[This is the second of Ada Palmer’s columns for Strange Horizons. The first—on manga and anime—can be accessed here].
That the ghost killed the girl in the horror movie’s spooky opening is not surprising—what kind of girl it was, that’s the amazing part.
There is a lot of well-deserved celebration of the fact that, after decades of Anglophone SFF being translated into dozens of languages, we’re finally getting more non-Anglophone SFF translated into English. As we celebrate the two-way-ness of what was long a one-way conversation, it’s worth zooming in on examples why getting SFF from other countries is so valuable. One great example—a feature which has long fed Western anime/manga fandom and its less-high-profile cousin, the fans of Japanese live action zombie movies and Godzilla-type costume monster dramas, is narrative unpredictability.
Japanese SFF, and especially horror (where so much is about suspense and expectation), often offers an exciting freshness to Western readers/viewers, because the stories are less predictable to a Western audience. This, in turn, is because they draw on a different narrative tradition. This is an asset any work in translation from a different culture benefits from. To give the crudest of examples, like many American kids I grew up on Europe’s fairy tales, in which things always happen three times (three bowls of porridge, three nights at the royal ball, the first dog has eyes the size of saucers, second dog, third dog etc.), so the first time I read a collection of Navajo children’s stories in which, instead, everything happens four times, it was very surprising. Freshness is appealing, so when 1980s US zombie movie fans popped their first fansubbed Japanese zombie flicks into their VCRs, even films a Japanese moviegoer would consider totally unexceptional could elicit “Whoa! What?! That’s not where I thought this story was going!” That is powerful.
Some specific examples will help. You are probably already thinking of Japan’s religious and folklore traditions, with its Buddhist, Shinto, and animist ingredients—of Japanese temples, monk exorcists, or shapeshifting fox spirits (kitsune)—which are indeed delightful tools for populating a story, just like elves or griffins. This tradition is far too often oversimplified in Western discussions, which ascribe to Japan an idealized homogenous animist sacredness-of-nature attitude (much as often happens with Native American cultures’ stories). It’s better to think of Japan (and indeed of Native Americans) as having a whole bunch of awesome old stories, many unfamiliar to other audiences, whose transformations in modern fiction are as different as the works of Diana Wynne Jones and H.P. Lovecraft. Some modern Japanese fiction certainly uses traditional folklore creatures, or traditions of monastic and spiritual practice (Tokyo Babylon, 1990-3, is a great example), or Japan’s fascinating afterlife bureaucracy (as in the infernal office comedy Hozuki’s Coolheadedness, 2011-20). But all these specific creatures and fantastic elements are not what I mean by narrative freshness.
More important than any particular ingredient (nature spirits, afterlife figures, hopping vampires), ready like any folklore creature to populate manga pages and RPG monster manuals, is that Japan’s religious, folkloric, and literary traditions bring a palette of different narrative formulae and assumptions (like Navajo stories’ 4x instead of 3x), which can make something feel surprising by how it works, not what creatures are in it. So, plenty of Japanese fiction about flying saucers, Greek myths, Star Trek-type Space Federations, and D&D elves can still have a stimulating freshness because they mix these ingredients with a different narrative tradition, and different narrative logics.
I’ll start with ghost stories because the examples are extra clear, and then zoom out.
We are not looking at a folktale, but a folktale’s logic. In a Western horror story where humans disturb some dormant entity (wake a sleeping dragon, open the sealed tomb, build a shopping mall on an ancient graveyard, awaken the ancient killer swarm), the entity will lash out and harm/kill (A) unnamed bystanders, (B) the characters who did the violating/breaking/trespassing, and (C) people who are bad (the traitor, the villain, the profiteer etc.). On the other hand, characters who weren’t the original violators, and whose actions are earnest and heroic throughout the story, are spared. In such a story, the threatening entity is an instrument of Providential comeuppance, so there is a sense of good and bad people generally getting what they deserve, and things like purity, courage, or love earning salvation. We also do write stories where the bad guy triumphs or the hero dies, but these are inversions, and are powerful because they invert the unspoken pattern. In contrast, Japanese-written dormant-entity tales tend to depict the entity lashing out more indiscriminately, sweeping in like a flood or biological-level threat, and often killing good characters and/or sparing bad ones in ways that are shockingly unexpected if one expects Providential logic.
#1: In the American haunted house film Thirteen Ghosts (2001 version), which happens to be on my desk because someone recommended it on Twitter last week, an ambitious ghost hunter traps a family in a house full of captured ghosts to complete an ancient spell, but the only characters killed by the ghosts are (A) unnamed hired minions in the opening scene, (B) the villain, (C) his greedy lawyer, (D) a sexy female traitor who is seduced by and helps the villain, and (E) a psychic whose attunement with the ghosts takes him somewhat beyond the limits of the human, and who helps the villain for money but refuses to help the heroes without the offer of money. The kids and the adults whose actions are selfless (helping others)—not selfish (for cash)—survive. One named innocent person is killed early on, but this turns out to be the work of a live human murderer/traitor, not the ghosts.
#2: In the first Jurassic Park film (1993), the threat is different, but the Providential formula is identical. Humanity has unleashed dinosaurs, but the people they actually kill are (A) the unnamed hired employee in the opening scene, (B) the villain, (C) the “bloodsucking lawyer,” (D) Mr. Arnold, who we see being sullen and smoking (a signal of impurity in ’90s movies), and (E) the professional game hunter whose attunement with wild animals and bloodstained hands take him somewhat beyond the limits of the human. The kids and those who courageously help them survive, as does the maker of the park, whose touching speech about how he created the park because he wanted to bring something real and powerful to kids, after making his money on the deception of a flea circus, brings him in alignment with ideals of truth, generosity, and purity. That the two least tainted people who die—the nameless employee and Mr. Arnold—are the only Black characters is no coincidence, given America’s long, racist tradition of associating Blackness with impurity and Whiteness with purity and Providential favor.
#3: The episode “Demon Cat” from the anime Ayakashi Classic Japanese Horror begins with a completely innocent, named young bride suddenly dropping dead on her wedding morning. The grudge-born demon who slew her then kills all the other members of the household (servants and relatives) who knew about the crime which spawned the grudge; but the demon spares the actual perpetrator of the original crime, who is left to face a lonely old age, as well as the two servants who did not know about the crime, and who take seriously the warnings of the exorcist and do as he instructs, without doing anything particularly heroic to rescue anyone else.
#4a: The influential live action Japanese horror film Ring (1998) begins with the death of a named and extremely sweet and demure teenaged girl who gets caught up in the curse through no fault of her own—she is very chastely dressed, quiet, and in all ways an ideal of a modest sweet teen who is doing everything right. Thereafter, the characters killed by the vengeful ghost are all complete innocents who stumble on the curse by chance, while the two people actually responsible for the ghost’s rage (the profit-seeking grandfather and the murderer) get no visible comeuppance. The protagonist and her son are not saved by their earnest, kindly efforts; they only survive by choosing to become complicit with the curse. When American and other Western horror fans first got a hold of this movie, their minds were blown by how unexpected the twists were. It was one of the big turning points in the growth of the West’s Japanese horror fan community, which is not as flashy and visible as anime fandom but still substantial.
#4b: The 2002 American remake The Ring was a huge financial success, due largely to keeping the complicity twist which is the heart of the story, but it had the teenaged girl who dies in the opening scene be immodestly dressed, with many stylized attributes of an unlikable teen girl (complaining sullenly, using lots of slang, saying “like” way too much, biting her nails, believing conspiracy bunk off the internet), and establishes her as lying to her parents to conceal a sexual relationship she is having with an older, college-age boy. As the film progresses, those individuals responsible for the ghost’s grudge are tormented toward suicide in an act of direct revenge, not left to a long old age; and the other major character killed by the ghost—whose Japanese counterpart is earnest and supportive throughout—is shown smoking, being a deadbeat/slacker, having an inappropriate relationship with a younger woman, and at first refuses to believe the protagonist about the curse: more than enough impurities to make him an appropriate, rather than an innocent, victim. The complicity twist remains, but the Western horror axiom that those who suffer must have done something to deserve it is restored.
The logics of such Japanese haunting stories are not Providential in the individual judgment sense as the American (Christian-influenced) ones are. People who did everything right still die, and not through human betrayal or epic acts of self-sacrifice to save another, but because personal purity does not protect you from the wrath of what has been unleashed. Humanity as a whole has transgressed, disrupted something, like making a hole in a dike or kicking a hornet’s nest, so humanity as a whole is attacked. If any part of humanity is to be spared it is not because they are pure and therefore chance makes the bad guy trip and the good guy reach safety, it is because they are wise enough to take the threat seriously and take the correct survival steps (smoke the wasps to sleep, patch the dike right away, chant the sutras correctly, fulfil the ghost’s command).
Transitive guilt—suffering because of something someone else did, or something all humanity did—is not a common narrative in modern Western literature. Even in stories which focus on the idea of humanity transgressing and disturbing forces man was not meant to touch, the suffering still usually falls mainly on the guilty: either actual villains or characters tainted by culturally-criticized impurities, such as sexual impurity, selfishness, greed, smoking, etc. Stepping beyond ghost stories, when the magical-realism-esque anime Mawaru Penguindrum establishes our young teen protagonists living alone, shunned by society because their parents were guilty of an atrocity, the Western viewer expects a solution of forgiveness and welcome, in which either those who did the shunning realize they were wrong to punish innocent children for their parents’ crime, or the innocent children find a new community: we are surprised when the solution is that the kids must take personal responsibility for their parents’ guilt and let themselves be destroyed by it in an act of self-sacrifice. This different logic of purity and culpability, in which individual personal purity in the Western sense does not help you in the face of collective and transitive guilt, on the family scale or human-species scale, operates in all sorts of genres, from space opera to romance, and can often make Japanese stories feel surprising, fresh, and different—sometimes dismaying, often compelling—to those who come to them from a Western media consumption background. This too is part of the appeal of anime and manga, and indeed of Japanese live action works like J-horror.
Rather than Providential, we can call these stories ecosystemic. Many Japanese tales posit what we might call an ecosystem of unseen or seldom-seen beings, which saturates both wild and urban places. There are several terms for these (yokai, ayakashi, kami), and are described in lots of different ways in different tales, sometimes like elves or brownies, sometimes more like giant invisible organisms which, like microorganisms, naturally dwell in various places and only cause problems when things go out of whack (like when the bacteria in your guts are messed up by antibiotics and make you ill, or the bacteria that live all over your body at all times get into a cut). Some tell tales of trickster spirits approaching humans, but many describe such beings as generally unconcerned with human existence until disturbed by human activity, or especially human emotion, which has great power to affect the (super)natural world. Many who read the Tale of Genji (eleventh century) are baffled by the sequence in which a man is haunted by a ghost of a woman who is still alive and doesn’t know she’s haunting him, but it’s an ecosystemic disruption: the grudge of a murder victim and the grief of a still-living jilted lover are equally powerful emotional disruptors of a supernatural ecosystem sensitive to such disruption, so the emotion becomes/possesses/takes-over/mutates a natural spirit, as a superhero comic might have radiation turn a frog into a frog monster, or too many courses of antibiotics might cause a mutation in the microbes in your gut. Human actions which offend natural things, like the destruction of an ancient grove, or abusing a cat, can also create grudges which turn natural spirits into monsters. In both Ring and Ayakashi's “Demon Cat,” those trying to solve the haunting spend part of their time trying to figure out whether the source of the haunting is actually dead or still alive, since seeing a haunting monster doesn’t tell you whether you’re looking for a grave, a recluse, or a really annoyed cat.
In Satoshi Kon’s acclaimed film Perfect Blue, a singer/actress is being pressured into taking a very sexualized role in a TV series, and is haunted by a specter of her ideal sexually-pure stage self. For the Japanese viewer the suspense is whose internal grudge about this transition from pure to sexualized has become the spirit: hers, a fan’s, or someone else’s? For Western viewers unfamiliar with The Tale of Genji and the idea of being haunted by a living person’s emotions, the film feels like a trippy rollercoaster of WTF. Similarly, in the anime Le Portrait de Petit Cossette, an antiques dealer is haunted by visions of a murdered girl, whose portrait hangs in his shop. Is the ghost the girl’s soul trying to reveal the truth about the murder? Seeking revenge? Love-sick and trying to bring a lover with her to the grave? As the story develops we see two different Cossettes fighting in visions; is the portrait itself somehow a different being, an idealized version of Cossette in which her imperfect true self is trapped? None of the above! It’s all the spirit of the antique chest of drawers under the painting, which was traumatized by witnessing the murder (an example of a tsukumogami or household-tool-spirit)! The logic of how souls/spirits/haunting works is simply different, in ways that are refreshing after so many Providential tales.
Japan’s SF writers often draw on these ecosystemic models when inventing aliens and space phenomena, mixing them with elements from Western SF. Some approaches are straightforward, as when the SF romantic comedy Urusei Yatsura bases many of its aliens on specific classic folklore monsters. Or consider the timeloop horror series Higurashi: When They Cry, which imagines an SF bio-contagion origin to legends of local gods and demon-like oni.
Others are more bio-systemic. Tezuka’s Phoenix posits not only that many historic tales of folklore monsters actually described alien visitations, but that multi-species space empires have a natural life cycle like individual organisms, and a species called Moopies exists whose effect is to trigger those species which contact it to go into decline: lifespan-limiters, the telomeres of the galaxy. Gunbuster has the alien enemies in its Starship-Troopers-like Earth vs. space-monsters war turn out be the giant antibodies of a living galaxy, pursuing humanity as our white blood cells pursue bacteria. The alien invasion series Parasyte (1988-95) and the zombie apocalypse series I Am a Hero (2009-17) both also have their classic horror threats be biological processes designed to renew the Earth; and while no classic folklore beings appear in them, such folklore provides the source material behind the refreshingly surprising progression zombie => superzombie => many-limbed zombie made of several merged zombies => giant beautiful hive mind meat tree thing => human forest. The author of Parasyte wrote in his epilogue about how he ended up toning down the ecosystemic side of the story in his finale, because in the years he was writing so much new focus on environmentalism had surged that it felt like he could no longer write the bio-cleansing narrative he had imagined without it feeling like too much of an environmentalist commentary. Despite the environment being at its core, his alien invasion as originally conceived was shaped more by The Tale of Genji, and the tales transmitted through the seventeenth-century ghost story parlor game Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai, than by the urgings of Greenpeace.
Also fruitful for describing the contrast between Hollywood’s personal, Providentialist, and purity narratives and these Japanese ecosystemic transitive-guilt narratives is to use Elizabeth Minnich’s terms, intensive vs. extensive evil, which she discusses in The Evil of Banality (2017). In both fiction and nonfiction, we are very used to stories about evil that is concentrated in a single actor who makes an evil choice from which bad consequences occur: the wicked witch, the greedy uncle, the violent assailant. Even in narratives about huge systemic problems like climate change or income inequality, our dramatizations tend to center the evil on a bad guy: the greedy capitalist or secret cabal. We are less good at both thinking about and narrativizing extensive evil, wherein real evil is caused by the innumerable small complicities of many people, which are the collective causes of real evils like gentrification, plastics pollution, etc. In the US-made environmentalist animated kid’s film FernGully (1992), forest fairies save their forest from loggers by convincing a few specific loggers of its value, and by defeating a personified human-pollution-monster-demon. In the similar but Japanese-made Pom Poko (1994), the tanuki forest spirits try to convince the population of a town to stop destroying their forest using a combination of pranks, illusions, and direct appeals, but the human encroachment has no leader, and the effort fails, forcing the tanuki to adapt to living in trash cans and city gutters. In Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke (1997) the monster is the forest spirit, transformed into a dangerous, contaminated form by the harm it suffers at the hands of greedy humans. Stories of extensive evil, in which the threat is not a single villain, nor even a man-made pollution monster, but systemic structures of harm in which we are all complicit, offer tools to think through real-life problems, which are rarely fixed by defeating one villain.
If there is a cultural generalization to take from all this, it isn’t about Japan, it’s about the West: that we should think more carefully about our own inherited narrative formulae, and about how many times we want to tell the story where the ghosts/dinosaurs only kill the villain, the greedy lawyer, the nameless Black employee, and the sexually active woman. Similarly, how many stories do we want to tell in which big, societal problems are solved by defeating a villain without the rest of us changing our ways? A glance at US politics right now shows vividly the many harmful effects of Providentialist thinking: from welfare or disability legislation which presumes poor and disabled people need moral correction and thus punitive levels of poverty or restrictions on food stamps (usable for high-effort dry beans but not step-saving prepared meals), to attitudes toward capitalism which insist the market sorts for moral virtue and refuse to acknowledge the existence of systemic inequality, to attitudes toward abortion and sexual assault which insist that, if something bad befell a woman, it must be her fault, her impurity. Such attitudes have many sources, but they certainly aren’t helped by exposing people a hundred times a year to stories where one villain is the problem, or the threat-of-the-week kills the woman in the crop top while the modest virgin lives.
Similarly, we know how hard it is to get people to acknowledge our complicity in extensive evil and make systemic changes, as Pom Poko challenges us to do. We prefer the narratives in Marvel’s Iron Man (2008) where we just have to wait for the nerds to invent clean power and save us all, or in the Hitman games (2000-ongoing) where clean cold fusion power already exists, we just need to defeat the sinister cabal keeping it secret. Even the personified pollution monster of FernGully gives us an intensive evil to defeat that humanity unleashed, but can be defeated once and for all without acknowledging our complicity, or doing the hard work needed to change the social systems that make it hard-to-impossible to escape the small acts (buying plastic, driving cars) that advance the evil.
Narrative variety broadens thinking. Every time translations give us access to new cultural traditions, the thrill of “The ghost did what?!” is also a window on what is formulaic in the media we’re used to, where so often Fortune favors the plucky and the pure. We don’t want to imitate Japanese narratives wholesale (cultural appropriation = bad!), but comparing the US and Japanese versions of Ring, or comparing Pom Poko and FernGully, indeed comparing any translated media to the narratives we’re used to, can help us see that even the brief characterization of a character who dies in the first scene of a story genuinely does advance ethical and even metaphysical claims. This can give us fresh ideas for stories, from powerful plot twists, to awesome aliens, to narratives that question, instead of reinforcing, some of the Providentialist thinking and discomfort with acknowledging extensive evil that so saturate the media that we consume.
Editor: Gautam Bhatia.
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department.