Halloween may be over and done, but as winter darkens and the rains bring the gloomy gray, it’s not hard to imagine ghostly flickers in alleyways or wonder at the strange coincidences a new season brings. And with gift-giving season around the corner, you can please the demon and monster lovers in your crew with these books. The first two, possibly more like stocking stuffers, the latter, a beautiful coffee table book for adults who love Japan or have heritage to appreciate yōkai traditions.
First, in talking about books about yōkai, it’s important to stress that while the traditions always include a 100-monster parade down a street in Kyoto one night, and there’s a festival held to celebrate it there, yōkai are creatures that have been written and talked about all over Japan. Tales about yōkai have existed for centuries, now included in modern art forms such as manga, anime, and video games. Yōkai are creatively as much a part of the current day artistic landscape as they ever were.
The Japanese Yokai Handbook: A Guide to the Spookiest Ghosts, Demons, Monsters and Evil Creatures from Japanese Folklore by Masamu Kinoshita, illustrated by Hidemitsu Shigroka, contains 175 illustrated pages, leading kids through the who’s who in standard yōkai lore. Readers will find yōkai categorized: Super Scary, Super Mysterious, Super Powerful, Super Weird, Super Cute, Super Simple, Super Sad, Super Kind, Super Evil, and Super Stupid, and as per tradition, they total 100. Depicted in cheerful cartoon fashion, the book largely de-fangs the scary aspect of the supernatural in Japanese folklore with its use of colorful illustrations and the rather chirpy written tone, which I suspect will only be effective with younger children.
However, the book does talk about where the particular yōkai description was sourced, what historical book or modern-day writer/artist inspired the entry, and even has a few reports from local Japanese regions where yōkai have historically been sighted. Gross or gory aspects of the spirit creatures are glossed over quickly, while body parts — such as hands embedded in eyes or creatures whose mythology is centered around butts — are presented in the least threatening way possible. The tone remains lighthearted and entertaining throughout.
The next book brings the gore level a tad older, mostly because the angle was the more unusual side of yōkai, leaning horrific. Strange Japanese Yokai: A Guide to Weird, and Wonderful Monsters, Demons and Spirits by Kenji Murakami and translated by Zack Davisson, goes a bit longer than the handbook at 191 pages.
Here, the reader wanders through chapters titled “Yokai Superstars,” “Outrageous Yokai,” “Disgusting Yokai,” “Yokai Countermeasures and Weaknesses,” “Unexpected Origins,” “The Shameful Dead,” “Unique Yokai,” and “Yokai Prophets.” Notably, the yōkai here don’t overlap much with the other handbook.
The tone here is more straightforward than the prior book, and it tackles topics the other book does not, straying from a pure listing to talk about the dynamics of yōkai: how to repel them and survive them, and the element of shame that surrounds variations of them. As with the prior book, historical sources are cited and it continues the sense of this book falling within a tradition of documenting and exploring the edges of mysteries. The concepts here are more advanced, though the colorful illustrations continue to keep the frightening aspect of the yōkai at bay.
Now, for adults or high school students interested in the historical renditions of these creatures, check out Japanese Yokai and Other Supernatural Beings: Authentic Paintings and Prints of 100 Ghosts, Demons, Monsters and Magicians by Andreas Marks. With this read, yōkai aficionados will experience a 240-page visual feast and an introduction that includes a list of scholarship on ghosts, demons, monsters and magicians.
These beings appeared in texts as early as the eighth century, with the oldest discovered scroll featuring visual depictions of them from the sixteenth century. What’s interesting is that that specific scroll depicts a yōkai of tools, or tsukumogami, which aren’t described as much as other kinds of yōkai in popular culture or the prior books in this review. The tradition of the night parade of 100 demons, many of which were tools, became popular in 1776 — the year the United States won its independence. Toriyama Sekien (1712 – 1788) came out with three volumes depicting the creatures, going on to create other works of fantastical lore.
Author Andreas Marks sourced the book’s paintings and prints of his 100 beings from a variety of global sources, but leans heavily on the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s collection for two handscrolls from the 1800s: A Collection of Monsters and Night Parade of One Hundred Demons. This book is definitely one to savor alongside tea or coffee to explore slowly, taking in the fantastic details and printmaking/brush techniques.