According to Japanese folklore, ghosts, spirits, and supernatural creatures appear on rainy days or at dawn when the moon is still bright, which explains the title of Ugetsu Monogatari, or Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari, published in 1776, a collection of 9 short stories about ghosts, demons, ghouls, and the supernatural. Since being published, Ugetsu Monogatari has become an important part of Classic Japanese Literature.
Translated and analyzed by Anthony Chambers, the text also includes explanatory notes on the dates the stories were published, the characters of each stories, the settings, affiliations to other stories and legends, and other observations. The stories also include footnotes on cultural practices and literary affiliations.
The stories in the collection are:
1. Shiramine – A story of how a travelling monk meets the ghost of a former Emperor while visiting his forgotten burial mound in the forest.
2. The Chrysanthemum Vow (Kikka no Chigiri) – The tragic story of fraternal love between a young monk and an honorable Samurai, and the importance of keeping a promise, no matter the obstacle. According to Chambers, who translated the stories and analyzed the text, The Chrysthemum Vow is really about homosexual love between the young monk and the honorable samurai.
3. The Reed-Choked House (Asaji Ga Yado) – A story about a man’s unfulfilled promise to his wife, and her bitter resentment toward him, which transcend life.
4. The Carp of My Dreams (Muo no Rigyo) – About the out-of-body experience of a monk with an extraordinary talent for painting realistic images of carp.
5. The Owl of the Three Jewels (Bupposo) – A father and son meet the ghostly entourage of an emperor long dead while spending the night at a sacred temple in the forest.
6. The Kibitsu Cauldron (Kibitsu no Kama) – About a marriage doomed to fail; the philandering ways of an unfaithful husband, and the terrible wrath of a devoted wife scorned.
7. A Serpent’s Lust (Jasei no In) – This is the longest story in the collection, about a demon’s lust for the lazy son of a prominent family.
8. The Blue Hood (Aozukin) – An eerie story about a monk, who after falling in love with a boy who later dies, becomes insane and develops a taste for dead human flesh.
9. On Poverty and Wealth (Hinpukuron) – The spirit of gold visits a Samurai who is particularly fond of gold and amassing wealth, and talks to him about the principles behind becoming wealthy.
The stories, though about the supernatural, focus mainly on greed, love, lust, and betrayal, and industry. The ghost stories usually involve characters who are not able to fulfill certain vows due to insurmountable obstacles, while those involving demons and ghouls focus on characters who are greedy, lazy, or immoral. Though most of the stories are about ghosts and the supernatural, they are not horror stories in a sense that they are terrifying, or at least, not in the way that we have all come to expect. The stories can best be described as eerie or strange, rather than scary or terrifying.
Ugetsu Monogatari has since inspired different other novels, and movies, including one entitled Ugetsu, in 1953, and a 3-part manga of the same name, in 2008. Of the 9 stories, 3 were turned into a manga illustrated by Hiwa Tokiko – Kibitsu no Kama (The Kibitsu Cauldron), Aozukin (The Blue Hood), and Jasei no in (The Serpent’s Lust). In the manga version, some details were added, while some were removed or simplified. Needless to say, the three stories, adapted to manga are more graphic than the originals in depicting not just the gory and terrifying parts, but also the sexual parts.
Those who pick up Ugetsu Monogatari expecting something like The Ring or Ju-on (the Japanese versions only) will be disappointed with its general lack of spine-tingling descriptions and suspenseful writing. I have not seen the movie Ugetsu, but I would recommend the manga version as a more terrifying alternative to the short stories, which lack the imagery we have all come to expect from horror stories.
Tales of Moonlight and Rain (Ugetsu Monogatari) (1776) – Ueda Akinari. Translated by: Anthony H. Chambers (2007)
Columbia University Press; 219 pages
Personal rating: 2.5/5