Summer may conjure up scenes of beaches and BBQs, but if you're in Japan you need to watch your back. That’s because summer is the season when yokai and yurei (monsters and ghosts) are most active. You might think you’re safe in your room watching anime, but anyone familiar with Natsume Yujin-cho or Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan probably recognizes that having some understanding of the Japanese supernatural world can come in handy.
Enter Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda, a husband and wife team who run AltJapan, a company that specializes in localizing Japanese videogames into English. After years of research, they most recently released Yurei Attack! The Japanese Ghost Survival Guide, the sequel to Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. (Naruto fans can get extra credit by checking out the second book in the trilogy, Ninja Attack! True Tales of Assassins, Samurai, and Outlaws.)
We caught up with Alt for a crash course...
CRN: We're clearly blackbelts in yokai and yurei defense after checking out your books, but can you give our readers a quick definition? What's a yokai? What's a yurei? What's the difference? What makes them so distinct from Western monsters and ghosts that you kept the words in Japanese?
Matt Alt: A yokai is a someTHING. A yurei is a someONE. A ghost. Yokai take all sorts of forms, but they're generally personifications of natural phenomena. Yurei are good old-fashioned angry human spirits. The key thing is that yurei are powered by something called "onnen," which is a Japanese word that means a combination of fury, jealousy, sadness, and vengeance. I guess it's kind of telling that what takes four words in English only takes one in Japanese!
Why should anime fans care about them?
For one thing, yokai and yurei are the ORIGINAL Japanese pop culture characters. Long before the existence of anime or manga, people entertained themselves with yokai illustrations and ghost stories.
What are some of the most famous yokai and yurei that appear in anime and manga?
I always say the most famous yokai in anime is Totoro! He's never actually described as a yokai, but he's very yokai-like. He's a manifestation of nature. And like many yokai, he's powerful but unaggressive. But Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro is sort of the Star Wars of yokai anime; it really kicked off a huge fad for yokai in Japan in the 1970s and is still popular today. More recently Summer Days with Coo had a pretty solid portrayal of a famous yokai called a kappa, a creature than haunts rivers and streams in Japan. And Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is full of yokai, of course. Hiroko and I actually translated the first volume of that manga for Viz a few years back.
There are way more yurei in films than anime -- movies like The Grudge, or The Ring, are centered on yurei. In the anime world, shows like Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales carry on the tradition. Oiwa, the Ghost of Yotsuya, is in Ayakashi. She is the single most famous ghost in Japan. Many people are deathly afraid of her even today.
How did you get interested in writing these books?
Everyone in Japan knows all about yokai and yurei, but there's next to nothing written about them in English. Hiroko has always been a big yokai and yurei fan -- in fact she taught me everything I know about them! But when we went looking for references in English we couldn't find anything but academic texts. Yokai and yurei are scary, but they're also fun. So we wanted to make something everyone could enjoy. Something based on the actual folklore, not taken from anime.
What were the steps you took in putting the books together?
We live in Tokyo and have a lot of manga artist and dojinshi artist friends. So whenever we came up with a book idea, we'd talk to the artist who we thought best matched the project and see if they wanted to work together.
As for how we wrote them… Hiroko is the expert on the supernatural in Japan so she'd come up with the list of yokai and yurei we should cover, and then we went and researched each one. We'd read books, we'd even go to the spots they haunted. And then when we had all the info we needed, we'd ask the manga artist to do the illustration of each one. It was a lot of fun.
From Gegege no Kitaro 2 ©SHIGERU MIZUKI, TOEI ANIMATION
Have you ever actually met a yokai or yurei?
We get this question a lot, but we aren’t "ghost hunters." We hunt stories! We have been to the site of some pretty horrendous stuff that happened long ago, but have never run into an actual yurei or yokai ourselves. Unfortunately.
What or whom would you least like to have a run in with?
Generally speaking, you’re much better off having a run-in with a yokai. Many of them are not violent and some are even friendly. Yurei on the other hand, are almost always horrifically angry. You don’t live a long life, die surrounded by family, and turn yurei. You turn yurei because you were tortured, tricked, cheated, killed. And they don’t care who they take revenge against.
Okay, so Japanese ghosts are pretty scary after all! To become a true expert on yurei and more, you'll have to read the books: