Japanese monsters are the shit.
Yokai, which we’ve talked about before in our monsters-as-pets list, are an extremely diverse set of supernatural creatures ranging from vengeful ghosts to animal spirits, from forgotten gods to sentient cooking utensils. Some yokai are terrifying, some are ridiculous. Whatever creative spirits inhabit Japan, they started inventing spooky critters a thousand years ago, busted open a bottomless keg of sake, and just kept on inventing – and at the end of the millennial bender, said “fuck it – you’re all on the team.”
If you wanna read about the weirdness, Matthew Meyer (here’s his Villanova lecture) has two books:
The Night Parade of 100 Demons – This follows a tradition of telling 100 yokai stories in one sitting – though, as he says in his lecture, they’d often stop at 99, cuz after 100, bad shit happens.
The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits – Since yokai inhabit the liminal spaces (along a shoreline like a kappa or at the edge of life & death like yuki-onna (snow woman), who appears when you’re about to die from hypothermia), this book’s title refers to twilight – a most likely time to bump into one of these: maybe the giant skeleton monster, or maybe the angry spatula demon – who knows?
And if you want to get back to the source material, Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda’s translation of 18th century artist Toriyama Sekien’s (damn near exhaustive, for its time) encyclopedias of yokai:
Japandemonium Illustrated. It’s got everyone categorized and drawn-up like your proper old school bestiary.
If you want to experience the weirdness firsthand… you’re in luck.
I went to Rogue Artists Ensemble’s (and East West Players’) Kaidan Project: Walls Grow Thin, an immersive experience which takes place on several floors of the ugliest storage facility you’ve ever seen. Kaidan is Japanese for “ghost story”, and this “show” (can you call it that when you’re part of it?) draws on classic yokai stories. The way these are connected to a modern setting is perfect: as long as you’re paying attention, you never find yourself having to make any kind of conscious leap from one world to another- you just sort of find yourself there. It’s brilliant, and Rogue/EWP have earned a place in one of the weirdest, coolest supernatural monster traditions on the planet.
It’s hard to talk about it without giving anything away, but the basic idea is that a friend who’d been acting strange for weeks has disappeared and needs your help. All of this is at the really quite lovely storage facility. In you go, and I’m not going to tell you what happens.
If you hadn’t noticed, immersive experiences are becoming a big thing. [In fact, we have our own, this Saturday night only – tix right here.] A good one will absorb you, and maybe that’s what people need right now, something deeper and less passive than TV/film. It is the same as when folks say “the book was better”; what they often mean is “reading the book was so much more involving than the movie”. Like we’ve talked about before, when you read, you create the world in your mind. You actively imagine all of it, interpreting the words on the page, visualizing everything, “doing” the voices, etc. With interactive experiences, you are active to varying degrees, depending on that particular show/game. There are a lot of ways to do it, and people are trying all kinds of things right now; it’s the wild west(world). Maybe someday we’ll actually get to the Westworld level, but in the meantime, when you hear about a good show, you should check it out. Kaidan is a really good show.
Here are two more titles to read in preparation for Kaidan, required only if you want to survive the night:
Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide & Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide both break down the various monsters (yurei means ghost, btw) you might encounter. There’s no guarantee you’ll be able to defeat or even escape from any of these entities, but at least you’ll know what to call that thing that’s stealing your soul.
Bonus: If you can’t get enough yokai:
Lafcadio Hearn was a Westerner who went to Japan and introduced its folktales and ghost stories to the world. Unlike most writers who take it upon themselves to interpret a country through Western eyes, he is beloved in Japan. He stayed there, had a family, and died there. Look for Kwaidan, which is the same thing as kaidan. You also might check out the movie of the same name.
Noh theater. I’ve seen Noh once, so I’m no connoisseur, but if you can imagine watching a non-linear play and being slowly hypnotized by actors in Uncanny Valley-adjacent masks accompanied by three drums and a flute around a stage shaped like a guy waving “hey” at you with a special spot just for the chorus – that’s what it’s like to watch Noh. It’s an extremely old form and very often features supernatural monsters. It is singular.
So, read up on your yokai, and see what you can do about the IRL monsters which may or may not be loitering over at the storage facility.