A sequel of sorts to Turning the tables from a while back; the Meiji-era Japanese version of contacting the spirit world through the medium of moving furniture and incomprehensible messages. Kokkuri consisted of three bamboo rods connected to make a tripod, with a round tray or lid balanced on top. As with the Western Ouija Board, three or four people would lightly touch the lid. One person chanted “Kokkuri-sama, Kokkuri-sama, please descend, please descend. Come now, please descend quickly.” Note that -sama is the level of honorific politeness above -san, a bit like saying “Mr. Kokkuri, sir” although there isn’t really a direct English equivalent. After about ten minutes of this, the person says “If you have descended, please tilt towards [somebody present].” If all was well, the lid would move and could be used as a way for whoever or whatever had “descended” to answer questions.
Japan panic: the slit-mouthed woman
Stories of 口裂け女, the slit-mouthed woman, emerged from urban Japan in the late 1970s. At first they were particularly passed around between school children, then in the mass media. By the first half of 1979 Asahi Shinbun was highlighting kuchisake onna as a buzzword (hayari kotoba) of the year. In true, random Japanese style one of the others was “rabbit hutches”.
Occasionally Kuchisake onna was reported as a genuine physical threat, a criminal would-be kidnapper or murderer rather than a supernatural being. At times she was somehow both a real world abductor and a folkloric monster simultaneously. (See Hyaku-monogatari for the Edo origins of modern yōkai storytelling) Satoshi Kon’s extremely uneven but in places brilliant series 妄想代理人 Mōsō Dairinin [Paranoia Agent] is obviously heavily inspired by the mass hysteria over Kuchisake onna. A woman with long hair and a white mask– of the kind sold everywhere and very common in Japan to cover the mouth and nose when a person is ill, or against pollution– accosts you in the street and she asks something like “Watashi kirei?” (“Am I pretty?”) or “Atashi bijin ka?” (“Am I a beauty?”) If you agree that she is, she replies “Kore demo?” (“Even [like] this?”) as she tears off her mask to show that her mouth is slit open across the cheeks, from ear to ear. If you tell her she isn’t pretty, she becomes enraged and pursues you with a knife or scythe. The reason for her disfigurement and rage varies with the telling: sometimes it’s a plastic surgery disaster, sometimes a dreadful accident, sometimes self-inflicted. The same goes for the means of escaping her: repeating certain words, offering certain gifts, reaching a certain place before she catches you. Continue Reading
Edo horror stories
The hyaku-monogatari (“one hundred stories”) were told in Edo-era Japan when people came together to exchange kaidan, stories of ghosts, monsters, mysterious (fushigi) happenings, and frightening (osoroshiki) characters. This gatherings, hyaku-monogatari kaidan kai, can be conceived of as a kind of market for exchanging stories. These might be real (or claimed) personal experiences, stories people knew from elsewhere, or a story of their own devising. There may not always have been exactly one hundred stories; as in English, saying there are “a hundred” or “hundreds” of something can be deliberate hyperbole, just a way of saying there are more than you can easily count. Stories of mysterious and frightening things (mononoke) were and are indeed endless in number.
Wakan kaidan hyōrin, 1718:
“First light one hundred wicks with blue paper around them, and hide all weapons. Now, for each frightening tale, extinguish one wick… when all one hundred flames have been extinguished, a monster (bakemono) will most definitely appear.”
Hide all weapons! The theatricality of the slowly gathering darkness as the tellers vie with each other to tell the scariest story speaks for itself, I think. The ritualistic repetition also plays a part in creating an immersive experience in which we allow ourselves to be scared. Try it! In fact I already used the techniques of the hyaku-monogatari kaidan kai directly in my own live show about occult stories and supernatural folk beliefs in Tudor England, Magickal Realism.
The popularity of the (by definition ephemeral and oral) hyaku-monogatari also contributed to a publishing boom as the best stories began to be collected and made available in print, making an enthusiasm for monsters and supernatural beings (妖怪 yōkai) the national Japanese pastime that it remains today. As for the yōkai themselves, it’s a huge subject with no shortage of English-language resources available online.
Source: Pandemonium and Parade– Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai by Michael Dylan Foster.
PS Semi-related, daft and entertaining, Denki Groove– モノノケダンス (Mononoke Dance):