Review of ‘Strange Tales from Japan’

In translator William Scott Wilson’s introduction to Strange Tales from Japan: 99 Chilling Stories of Yokai, Ghosts, Demons and the Supernatural by Keisuke Nishimoto, he argues that these tales represent the people of Japan. While classics like Legend of Genji were “written by aristocrats living in an ethereal and privileged world and vying for the coveted literary recognition,” Strange Tales from Japan “is minzoku bungaku or folk literature.” According to Wilson, these oral tales collected by Nishimoto are the literature of those who did not write, thus representing a more comprehensive look into the culture’s psyche.

Strange Tales from Japan
Retold by Keisuke Nishimoto
Translated by William Scott Wilson
Tuttle Publishing

While cultural anthropologists might be able to use Strange Tales from Japan to peer into the mind of Japan’s working class, readers who are not already versed in Japanese culture should proceed with caution. For example, a reader unfamiliar with America hearing that gang’s initiate members by driving around at night with their headlights off and killing the first person who flashes their high beams will probably not come to any accurate conclusions about the culture in the U.S.

So instead of reading to figure out how the people of Japan think, I thought about how folktales were initially told: to make audiences laugh or scream or cry. Strange Tales from Japan delivers all of those emotions, and maybe more importantly, it has fun along the way. 

A Fun Read

Some of the stories are terrifying. “Earless Hoichi” may be the best on that count, which should come as no surprise. It was previously recorded by Greek folklorist Lafcadio Hearn and adapted into the classic 1964 anthology film Kwaidan. That story, and the other screamers, have an almost cosmic sense of dread, exploiting the fear that the world is truly out of human control. In these stories, even the most minor mistakes have significant consequences.

Strange Tales from Japan has more than one note, however. In addition to the horror, there is humor as well. In my favorite, an art dealer buys a haunted painting to resell. However, that night, the ghost inhabiting the picture comes out, and the two of them get so drunk that the art dealer cannot sell the painting. In “The Baby’s Sneeze,” Nishmoto recorded a story of why people in Okinawa yell “Eat Shit” when a baby sneezes. Strange Tales from Japan also has a hysterical section about little monsters who love to “pull a human’s liver right out of his anus” called Kappas.

Final Thoughts

The 99 tales are separated into two books—“Traditional Tales” and “Strange Tales.” Those books—each including an insert with paintings with analyses—and further divided into 18 sections of similar tales. The story sections are great for folklorists to analyze but may lead to boredom for casual readers facing five “Man-Eating Demons and Yamanba” stories in a row. Some section headings, like “People Who Were Spared,” spoil the endings, but those are minor quibbles about an excellent book. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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Product Details:

Pub Date: September 21, 2021Page Count: 352ppAge Range: 16 & Over
ISBN: 978-4-8053-1660-3Publisher: Tuttle PublishingList Price: $15.99

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Ryan C. Bradley
Ryan C. Bradley

Ryan C. Bradley’s work has been featured in The Missouri Review, Dark Moon Digest, The Rumpus, and many other venues. He’s a regular contributor to Cyn’s Workshop and Wicked Horror. A writer, editor, and adjunct professor who loves horror movies, action figures, wrasslin, and pizza, he spends a quarter of his time writing and the other quarter training his dog to stop biting him.

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