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Supernatural in Japanese Literature

1. Tales of Moonlight and Rain, Japanese Tales, and “Aoi” from The Tale of Genji are perfect illustrations of Japanese beliefs and attitudes towards the otherworld, incarnation, and the supernatural. A book Tales of Moonlight and Rain was written by a Japanese writer of the 18th century, Ueda Akinari. The man was born to a courtesan, and later he was adopted into a family of a samurai. The fact explains his writings about samurais, women, and family ties. Akinari became a national writer, whose works belong to the classical Japanese literature today. The setting of most of his tales takes place in the medieval period, when people and demons existed together. The author described the supernatural world in a way, through which the readers can comprehend the significance of ghosts, spirits, and the paranormal for the Japanese in the period. Japanese Tales are translations of the Japanese folk stories by Royall Tyler. The stories are short; each tale narrates about various heroes. However, due to the diversity, Tyler managed to reveal different sides of the otherworld and show the relations between human beings and other creatures. The tales of Akinari and Tyler develop various themes, but the most important subjects are family ties and the supernatural characteristics in women.

Interestingly, the stories of different authors have many similarities. For instance, “The Reed-Chocked House” by Akinari and “She Died Long Ago” by Tyler have the same plot and differ only in details. Both stories tell about a husband and a wife, who were separated for seven years. While the men were absent, they forgot about their wives, and only in seven years, they decided to return. The weirdest thing was that nothing had changed on the native land of Katsushiro, the protagonist of the first story, while the house of a Kyoto man seemed uninhabited. However, the wives were waiting for them all the years. As it turned out, both women were dead, and the men spoke with their ghosts. In “She Died Long Ago,” “a woman was now a long dead corpse.” Katsushiro experienced something similar. However, he considered, “since the house had become the dwelling place of foxes and raccoon-dogs – a wild moor – perhaps a spirit had appeared before him in the form of his wife.” Thus, the images of women were nothing more than men’s hallucinations or their deep tie to their wives. Probably, the souls of the dead wives were deeply connected with their husbands and wanted to re-unite with them. Thus, they could not know a rest until they met each other. The family ties were so strong that even after death people could return to their homes and convince their relatives of their reality. The fact illustrates the importance of the family and close connections with relatives and beloved, as well as the significance of the funeral rites for the Japanese, since till a person is not buried by his/her relatives according to the traditions, his/her soul will know no peace.

One can notice that people often confuse living persons with dead ones in Japanese tales. It means that the ghosts could take a form of a human being. Besides, most of the spirits were women, and it shows the special attitude towards them. Women could appear not only in their previous form, but they could also turn into snakes, moths, ghouls, etc. At the same time, females were depicted as intelligent and well-mannered. They symbolized sexuality and fear because if a man was tempted and had sexual intercourse with a woman, and then wanted to escape, he could have experienced many troubles. The Japanese believed that women had supernatural power and could bewitch anyone even after death. Besides, if a woman had a rival, she could have revenged her, appearing in a form of a spirit. For instance, when Genji’s wife Aoi fell ill, he spent time with her and forgot about his mistress Rokujo. When Genji performed esoteric rites and prayers in his rooms, Rokujo’s ghost came to him and interfered with the rituals, preventing other ghosts from helping Aoi. Shikibu writes, “Among the many spirits […], there was one that clung with great obstinacy, frustrating every effort to transfer it to a medium.” The vengeance of a woman was cruel, and after delivering a child, Aoi died. Thus, the citizens of Japan believed in spirits and ghosts, and were afraid of becoming a victim of the paranormal.

Another example of a supernatural tie between a man and a woman can be seen in a tale “I Saw It in a Dream” by Tyler. The story tells about a jealous wife, who appeared to her husband in a dream and found him with a mistress. He was indeed with another woman and had the same dream, watching his wife come to him and quarrel. Tyler writes, “Just think what kind of spiritual state the wife must have been in! Jealousy is a very grave sin. Some suppose she must have ended up turning into a snake.” The wives always feel when their husbands lie to them; however, the Japanese connected the feeling with something paranormal rather than simple premonitions. Besides, the image of a snake, which often appears in Japanese tales, symbolizes dual female nature. On the one hand, women are sexual temptresses who can seduce any man. On the other hand, they can bite with their words and actions, poisoning and getting rid of their enemies. Female spirit is strong and changeable, which is illustrated in many tales of Japanese writers.

Furthermore, while reading the tales, one can notice that the themes of the supernatural and the otherworld are developed in almost every story. The men live with the ghosts and do not suspect that their women are not real. The wives and mistresses revenge each other, turning into spirits, foxes, or snakes. Beloved individuals often do not realize that they speak with the ghosts instead of their lovers. For instance, the tale “The Chrysanthemum Vow” by Akinari tells about close friendship of a poor scholar and samurai, Hasebe Samon and Akana Soemon. The scholar nursed and treated the samurai during his sickness, and when Akana had to go, he promised to return in the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival. When the day came, he did not return, and Hasebe could not believe in his lie. However, late at night, Akana appeared to Hasebe and told him that he killed himself because he heard that only spirits can quickly achieve the person from any part of the world. Akana was imprisoned, but he could not disappoint his friend and he found no other solution except for killing himself. In the story, the spirit of a dead person serves as a means of overcoming the obstacles and distances between the emotionally connected individuals. At first, a person may be terrified with such raging action. However, later, the readers notice a strong and close bond between the people, who truly love and value each other. Therefore, the spirits were depicted not only as negative characters of the otherworld, but also as a tie between the friends, relatives, and beloved.

When thinking of the tales from a different perspective, one can suppose that the depiction of the supernatural symbolizes that human’s life is unstable, and the boundary between life and death is unnoticeable and precarious. As a result, the two worlds cannot be regarded separately. Besides, if a person did not manage to do or say something while living, he/she would for sure return in the form of a ghost, spirit, or beast to remind of him/herself and finish the started deeds. The feelings of guilt and obligation, as well as vengeance and jealousness, are the main reasons for a person to return after death. For example, in the story “The Kibitsu Cauldron” by Akinari, a husband was attacked by the spirit of his wronged wife. In a tale “A Serpent’s Lust,” the protagonist found out that he was sexually attracted to a snake-demon, who appeared to him in the form of a woman. It symbolizes man’s dual attitude towards his desires: first, he feels strong temptation to a woman, and then, he realizes that he acts sinfully. Thus, the spirituality of family ties and relations between close people is described from different perspectives in the tales of Japanese writers.

In conclusion, the theme of the supernatural in the works of Akinari, Shikibu, and Tyler illustrates the importance of faith and religion, as well as rites and tradition, for the Japanese nation of the medieval period. The stories teach the readers that it is important to live a loyal life and do not betray friends and beloved, since the sin of betrayal is too “grave,” and even in the otherworld, a person may suffer from it. Of course, some skeptics can argue, telling that there is no otherworld or paranormal phenomena. However, if everything were so easy, why would so many people speak about it and write books about the supernatural? The question remains open, and after reading the Japanese tales, one will for sure reconsider his/her personal views on the paranormal.

2. Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari was adapted into film Ugetsu, directed by Kenji Mizoguchi in 1953. The movie is a combination of several tales from the book. The plot of the film is connected to a story “The Reed-Chocked House.” The protagonist in the movie is called Genjuro, and in the story – Katsushiro. The wife’s name is the same – Miyagi. The movie represents Genjuro as a potter. Moreover, in the film, they have a small son and two neighbors – Tobei and Ohama, whose lives intertwine with their personal story line. In the tale, Katsushiro left his wife and could not return. The reason was not the other woman, but war. In the movie, the director used another tale, “A Seprent’s Lust,” which tells about a man’s love for a demonic woman. However, the main difference is that the woman in a tale was a snake, who revenged the protagonist. In the movie, the woman was a ghost who died without knowing a man and true love. Nevertheless, the emphasis on the supernatural does not weaken the main ideas of the film and the tale – the weakness of a man, his dual nature, and woman’s devotion. Although there are other dissimilarities, the plot is preserved, and it reveals the theme of love, betrayal, and family ties through the spirituality.

Consequently, the movie enhances the tales and interweaves them into one single story. Such way of representation makes the film interesting to watch and easy to understand the main themes, discussed in the book. Moreover, the additional details, such as a son, who was left after his mother’s death and then reunited with his father, and a woman’s ghost, who longed for eternal love, make the movie even more amazing and startling than a book. Besides, Mizoguchi managed to convey the theme of the otherworld, spirits, and the spirituality of family ties in the best way. For example, at the end of the film, when Genjuro is making his pots, the viewers hear the voice of Miyagi, who tells, “I am so glad that you became a man I always wanted you to be.” Her soul calmed down, her husband and their son are together, and even their friends, Tobei and Ohama, came back to their homeland. It is the time for Miyagi’s spirit to have a rest.

After watching the movie, a strong desire appears to reread Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Some details of the book are omitted, the others are added. However, the meaning is the same – the significance of the spiritual for the Japanese of the medieval time is obvious. Besides, one may notice the rite of shamanism in the film, when an old man draws some signs on the body of Genjuro to get rid of the woman’s ghost and release the hero from her chains. The moment confirms that the Japanese believed not only in spirits and demons, but also in possibilities to exorcise them with the help of shamans and wizards. However, the theme is not well developed in Ugetsu.

In conclusion, the film Ugetsu, as well as the story “The Reed-Chocked House” has the tragic finale for a woman. However, the movie ends with the words of Miyagi that the life is so that people have to die, and it is necessary to accept it and continue to live with it. The story teaches that people should adjust to daily problems and misfortunes and try to live in peace with human beings and other creatures since they do not know what kinds of surprises the life has in store for them. Although the movie and the story have dissimilarities, the main idea about the importance of the other world and the existence of spirits is preserved.

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