- Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai by Michael Dylan Foster
Yōkai are, to borrow Michael Dylan Foster’s own terminology in this fascinating study, the “monsters” of Japanese folklore. In Western traditions we might think of ghosts, phantoms, banshees, spirits, boggarts, hobgoblins, fairies, and so on. In other words, these are the various beings that inhabit the supernatural world, characterized more by their mischievousness (and often downright malevolence) than by any benign or talismanlike qualities.
Of course, such supernatural beings only exist in relation to the real, human world, reinforcing its values. Foster’s approach is to divide the book into four main chapters, each exploring yōkai through the lens of a different trope and a particular historical period. Thus Foster convincingly presents the development of yōkai culture as a reflection of wider societal changes and, in particular, the tensions that emerged from an engagement with Western intellectual and cultural traditions, with the process of modernization and the embracing of postwar global capitalism.
The first of these chapters looks at yōkai culture at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries through the trope of natural history. During this period Japan witnessed a significant growth of interest in Western scientific fields of study, such as pharmacology and botany, leading to the first serious attempts to marshal the pandemonium of the yōkai into a more orderly parade through the creation of bestiaries that sought to visualize, name, and classify. This encyclopedic approach brought together the academic world and the popular imagination, but it also claimed yōkai as a body of national knowledge, part of a larger nation-building project, a theme that persists throughout the volume.
The next chapter deals with the end of the nineteenth century, when Japan’s adoption of the solar calendar and the 24-hour clock heralded the arrival of “the scientific age.” Foster concentrates on the work of Inoue Enryō, whose mission to modernize Buddhism meant the further classification of yōkai so as to separate them from the rational world and confine them to the world of superstitious belief.
Then comes the first half of the twentieth century, during which the yōkai were once again rehabilitated and incorporated into the service of modernizing [End Page 333] Japan as “historical constructions still relevant to creating a sense of self for the individual as well as the nation” (27–28). This is examined through a close analysis of a number of contemporary literary texts, which accept yōkai as a legitimate part of the cultural landscape that influenced behavior and provided a way of defamiliarizing the present, in order to see it in sharper focus. At this time folklore studies as an academic discipline was also attracting interest and gaining credibility through the work of Yanagita Kunio, who was concerned with yōkai as a symbol of an authentic Japan and the “appropriation of their value as cultural commodities of an ideal past” (28).
The final major chapter of the book is arguably the most fascinating. It deals with the appearance of yōkai in the modern, mediated, and (more recently) digital world. Beginning in the 1950s with Godzilla as the ultimate monster of the nuclear age and rapidly moving through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, Foster focuses on the work of manga artist Mizuki Shigeru and identifies the 1970s revival of interest in traditional culture as a response to the rapid postwar industrialization that transformed Japan into an economic superpower but relegated workers to little more than corporate robots. Perhaps the most interesting part, though, is Foster’s analysis of Kuchi-sake-onna (the Slit-Mouthed Woman), who appeared as an urban legend in the late 1970s, causing panic among schoolchildren and their parents. Kuchi-sake-onna was the first new yōkai of the media age; she represented the societal fears of that time and provided a commentary on the role of women in a Japanese society driven toward economic success.
The book concludes...