I’ve read this author’s Brave Story and The Book of Heroes and what I noticed then was that I preferred the shorter book of the two, because it was more focused and had fewer unnecessary digressions. Logically I should prefer a collection of short stories to the novels and indeed that is the case.
This is a collection of ghost stories all set in the Fukagawa part of Tokyo, a part of the city that is traditionally more working class than not. The stories are set in the Bunka period, late in the Edo period; the isolationist policies of the government were beginning to crumble in the face of Western incursions and the forcible opening of Japan (for which all Korea and Manchuria thank you, Commodore Perry) was only a couple of generations off.
There are nine stories in this collection and like the neighborhood they are set in, they are more working class than not. Some of the ghost stories involve well-to-do merchants and artisans1 but the points of view are those of the people working for the comfortably well off, maids, apprentices, and clerks; the bosses who appear in the stories are more often self-centered and spoiled than not, unconcerned about the effects of their whimsies on their servants, aside from the occasional moment of embarrassment when a maid turns up pregnant. Those in charge are confident that even in the face of the worst abuses their servants will remain faithful. “Faithful to who?” is perhaps a question they should ask themselves more often.
If their masters and mistresses were not burden enough, the protagonists have to contend with manifestations of the supernatural aspect of Japan, some predatory, some vengeful, others more benevolent than their natures would lead one to expect. It’s a very mixed assortment and the worst oni can turn out to have a surprisingly soft side.
It’s obligatory to have in every review of translated fiction some passage that underlines how ignorant the reviewer is. I was frankly surprised at how modern the economy of Japan at this time was. Now, it’s true these stories are all set in a particular city and not out in the country where things would have, I assume, been less burdened by modernity but I don’t know how many Western cities in the 18th and 19th centuries would have had job placement agencies of the sort that figure into a couple of these stories.
Aside from the first story, which for some reason didn’t catch my interest, this was a solid collection, unified by the setting and the supernatural elements but not focused narrowly on specific themes like horror or revenge, more spooky than gruesome, a collection suitable for a summer evening spent telling ghost stories.
- Technically speaking, the class structure at this time went samurai, peasant, artisan and merchant but you really didn’t want to be a peasant.