Whether stalking your nightmares or crushing a CGI-generated cityscape, the myth of the monster is as salient now as during the superstition-driven glory days of our ancestors. Sure, the definitions and multifarious incarnations vary between centuries and cultures, but the psychological role remains the same: the monster of the mind is a means of transposing natural fears onto unnatural creatures. Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide directly addresses such anthropomorphized preoccupations by revisiting the dangers of life in historical Japan via the yokai, or “traditional creepy-crawlies”, of myth.
Even the most devout Japanophile may not be familiar with the long tradition and bizarre pantheon of yokai characters. Other than Takashe Miike’s recent horror-fantasy The Great Yokai War (itself loosely based on a ’60s film series), the Japanese monster mythology is largely overshadowed by the destructive meanderings of kaiju, or “strange beasts”, such as Godzilla and Mothra. While the latter are known for razing skylines and wreaking general havoc, the yokai represent a more supernatural threat. The name itself derives from the written characters for “other-wordly” and “weird,” but, as noted in the preface of Yokai Attack!, the commonly translated “ghost” and “goblin” misnomers are “about as imprecise and un-evocative as translating ‘samurai’ as ‘Japanese warrior,’ or ‘sushi’ as ‘raw fish on rice.’ Yokai are yokai.”
Yokai embody the unclassifiable phenomena of nature; or, in a human-centered universe, the spiritual forces that unleash evil and mischief on innocent people. One need look no further than the vengeful Funa-yurei — sea phantoms apparently intent on drowning as many fishermen and travelers as they can get their aquatic hands on — to see that yokai are the rationalized personifications of nature’s otherwise random occurrences. Historical heavyweights from the Brothers Grimm to Jorge Luis Borges have understood that the key to the human psyche is through the imagination — the fairies and tales of lore are the mere breadcrumbs through the forest. To understand yokai is to understand the central fears and hazards of Japanese culture, be it feudal or futuristic. Despite the idiosyncratic nature of the subject, Yokai Attack! makes no mockery of folklore and superstition. Instead, this mini-encyclopedia portrays cultural bias and nuance within a framework of universal fantasy.
The title may sound similar to hypothetical survival books for zombie and robot invasions, but Yokai Attack! is more akin to a safari guide — a supernatural safari guide. Each of the yokai outlined in this volume are embellished with details such as physical characteristics, weapons of choice, and methods of attack. In addition to images of antique prints and paintings, illustrator Tatsuya Morino — protégé of legendary manga artist and yokai afficionado Shigeru Mizuki — realizes each prototype with colorful illustrations that deceptively resemble those of a children’s book (if Goodnight Moon was actually about nocturnal demons). The resulting compendium includes everything from the gruesome (O-dokuro, or “Giant Skeleton”, devours living humans then uses the remaining bones for its own body) to the comical (the 3-foot-tall Tofu Kozo — literally “Tofu Boy” — kills his unwitting victims with a virulent fungus in the guise of the gelatinous soy dish) and the downright weird (one rare tree sprouts fruit that bears human faces, which are known to voyeuristically watch — or creepily laugh at — passersby).
Co-authors Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt are adept translators of Japanese culture. Yokai Attack! is the first English language book solely devoted to yokai, and, in lesser hands, it might have languished in the realm of kitsch. Fortunately for us — and generations of overactive imaginations to come — Yoda and Alt’s bicultural fluency makes this an engrossing yet educational read. The husband-and-wife duo have already penned a study of kawaii characters (think Hello Kitty and her doe-eyed brethren) and also run a Tokyo-based company responsible for producing English versions of Japanese comic books, literature, and video games. In addition to their professional expertise, they also served as extras on the set of the aforementioned Miike flick — an experience that evidently compelled them to research the genre further.
Despite the gimmicky cover and Facebook-esque format, Yokai Attack! is a work of true scholarship. Yoda and Alt researched yokai of fame and faded memory alike, poring over illustrations, recorded references, and even 18th-century microfilms from the National Diet Library in Tokyo (the equivalent of the US Library of Congress) to cull nearly 50 representative portraits of the illusive monsters. From the devious to the destructive, the result is a comprehensive overview of an ancient menace with modern resonance.