Welcome back to MangoBot, a biweekly column about Asian futurism by TokyoMango blogger Lisa Katayama. In Tokyo, teenage girls don't worry about date rape and theft nearly as much as they fret over monsters (and train gropers). I never thought twice about the whereabouts of my wallet as I walked home in the dark after school, but I definitely braved the path from the train station to the house armed with all my monster-combating skills. I'd forgotten about most of my own Japanese monster encounters until I read Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, a new book in which translator/author Matt Alt and his wife Hiroko Yoda neatly document the legendary characteristics of dozens of classical Japanese monsters. Today, I will introduce you to five monsters that I personally encountered-physically or in spirit-when I was a kid.
1. The human-faced tree My friends Ricky and Chris told me there was a human-faced tree in the forest behind their mountain house, so I went to check it out one day. Something similar makes an appearance in Yokai Attack-Alt and Yoda's research found that trees with human-faced, edible, talking fruit grow in valleys throughout Japan. The tree R & C showed me had no fruit, but sure enough, it had a face on its thick bark-eyes, a nose, and a creepy smiling mouth. It just stood there with its human-face staring at me. I was pretty sure it would bite me in the ass as I walked away, but it didn't. Somebody probably cut it down and built a luxury condo there by now. The prevalence of yokai is rooted in the Japanese notion that all things have spirits. Trees, foxes, boxes, giant lizards, Furby, Tamagochi.
2. The super-speed woman with the mouth gashes When I was in elementary school somebody told me the story of Kuchisake Onna, a superhuman madwoman who lurks in dark alleys and asks you death trap questions. The former beauty wears a surgical mask to hide an Ichi-the-Killer-esque gash on both sides of her mouth inflicted by a crazed relative when she was a kid. She spent her whole life in utter misery and gradually developed a serious complex about her appearance. Eventually, she turned into a monster. Legend has it that she asks passersby if they think she's pretty. It's a trick question-if you say YES, she takes off her mask and says "Even now?" and kills you. If you say NO, she gets mad and kills you. If you run away, she'll run after you at lightning speed and kill you. (A lot of the scariest Japanese monsters are women with unresolved issues.) Walking home from school, I rehearsed what I believed to be the correct answer-"You're average"-over and over in my head and avoiding all women with surgical masks. Check out the trailer (above) from the new movie that tells the back story of Kuchisake Onna in J-horrifying detail.
3. Death monsters living in toilets Almost every girl child in Japan is scared of the school toilet. It's because we grew up hearing stories about Hanako, the dead girl who lives in the girls' bathroom, and her mysterious friend who asks you if you want to wear a red jacket, and then douses you in blood. I think the stories vary from region to region, but I first heard about her while I was at summer camp in Nagano Prefecture, and in Nagano Prefecture Hanako always resides in the second stall from the left. To this day, I don't know that I'd be able to walk into the second stall from the left at a public bathroom in Nagano. Silly me with my childhood hangups. With the exception of Godzilla, his friends, and a few others, Japanese monsters are usually normal-sized and disguised as ordinary humans or cuddly little animals. Which makes them 100 times scarier, of course, because they can get real close and then eat you alive, make you go broke, or steal your children.
4. GeGeGe no Kitaro This amazing manga (and later anime) series created in the late 1950s by Shigeru Mizuki is about an entire world full of yokai who coexist with humans. There are bad ones and good ones, and they all need to go to school. The main character is a yokai boy named Kitaro who has remote-controlled wooden sandals and the ability to electrocute people. He's a good kid, though, and the last descendant of the Ghost tribe. His dad is a squeaky-voiced eyeball with encyclopedic knowledge and a weakness for sake. My favorite character was always Nurikabe, the giant mellow gray wall that protects people and monsters but likes to freak people out by standing in their paths late at night. I secretly wished I'd run into him sometimes on my way home from school, or even believed that he'd save me from Kuchisake Onna if she was on the prowl in my 'hood. The video clip above shows him in action.
5. Gamera He's not the most famous kaiju from postwar Japan (Godzilla is), but this flying turtle monster has some interesting and conflicting origin stories worth telling. One is that he was accidental awakened from prehistoric times by an atomic bomb. The other is that he was bioengineered to life in order to defeat another super-strong monster, Gyaos. Which is it? Both, apparently-different eras of Gamera movies have different back stories. I wrote about my encounter with Gamera on my blog:
I ran into Gamera the other day, so I decided to fight him. He weights a lot more than I do, and his arms are a lot thicker, so I just stood there screamed in his face. I knew he could only blow flames from his legs so as long as he stayed on his stupid wooden platform I knew I would win. "I thought you're supposed to be able to fly," I said. "GAOOOOO," Gamera replied.
You can read more about traditional Japanese monsters in Yokai Attack-or, if you're the kaiju type you can just rent a bunch of Godzilla movies and veg out.