasaka Road in Tokyo, there’s a slope called Kii-no-kuni-zaka, an extremely spooky and dark place most people avoided. One night, an old merchant was quickly making his way through the area when he saw a young woman weeping bitterly by the side of the road. She hid her face with her sleeve, and didn’t respond to the merchant’s attempts to comfort her. He approached her, getting closer and closer. Finally, she turned around, dropped her sleeve, and stroked her face with her hand…revealing that she had no eyes or nose or mouth!! The old merchant screamed and ran away, not looking back or stopping until he ran into a road-side soba-stand. In the safety of the well-lit soba-stand, the old merchant collapsed. The soba-seller thought he might have been hurt or robbed, but the old merchant was too afraid to tell him what really happened. The soba-seller then inquired if he saw something like this, and stroked his suddenly FEATURELESS, EGG-LIKE face. AND THEN THE LIGHTS WENT OUT!!!

It’s hard to express the utter joy I felt when I read the last line of this story:

“Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?” cried the soba-man, stroking his own face – which therewith became like unto an Egg….And, simultaneously, the light went out.

became like unto an Egg

I love this story. It’s an absurd dream that you can laugh about once you’ve been jolted awake, even though it’s sincerely scary in the meantime. There’s a lot I want to talk about re: this story, but first thing’s first. My IMMEDIATE reaction after reading this story was “oh this is like the Magic Conch episode of Spongebob.” Please don’t ctrl+w I can explain.

In the episode “Club Spongebob,” Spongebob, Patrick, and Squidward get lost in the Kelp Forest. Spongebob and Patrick aren’t worried, because they have their holy, omniscient relic, the Magic Conch Shell, which is essentially a Magic-8 Ball. Hijinks ensue, such as Spongebob and Patrick refusing to let Squidward have any of the food that miraculously fell from the sky (praise the magic conch) unless the conch gives him permission (it doesn’t.) But then, just as Squidward is about to truly lose it, a Kelp Forest Ranger finds them. Here’s a transcript of what occurs next, courtesy of reputable source Encyclopedia Spongebobia:

  • Squidward: I’m saved! [runs over to the forest ranger] You don’t know how happy I am to see you. I have been stranded out here for weeks with-with-with these two barnacle heads and their Magic Conch Shell!
  • Kelp Forest Ranger: Magic… Conch Shell? [pulls out a Magic Conch Shell] You mean like this?! 
  • SpongeBob and Patrick: The Magic Conch! A club member!
  • Kelp Forest Ranger: [victory screech]
  • SpongeBob and Patrick: [victory screech]
  • Squidward: [look of utter despair]

You can watch this scene here.

Cinematic Parallels:

You mean like this?!

Kelp Forest Ranger, Spongebob Squarepants (2002)

Was it anything like this that she showed you?

Soba-Seller, Kwaidan: Stories And Studies Of Strange Things (1904)

“This is what made you want to do blog posts about a quintessential collection of Japanese folklore?” Yes. Stick with me.

Even if you don’t see the connection between the two, you can’t fault me from drawing this parallel. It’s a tried and true narrative: a person is seeking refuge from Something Bad, but their apparent savior actually turns out to be Bad as well. You might see this in contemporary horror movie as “CHARACTER is fleeing from a killer, is picked up by a seemingly kind stranger, but then finds out that the stranger has sinister intentions as well (if they’re not the killer themselves).” If you abstract it, you can see echoes of “Mujina” in any scene where a character escapes some sort of threat only for their newfound peace to be shattered once again.

It’s not like Mujinainvented this narrative. It’s just an early, early iteration of a primal fear that you’re at your most vulnerable when you’re hopeful, when you think you’ve escaped. I’m sure you can think of examples of this popping up in movies that aren’t explicitly horror-related. I mean, Spongebob mines this feeling for comedy.

Ultimately, what floors me so much about Mujina is how clearly (to me, at least) it illustrates that people have always loved hearing and telling a good scary story. This story, which is from a collection completed in 1904 that drew upon works from as far back as the 13th century, ends with what’s essentially a jump scare. I can easily imagine someone jumping out from behind the storyteller in a smooth, egg-like mask at the end. It would be perfectly at home in, say, Alvin Schwartz’ Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark, nestled alongside “The Big Toe” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker.”

Sometimes, a ghost story is just, fun! They’re weird and fascinating, and this morbid curiosity with the things that skulk around in the dark has always been around. I can’t explain why exactly, but that makes me happy. Maybe I’m just utterly charmed by evidence that people have always loved a silly horror story just like I do now.

And that’s it for this post. We’ll tackle three more stories next time, whenever that is!

Some references:

Chinese Bronze Mirrors

The Lasting Beauty Of Chinese Bronze Mirrors

Reflections From The Tomb: Mirrors As Grave Goods In Late Classical And Hellenistic Tarquinia

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