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Kaidan: Japanese Tales of the Supernatural

2012.09.19

Our Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai panel, “Japanese Tales of the Supernatural,” is one of our favorites.  We love sharing spooky and strange stories with others, but a sixty-minute panel barely scratches the surface of Japan’s legacy of Kaidan.  The purpose of this post is to provide those interested with some more information, as well as more stories to read and some Kaidan-inspired series to check out.

Scene from "Kwaidan" - Mimi-nashi Hoichi

What is a Kaidan?

Simply put, a Kaidan (怪談) is a story of the supernatural, similar to an urban legend, that was usually passed down through oral tradition.  The term “Kaidan” was coined during the Edo Period (between 1600 and 1800), and all true Kaidan evoke a sense of that time period.  Many of these stories are based on Buddhist stories and hence carry themes of karma, reincarnation, and vengeful ghosts.  However, the emphasis in Kaidan is not on “scariness,” but rather on the bizarre or supernatural nature of the story.

Kaidan reflected cultural beliefs during the Edo Period about the unexplainable, addressing monsters, ghosts, spirits, gods, possessions, exorcisms, and spiriting away.  These themes continue to be prominent elements in Japanese storytelling and popular culture.

At our panels, we try to capture some of the essence of Kaidan by recounting these stories to the audience in a similar way to how they were originally passed on.

Scene from "Kwaidan"

What is a Hyakumonogatari Kaidai-kai?

Sometimes known in the United States as the Japanese Game of 100 Candles, a Hyakumonogatari Kaidan-kai (百物語怪談会) is actually a gathering to tell 100 strange stories.  Invented during the Edo Period, this parlor game was played by both aristocratic and working classes.  Participants would set up three connected rooms, placing one hundred candles and a mirror (laid flat on a table) in the first room and gathering in the third.  As darkness fell, the participants would take turns telling a Kaidan, then would move to the first room to extinguish a candle and gaze into the mirror before returning to the third room.  It was believed that, if one hundred stories were told, a supernatural event would occur.

East Blue Cosplay’s version of a Kaidan-kai is simpler, mostly because we don’t have the time or the space to run an authentic one at a convention.  We utilize electric candles (for safety), and keep everyone in the same room.

Scene from "Kwaidan"

Where can I find more information, and where can I read more Kaidan?

We will continue to update this section as we find more interesting websites, books, movies, and other kinds of media.  For more information, we recommend the following websites:

Hyakumonogatari.com: Unquestionably the best website on the internet for Edo-era tales of supernatural Japan, this blog is dedicated to translating source material from texts by Hokusai and other influential collectors of strange stories.  This website will keep you busy for hours!

Tales of Ghostly Japan @ Japanzine: A succinct summary of the history of Kaidan-kai, a handful of Kaidan, and a few modern tales with a Kaidan flavor.

To read more Kaidan, we recommend the following books and films:

Kwaidan [Lafcadio Hearn, 1903].  This is the book that first brought the word “Kaidan” to the West.  Lafcadio Hearn’s importance in the preservation and retelling of Kaidan is unparalleled.  This volume chronicles a number of different Kaidan stories (including some of the stories we tell at our panel).  You can buy a paperback copy here on Amazon, download a free version for your Kindle here, or read it free online at Project Gutenberg.

In Ghostly Japan [Lafcadio Hearn, 1899]: More spooky and strange tales from Lafcadio Hearn’s time in Japan.  If you like Kwaidan, chances are you’ll like this too.  Buy it here on Amazon, or download a free version for your Kindle here.

Shadowings [Lafcadio Hearn, 1901]: You’ll have to trust us here; Lafcadio Hearn was the authority for Kaidan during his lifetime, and his writings are still the best ones out there.  Buy it here on Amazon, or download a free version for your Kindle here.

Kwaidan [Kobayashi Masaki, 1964].  This is a film, directed by Kobayashi Masaki, that brings to life four of Lafcadio Hearn’s collected Kaidan: “Kurokami” (from the story “The Premonition”), “Mimi-nashi Hoichi,” “Yuki-onna,” and “In a Cup of Tea.”  Buy it here on Amazon.

Supernatural and Mysterious Japan: Spirits, Hauntings and Paranormal Phenomena [Catrien Ross, 1996].  This book is a little more academic than Hearn’s book, but is still an interesting read.  Recommended for those looking for interpretations of Kaidan in addition to the stories themselves.  Buy it here on Amazon.

Scene from "Kwaidan" - Mimi-nashi Hoichi

Are there anime/manga available that are inspired by Kaidan?

You bet!  Kaidan represent an important part of Japanese culture, and their presence is felt in many different kinds of media.  Below are a few of our favorite examples of Kaidan-inspired stories.

Bakemonogatari: This recent TV series is based on a series of novels by Nisio Isin.  It follows a young man who finds himself involved with several young women, all afflicted with terrible problems due to possession, curses, and other strange phenomena.  Though the format of the episodes is off-putting to some, if you like the urban legend aspect of Kaidan, you might enjoy this.  This 15-episode TV series now has a second season, Nisemonogatari, and an upcoming prequel movie, Kizumonogatari.

Ayakashi ~Japanese Classic Horror~ and Mononoke: These two TV series represent one of the only things on this list that can actually be called “Kaidan,” namely the first arc of Ayakashi, “Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan” (arguably the most famous Kaidan in Japan).  The first series, Ayakashi, is broken into three parts: Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan, a tale of revenge from beyond the grave; Tenshuu Monogatari, a supernatural story of star-crossed lovers; and Bakeneko, a family’s struggle against an avenging goblin cat.  The second series, Mononoke, is a spin-off starring the protagonist of the Bakeneko arc of Ayakashi, a mysterious man known only as the Medicine Seller.  Each series is 12 episodes long, and is well worth investigating.

Nurarihyon no Mago: This ongoing manga series, known in the United States as “Nura: Rise of the Youkai Clan,” follows the half-human successor to a powerful clan of monsters who is determined to have a normal life.  Nurarihyon is part school comedy, part monster drama, and lots of fun.  There are now two TV series (Nurarihyon no Mago, and Nurarihyon no Mago: Sennen Makyou) if anime is more your style.

Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi: Known in the United States as “Spirited Away,” this film by Studio Ghibli follows a young girl named Chihiro who, along with her parents, becomes enchanted at a hot spring resort for monsters, ghosts and gods.    This full-length movie is strange and magical, and is highly recommended.

Kousetsu Hyakumonogatari: Released in the United States under the (unfortunate) title, “Requiem from the Darkness,” this under-loved series follows supernatural tales of crime and punishment in Edo Period Japan.  The protagonist, an author named Momosuke, leaves Edo to collect one hundred Kaidan (sound familiar?) but encounters instead the Ongyou, a trio of monsters investigating and punishing people guilty of bizarre and other-worldly crimes.  This short series is only 13 episodes long, and is the show that initially got us interested in Kaidan.

Jigoku Shoujo: Do you have a grudge?  In this series (known as “Hell Girl” in the United States), people with deep grudges can log onto a website, Jigoku Tsuushin (Hell Correspondence), and post their grief there.  The Hell Girl then appears to them, offering to take revenge on their part, in exchange for their soul.  There are three seasons of this series, each unlocking another piece of the Hell Girl’s mysterious and tragic past.  Not recommended for the squeamish.

Natsume Yuujinchou: If you’re looking for something a little more cheerful, this slice-of-life series about a boy and his monster cat may be just your cup of tea.  The story follows Natsume Takashi, whose grandmother Reiko collected a book of names of youkai she defeated, as he returns those names to their owners.  This series (now four seasons long) is a wonderful exploration of the world of youkai and ghosts.

We conduct our Kaidan-kai panels at some of the conventions we attend.  If you’re interested in joining us for some spooky stories, check out our Facebook page; if we have one coming up, the time and location will be posted there.

Images from “Kwaidan” taken from FilmFanatic.org.

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