("breathing the atmosphere of the forest")

Some stories about Japan's youkai

"The Fifty-Three Stations of the Yokaido Road" by Shigeru Mizuki
USA gallery premiere at the Japan Information and Culture Center,
Washington DC, March 5 2008

I am so happy to have been among the hundred or so people who attended this delightful event. It took place in the small theatre and gallery of the Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC), which is the public aspect of the Japanese Embassy in Washington. Guests were free to walk through the gallery before the program and see all 53 prints in the series, several of which had been placed beside copies of Hiroshige's original "53 Stations of the Tokaido Road" so to show off the similarities and differences. Mizuki-san has done a wonderful job of both capturing the colors and details of the original prints, and filling them with spooky characters. There was also a display showing the long, multi-step process by which a woodblock print is made, and an array of publications, including early copies of the Kitaro manga. I was very happy to see that there will be a book compiling the entire set of Yokaido Road illustrations, as well as a calendar and other ephemera.

Then we settled into the theatre and the main program began. After an introduction from JICC director Misato Iko, the first to speak was Seiichi Yano, the CEO of Mizuki-san's publishing house, Yanoman Corporation. Yano-san spoke briefly about the company's history (they have the distinction of being the company that introduced the jigsaw puzzle to Japan!) and its long interest in products featuring yokai. [Note: Both yokai and youkai seem to be appropriate romaji transliterations. Though I usually prefer youkai, yokai was the form used in this program and I'll use it here.]

The next and featured speaker was Shigeru Mizuki's younger brother, Yukio Mura, who is general manager of Mizuki Productions. He expressed Mizuki-sensei's regret at not being able to join the group for this presentation, saying that he had very much wanted to be here but that his advanced age (he turned 86 this week) makes it difficult for him to travel. (Mura-san then took off his sunglasses and said "this way I look very much like my brother, so you can pretend I'm him." =) He spoke at length (via interpreter) about his brother's life-long love of yokai, how he was sensitive to their presence as long as either of them could remember, and how firmly he believes that many of the ills and malaises of modern Japan are caused by the fact that the country has alienated the yokai who are so much a part of its traditional soul. As we face such "modern monsters" as global warming, Mura-san said, it becomes more and more important for us to reconnect with Mother Earth and with the yokai goblins with whom we once lived side by side. He told of how Mizuki has traveled the world seeking stories of yokai and other monsters, and brought them into his artwork. (There were also some entertaining stories of his mischief as a little boy, and his love of collecting things, which he maintains to this day.)
Mura-san then spoke in more detail about the Yokaido Road prints, and said that eight of them have been completely reproduced using the same woodblock print techniques used in Hiroshige's day, overseen by the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, the premier masters of this old artform in Japan today. After its several exhibitions in Japan, he said, he and his brother are both delighted to have the print series displayed for the first time in the USA. (In answer to a later question from the audience, Yano-san said that they have been approached by a number of galleries and universities in America, and there's definitely a possibility of other exhibitions here.)

Mura-san then read a message from Mizuki-sensei, which I've copied here in its entirety:

"I wish you a happy haunted journey through the realm of the Yokai.

"When something strange or something mysterious happens, most of the time there are Yokai--goblins from Japanese folklore--involved behind the scenes. I have the impression that the recent economic recession and depressed social conditions might be a result of the fact that we drove the Yokai away from our world. Fluorescent lights, street lamps and neon signs are glaring everywhere in our houses and in the streets today, leaving nowhere for the Yokai to live. Once upon a time--though it was only seventy or eighty years ago--Japan had abundant darkness, where many Yokai used to dwell. Even in your house, you could sense the presence of Yokai in the bathroom, lavatory and closet. Some of them might have been hiding there ever since the Edo period.
"In the Edo period when this journey took place, Yokai seemed to be more active and alive, as they were featured in many emakemono (narrative picture scrolls) and illustrated booklets of those days. People in Edo times were capable of sensing Yokai, as they were more sensitive to them. People nowadays are working hard all day always looking grim and desperate, while Edo people seemed to know how to enjoy life. And they owe it to Yokai, who used to exist around them.
"It took me two years to draw 'Fifty-three Stations of the Yokaido Road', doing my own version of Hiroshige's 'Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road'. Looking at these fifty-five pictures all lined up from Nihonbashi to Kyoto, I think they are quite fascinating. For people in the Edo period, it was not easy to go on journeys, so they appreciated and amused themselves with the landscapes Hiroshige painted. I have no doubt that they would have loved it had they found Yokai among the landscapes and people in the pictures.
"Supposed hard times mean everything seems to go wrong these days, but I hope these fifty-five pictures of a haunted Yokai journey will bring you a little happiness."

Mura-san finished his remarks by reading several original haiku about Kitaro's first visit to America, which unfortunately I didn't have the speed or skill to copy. Even in translation they were quite charming. =)

The final speaker was Mie Ikeda, co-producer of the exhibit. Ikeda-san spoke first about the long-standing popularity of Mizuki-sensei's most famous yokai character, GeGeGe no Kitaro, who has been the star of his own manga, five anime series, nine movies and endless amounts of merchandising for the past 50 years. She has been a fan of the character since she was small, and described the museum of Mizuki's work which opened in his hometown, Sakaiminato, in 2003 [[Footnote: You can see some of this museum in the movie The Great Yokai War]], and the theme park which joined it in 2007, GeGeGe no Yokai Rakuen ("GeGeGe's Yokai Paradise")***.
She then explained [this was really funny] that she'd dreamed of bringing this exhibition to the USA for several years, but had thought that Americans, even though much more aware of manga and anime now than in the past, still would not be interested in an art show centering on yokai. Her mind was changed when she talked to a professor of Japanese folklore at Columbia University [I very much regret that I didn't get this man's name], who told her that on the contrary, his students and many Americans are much more familiar with the idea of yokai than she thought. He asked her if she'd seen the anime movie Spirited Away, which she hadn't, and recommended she do so, pointing out that it had won the USA's Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Ikeda-san rented Spirited Away, and remarked with amazement that Americans must be much more comfortable with Japanese lore than she'd ever imagined, to have given such an award to a film in which 97% of the characters are yokai! --After that, she said, her determination to bring the "Yokaido Road" exhibition to America was renewed in earnest, and she looked with pride on the result of her efforts this evening. --[So I guess we owe a debt of gratitude to Miyazaki-sensei and the Academy for this great experience. --Gee, he should've told her to Google the name "Inuyasha". =) ]

Ikeda-san finished by discussing how deeply ingrained the idea of yokai is in Japanese culture and how hard they are to explain and describe in any other context. She returned to her conversation with the Columbia professor, asking him what word he used in his classes to translate even the meaning of yokai--is it closer to "monster"? "fairy"? "ghost"?--and he admitted that he and his students debated this endlessly. ("Goblin" seems to be the term Mizuki-san prefers, as it was used throughout the presentation.) In her opinion, she said, they are closest to a pantheon of gods, and compared them to the Greek gods or the spirit gods of American Indian belief, in that some of them are personifications of weather and nature, some of emotions, and some of abstract ideas. ("It may be easier for Christian people to think of them this way," she suggested.) They exist all over the world, she said, even right next to you. Her last remark was the story of how, on her first-grade-class outing to the riverside, she and her classmates saw a placard on the bank urging travellers to beware of the kappa who lived there. [Probably much like this one.] The kids all screamed in fear, and her teacher was quick to tell them that they mustn't venture too close to the edge. This shows the yokai presence is all around us still, said Ikeda-san, and we hope you've enjoyed learning about it.

Then the room was darkened and we saw a videotaped interview with Shigeru Mizuki himself, which was the highlight of the evening. It had been filmed apparently in his home, in a large sofa before a bank of glass cases crammed with Kitaro memorabilia (probably the collection his brother mentioned =). It was completely fascinating. Mizuki-sensei doesn't speak like someone who "believes" in yokai, but like a dedicated naturalist who's spent his life studying an increasingly rare, but definitely not extinct, species. These things from another world, he says--they've been around since ancient days.
He expanded on his earlier comment that the modern overabundance of light has made yokai very scarce (though they seem not to mind oil lamps, he noted), saying that it would be impossible ever to see one in downtown Tokyo, Los Angeles or New York. "Tranquility and darkness are essential" for a location where yokai might be seen, he said. He stressed, though, that the right location isn't everything; you also need to know something about them, or you won't realize it even if you do glimpse one, because "they aren't something you see the shape of". He made a clear distinction between ghosts and yokai, saying that yokai are much closer in their nature to us than ghosts are, and that "ghosts are an illusion you see, while yokai are hard to see". [I think he meant that ghosts are a purely visual manifestation, while yokai exist on more than the visible plane.]

On a lighter note, he said that he's often asked which of the Kitaro characters is his favorite, and named Nezumi-ototo. He enjoys the Ratboy because he's allowed to joke and be rude, while Kitaro, as "a hero who fights for justice", always has to be serious.

The second segment of the videotape was an interview with highly-regarded modern artist and writer Takashi Murakami, who talked about the influence of Mizuki's art on his own. Born in 1963, he's been reading Mizuki's manga all his life. Even as a kid, he enjoyed the sense of chaos and anarchy that came from the presence of so many unearthly creatures in Mizuki's stories, and says that even very young readers could understand the message that "it's OK not to expect the world to make sense". He said that he tries for that same sense of anarchy and nihilism in his own artwork (as is clear to anyone familiar with him, and if not, click the link).

The evening ended most pleasantly with a sake' and sushi bar and another look through the gallery.

***from Anime News Service, 4-26-07 (11:57PM EDT)---- GeGeGe No Yokai Rakuen Opens
A small garden style theme park and 3D movie theater themed around Gegege No Kitaro opened earlier this month. It sits next to the Shigeru Mizuki Memorial in Sakaiminato city. GeGeGe No Yokai Rakuen was conceived and constructed by jigsaw puzzle manufacturer Yanoman. An exclusive 15 minute Kitaro animation "Ghost Train" is being screened there on the theater's 250 inch screen. Hours will be 9:30AM - 6:00PM (Summer close is 7:00PM), 365 days a year.
Full facilities will br completed there in time for a scheduled grand opening in March, 2015.

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