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Tono Monogatari (2021)
Book Reviews

Tono Monogatari (2021)

A lavishly illustrated version of perhaps the most foundational text on Japan’s monsters, myths, and legends.

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Shigeru Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari is part manga, part history lesson, but still all Mizuki. Those who’ve followed and enjoyed the manga master’s long career crafting humorous comics featuring Japan’s multitude of yokai monsters, as well as important periods of his country’s history, will note the significance that Mizuki concluded his illustrious career with a project that perfectly blended both sensibilities.

Originally published in 1910, Mizuki’s illustrated version of Kunio Yanagita’s groundbreaking efforts to catalog one Japanese city’s unique oral history of monsters, myths, and legends has become an indispensable foundational text for anyone interested in not just the history of Japanese mythology and folklore, but in better understanding the very nature of Japan itself.

The history of Tono Monogatari is, itself, a history of adaptations and translations, one that can easily be traced from when Tono native Kizen Sasaki related his stories to Yanagita for to create his original 1910 edition, which in turn was translated into English by Professor Ronald A Morse in 1975, only to be later illustrated into manga form by none other than Mizuku himself beginning in 2008. And that’s not counting the endless permutations and iterations the stories likely took even before Sasaki dictated them to Yanagita.

Helpfully, Morse’s original translation of Tono Monogatari, “The Legends of Tono”, was also spruced up and repackaged in an excellent new edition to celebrate the book’s 100th anniversary back in 2010 and is essential reading for all yokai fans. Professor Morse indicates that, while the original publication was indeed 1910, the copies Yanagita made at the time were primarily gifts to family and friends, the first commercial edition not available until the 1920s.

In a way, that makes this freshly translated edition of Shigeru Mizuki’s illustrated edition a more chronologically accurate celebration of its centennial. For the most enjoyable experience I suggest flipping between this and Professor Morse’s original translation for fuller context.

Some have compared Tono Monogari to the Brothers Grimm collection of fairy tales (Yanagita appears to have been inspired by them), and while this is true in a sense, the stories collected here represent a more provincial slice of Japanese culture at the turn of the 20th century many feared would disappear as the country sped towards modernization.

A quick glance online at modern Tono, a smaller city in Iwate Prefecture, suggests little has changed since the days when Yanagita first set out to document the region’s ample supply of supernatural folklore. It has preserved much of its lush farmland and traditional Japanese houses with thatched roofs, the same inviting paths daring visitors brave enough to explore its (possibly haunted) mountainous terrain.

Tono reveals itself to be, both visually and geographically, the perfect breeding ground for the legends recorded in Tono Monogatari, earning the title of “The City of Folklore.”

Special thanks must go to Zack Davisson, a prolific writer on the subject of Japanese supernatural phenomena himself and a familiar name to English-reading Mizuki fans, having translated (among other things) his mammoth multi-part Showa: a History of Japan series. Here, Davisson not only translates Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari into English but includes several essays that help contextualize and guide readers through many of the more obtuse and idiosyncratic sections of Japanese culture, such as helping explain the importance of festivals and mountains and why the distinction between yokai and kami isn’t as clear cut as many think.

Critically, Davisson details the history of “the great yokai war”, a rivalry of yokai cataloguing by two men: Kunio Yanagita, a bureaucrat who seized an opportunity to capture Japan’s sizable oral history, and Inoue Enryo, the philosophic skeptic who studied yokai to better help his country move away from superstition and fairy tales by debunking their supernatural origins.

Enryo’s “Lectures on Yokai Studies” (1986) was his mammoth effort to demystify and perhaps explain various yokai as natural phenomena, likening belief in them to a psychological disorder. Yanagita, on the other hand, felt these unexplained yokai and spirits were “a fundamental core of the Japanese psyche” – and worth preserving.

Inoue Enryo may have “won” in the short term, even being responsible for defining “yokai” as we know the term today, Davisson argues, but history has shown greater affection to Yanagita’s efforts to save what he felt was something indefinable and quintessentially Japanese from disappearing.

Neither man would achieve the fame of perhaps the most popular chronicler of Japan’s sizeable history of the supernatural, Lafcadio Hearn, the immigrant journalist who helped revitalize the country’s love for its native ghost tales and legends.

While some may already be familiar with popular yokai like the water-dwelling turtle-like kappa and the sometimes helpful (and sometimes not) long-nosed tengu, in Tono Monogatari you’ll learn about several others instantly familiar to most Japanese. Like the child-like zashiki warashi spirits, the mischievous “pillow-flipping” makura gaeshi, and even futtachi – animals that outlived their natural lifespans and became yokais, perhaps none more infamous than the tricky fox.

Shigeru Mizuki’s Tono Monogatari delivers exactly what it promises; the great manga artist has illustrated Yanagita’s original text in his instantly recognizable style and sense of humor – which is a remarkable achievement for a man who was approaching 90 at the time.

With such a buildup it’s almost disappointing to realize how anticlimactic many of these legends and stories are, most simply fragments lacking any narrative structure or encyclopedia indexing of the various yokai mentioned throughout. Yanagita has transformed what were, essentially, little more than whispered legends from Tono’s citizens and attempted to ascribe some literary value from them. He generally succeeds, though not without some repetition.

Given the era from which they came, perhaps it’s inescapable that there are several instances of what modern readers would identify as misogyny and violence, sometimes interchangeably. One story includes beastiality (and animal cruelty) while another revolves around a gruesome matricide. Unsuspecting readers expecting whimsical “cartoon” versions of Japanese ghost stories may get more than they bargained for.

But it’s also important to remember that none of these stories have been sanitized to appeal to our modern sensibilities, and even when paired with Mizuki’s famously cheerful artwork they retain their original grit and folksy power. It’s critical that both the original content of Yanagita’s journalism as well as the tone of the culture at the time they were transcribed be preserved as accurately as possible, which Mizuki’s versions do.

Like so much of his most manga Mizuki often inserts himself into panels, including an entire dreamlike sequence where he has a conversation with Yanagita himself while visiting Tono’s famous Kidanshoku, aka The House of Joy and Literature. Mizuki’s famous ratlike character Nezumi Otoko even makes an appearance (of course), and I lost count of how many times various characters run off “to take a poop” within the stories.

Your mileage at whether these inclusions were necessary will vary, but often Mizuki’s playful additions are the only elements that help keep many of these stories interesting and – for some readers – accessible.

While by no means the definitive version of Kunio Yanagita’s Tono Monogatari, Shigeru Mizuki’s illustrated (and slightly embellished) version still serves as both a reverential tribute to Yanagita’s original book as well as a crucial link in Japan’s love affair with all things yokai. Who better to visualize the foundational text on yokai than the creator of GeGeGe Kintaro? While the content simply can’t match its historical value, Tono Monogatari remains essential reading for anyone even remotely interested in the subject.

About the Author: Nathan Evans