I’ve long known that Tanabe Seia hosts regular scary story sessions, but in the Before Times, these were held in Osaka, which is a bit of a trek from my usual residence in Tokyo, and while, like everyone else, she’s shifted to online events during the Plague Times, Toronto and Japan are not exactly in the same time zone. Three in the afternoon might be a nice time for spooky stories in Japan, but I am not getting up at two in the morning to listen to them. Also, I am an Old and cannot stay up past midnight or I will turn to dust, and then who will translate all those books sitting on my desk?
So I’ve been curious about what exactly happens at these sessions, and then Osaka Kaidan popped up on the new release list to offer me the chance to find out. I really like Tanabe’s fiction and the detached style of her authorial voice, which adds to the dream-like quality of her subject matter. She doesn’t so much write horror as the odd, the mystical, the world on the fringes, places and characters where lines blur. Her work to me is more about atmosphere than story, giving readers a feeling or an impression, like moody abstraction. Basically, she’s the perfect person to be writing about ghosties and other things that go bump in the night. Osaka is a collection of such tales, gathered through her regular story sessions, but also through random conversations with people in and around Osaka.
As the title suggests, these are spooky stories about Osaka, around fifty of them in total. Each story gets its own chapter, and most chapters are quite short, two or three pages, although some are only a single page long and there are a few that go on for six or seven pages. But for the most part, this is one of those bite-sized books that you can dip in and out of for a very satisfying reading experience. You can also get a big dose of Kansai dialect to mess up your own Japanese for a while, and then you have to be careful in video meetings that you don’t accidentally say “ちゃうねん” because you are not a speaker of Kansai dialect normally, and it might get weird if you were to start suddenly while discussing a translation project with a Japanese publisher.
Most of the stories take place recently, or within the last couple decades, but Tanabe does include some historical creepiness. “Meigetsuhime” tells of a feudal lord who is at last blessed with a daughter when he and his wife go and pray to the gods. Of course, she grows up into a great beauty and is married off to a wonderful man with whom she enjoys a beautiful life. But then a powerful man catches sight of her and forces her to come away with him. She nopes all the way out, stabs herself with a dagger, and “refuses to become his.” She is buried on the mountain pass where she died, and the pass becomes known as “Meigetsutoge”. And cars connected with marriage in any way should definitely not go over this pass, because bad things will definitely happen. Tanabe then tells the story of a couple who just had to go and drive over the pass in advance of their wedding with all their wedding stuff in the car. Unsurprisingly, bad things happen.
There’s also a bit of yokai creepiness with stories like Yuki Onna. We tend to think of the snow woman story as a northern one, but it seems the very not northern city of Hirakata has its own version of the man who married a woman made of snow.
But most of the stories are about everyday life and something kind of weird happening. In “Tenmabashi no Bou Depato ni Matsuwaru Hanashi”, T-san tells of his experience one day working in this department store in Tenmabashi. He went down to the storage on the third basement floor, which can only be accessed by elevator. But the lights won’t come on for some reason. So instead of fleeing above ground in the elevator like a sane person, he props the elevator door open for light and goes into the stacks of merchandise to find the thing he is there to fetch. Of course the elevator door closes on him and he is plunged into complete darkness. Of course, he hears a voice calling out his name. And of course, he is completely alone down there. Turns out this is a thing that happens in the basement storage.
Another department store has a phantom hairpuller, a train station has a mysterious person chanting sutras above the heads of drowsy people waiting on the platform, a certain park has a willow tree that whispers to people passing beneath it and will totally snatch you up and murder you if you respond to those whispers, while a different park has a whole town buried in a lake and so the park is haunted by ghosties who you should pray for whenever you pass by the park so that they can find peace one day. The majority of the stories in Osaka are simply strange little moments like this that might be supernatural or maybe you were just hearing things. Some are spookier than others, but all of them feel strangely familiar. You might not have heard these particular stories, but you’ve probably heard ones just like them about your own hometown.
It’s almost like an informal anthropological study. Just gathering up these bits of spooky culture, listening to people from all walks of life with no judgement. Tanabe refrains from commenting on the veracity of the stories she’s told, and in the last story, she tells us that she’s often asked if she believes in ghosts and all of these things she writes about, but she makes a point of refusing to answer that either way. She simply enjoys collecting curious tales, and that enjoyment is apparent in these pages. Look at this weird thing that happened, she says. Isn’t that interesting? And yes, it really is.