A self-conscious young woman is teased by her classmates, who compare her to the yokai known as the “slit-mouthed woman.” She takes their taunts to heart, and believes in the myth of the yokai so deeply that she eventually turns into the powerful and destructive demon.
As we learn more about her story, we find that her transformation is an allegory that involves deeper and more touching themes of honesty and love. In order to challenge her “possession” by the story of the yokai, it must be interpreted and understood on more than one level. As heady as that sounds, bear in mind that this challenge is led by a porn-addicted, hiccuping detective and his bathroom-dwelling partner, who is another yokai.
Hanako and the Terror of Allegory presents an intriguing combination of quirky characters and traditional Japanese myths, and seems to be a meditation (albeit one with an incredibly goofy sense of humour) on the relationship between storytelling and psychology.
The unusual qualities of Sakae Esuno’s manga start with its title, which recalls the sort of literary playfulness found in the stories of Italo Calvino and Salman Rushdie. But aside from memories of English-lit exams, what is terrifying about an allegory?
In the world of this manga, when people believe in a particular story, they can become “possessed” by it. As one character explains: “Some stories have a power than cannot be explained. Some people tend to attract those stories on a genetic level.”
One character even develops technology to “de-visualize” people and help them to see themselves as they really are. The “anti-allegory program” brings to mind William Blake’s (and Aldous Huxley’s) exhortation to cleanse the doors of perception.
The allegories or “possessions” in Hanako also seem to fit well with Bruno Bettenheim’s psychological examination of fairy tales. In 1976’s The Uses of Enchantment, he writes that “a myth, like a fairy tale, may express an inner conflict in symbolic form and suggest how it may be solved.” In Hanako, characters must confront personal demons and fears in order to overcome evil spirits.
“Fairy tales,” Bettenheim writes, “direct the child to discover his identity and calling, and they also suggest what experiences are needed to develop his character further.”
This also recalls the work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who write in Metaphors We Live By: “Just as we seek out metaphors to highlight and make coherent what we have in common with someone else, we seek out personal metaphors to highlight and make coherent our own pasts, our present activities, and our dreams, hopes, and goals as well.”
It’s tempting to mine every detail in Hanako for multiple levels of meaning. The title is a strong hint. But that suggests a ponderous and academic exercise. To balance that, the story nearly overloads itself with silliness.
Despite the title, the main character does not appear to be Hanako. The disconnect between the manga’s title and the apparent main character is another intriguing mystery.
Instead, the hero is Daisuke Aso, an “Allegory Detective.” He collects porn (reminiscent of Fox Mulder’s x-rated hobbies in The X-Files), although he seems absolutely ignorant of why it might be considered inappropriate to leave stacks of his collection lying around his office. When he encounters an allegory, he develops a potentially fatal case of the hiccups. He also works with an odd spirit/monster, in the form of a young girl who is a master computer programmer, and lives in his bathroom. She can only exist in bathrooms. This yokai is Hanako.
As strange as characters like the slit-mouthed woman and a bathroom-dwelling demon may sound, they are familiar characters in the world of yokai. Both appear in Yokai Attack, Hiroki Yoda and Matt Alt’s invaluable “collection of conventional wisdom” about the “mythical, supernatural creatures that have populated generations of Japanese fairy tales and folk stories.”
The slit-mouthed woman is Kuchisake Onna, “one of the most well-known urban legends in Japan.” It’s interesting that the story is described as an “urban legend” rather than a myth. “A whopping ninety-nine per cent of Japanese children claim to be familiar with the general story,” write Yoda and Alt. “The first reports appeared in 1978, reaching a peak several years later.”
Similarly, the character of Hanako in this manga seems to be Toire no Hanako (“Hanako in the Bathroom”), whose “first recorded appearance … dates back to the 1950s.”
This crossing-over of myth into the realm of urban legend brings to mind the website Pink Tentacle‘s ongoing examination of Japanese urban legends, such as the tale of the “Cow Head … a ghost story so horrific that people die of fright soon after hearing it.”
Yoda and Alt describe the yokai as representing “the attempts of the fertile imagination to impose meaning and rationality on a chaotic, unpredictable, often difficult-to-explain world.” It resonates with the words quoted earlier from Bettenheim, Lakoff and Johnson, and also recalls the famed mythographer Joseph Campbell, who writes in Myths to Live By:
“The first condition, therefore, that any mythology must fulfill if it is to render life to modern lives is that of cleansing the doors of perception to the wonder, at once terrible and fascinating, of ourselves and of the universe of which we are the ears and eyes and the mind.”
As the narrator says in Hanako‘s opening pages: “These tales are alive … So beautiful and yet so horrifying, they bloom and flower.”
Appearing weekly, Four-Eyed Stranger looks at classic manga reprints and unusual modern work by Asian artists.