Mythical Beasts of Japan: Akiko Taki (ed.)

Do you wish someone would translate Shigeru Mizuki’s many encyclopedias of supernatural beings into English already so you can learn about the many strange demons and spirits of Japan? This is not that translation, but it should bring you some solace at least. (Also, no one will ever translate Mizuki’s monsterpedias into English. Face facts, you are going to have to learn Japanese.)

Mythical Beasts of Japan: From Evil Creatures to Sacred Beings is, oddly enough, exactly what the title says it is: a book of Japanese yokai (the very handy catch-all word for monsters, demons, spirits and basically any supernatural creature good or bad; I’m making it my mission to get this word into English dictionaries. It is just so useful, and lacking an English counterpart, unlike some other loan words. *cough* I’m looking at you, kamikaze. *cough*). I’ve been flipping through its pages for a little over a year now, ever since T. was thoughtful enough to get it for my birthday-before-last. There is a laht to take in here, over three hundred pages of full colour photographs of various depictions of yokai in various media, although the majority are paintings. 

The many gorgeous works of art are accompanied by a short introduction, a couple informative essays on Japanese art and yokai, and about thirty pages of notes, giving overviews of the most common yokai, and the details of the works of art in the book. Everything except the art details is bilingual, making for some interesting reading if you’re a language nerd. Unfortunately, either the translator is not a native speaker, or there was a strong non-native editorial hand involved in the process, as some of the translations are choppy and weird. The English blurbs for the yokai also tend to be noticeably lacking in detail compared with the Japanese. It’s bit frustrating for me as a translator to do some bilingual reading and realize entire sentences are missing in the translation, and some really interesting sentences on top of that.

Also, “imaginary” is spelled “imagenary”. This is in a title and is very annoying to see every time I go to read about these “imagenary” creatures.

Another point of frustration is the book itself. Going to all the trouble of curating such an interesting collection of art, spanning centuries, and then jamming it in this enormous paperback just seems like such a waste. To see the entire image, the reader has to basically crack the spine of the book. And the pages are just glued to the spine, so breaking that spine means you’re going to have pages falling out sooner rather than later. I would’ve loved to see a Phaidon kind of treatment of this collection, a nice hardback book that opens flat so you can really pore over the images. The publisher Pie Books seems to do a lot of art books, but it doesn’t really show in this volume.

There’s also not a lot of curation happening here. I’m sure all the pieces were carefully selected, and there is no doubt that they’re incredible with many different styles and periods represented. And given the number of paintings, shoji sliding doors, screens, sculptures and so many other objects covered in yokai littering the museums of Japan, I doubt this was an easy task. But the works are loosely grouped into two categories: “Animals as messengers of the gods” and “Demonic & auspicious creatures” (argh! Ampersand! In formal writing! Argh!). And that’s it. Each page contains the title of the piece, the approximate date of creation and where it is currently housed. But this information is only in Japanese, so the monolingual reader is basically stuck looking at a bunch of contextless pictures.

I would’ve liked to see the works arranged chronologically, so that the reader could get a sense of how perceptions of yokai changed over the centuries. They are arranged more or less thematically, so you can flip through a parade of Kirins and see the differences and similarities in how each artist depicted the famous beast (also on cans of my favourite beer!). But if each of these thematic sections had some small explanatory text to provide context for the images you’re about to view, the images themselves would be so much more affecting. As it stands, the only context you get is that some yokai work for the gods and some yokai are bad. The subtitle “From Evil Creatures to Sacred Beings” implies some kind of transition or shift in attitudes towards yokai, or at least a spectrum of yokai, but none of that is seen in the book itself.

But! Don’t let my grumbling turn you away. The book is flawed, but still fascinating. And the pages are delightfully heavy, worthy of the beauty they contain. Japan has millenia of monsters, there are yokai everywhere. There are monsters that lick up the stains in your bathtub even. The dirt-licking monsters are not in Mythical Beasts, though; they are too small fry for a book covering all the big yokai. But you can see Edo-era paintings of the earthquake-causing catfish, Meiji-era ink drawings of impish dragons, creepy smiling-faced boogeymen captured on shoji sliding doors, even a showdown between the lucky dragon and the elephant-fearing tiger. Which is why, despite all my complaints about this book, I have been poking through it for over a year now. There is just so much to see.

2 thoughts on “Mythical Beasts of Japan: Akiko Taki (ed.)

  1. This does sound exciting. Not normally a subject I’d read about, but I bet the pictures are great. Knowing a few wacky Japanese artists myself, I can imagine what a “fantasy” land might look like in their eyes. Thanks for posting.

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