Wednesday, January 30, 2008

'Tales of Moonlight and Rain'

(Ugetsu monogatari) by Akinari Ueda
Translated from the Japanese by Anthony H. Chambers
Fiction/Folklore, first published in 1776
Columbia University Press, hardback, 214 p.
Review in The Guardian
First published in 1776, the nine gothic tales in this collection are Japan's finest and most celebrated examples of the literature of the occult. They subtly merge the world of reason with the realm of the uncanny and exemplify the period's fascination with the strange and the grotesque.
The title Ugetsu monogatari (literally "rain-moon tales") alludes to the belief that mysterious beings appear on cloudy, rainy nights and in mornings with a lingering moon. In "Shiramine," the vengeful ghost of the former emperor Sutoku reassumes the role of king; in "The Chrysanthemum Vow," a faithful revenant fulfills a promise; "The Kibitsu Cauldron" tells a tale of spirit possession; and in "The Carp of My Dreams," a man straddles the boundaries between human and animal and between the waking world and the world of dreams. The remaining stories feature demons, fiends, goblins, strange dreams, and other manifestations beyond all logic and common sense.
The eerie beauty of this masterpiece owes to Akinari's masterful combination of words and phrases from Japanese classics with creatures from Chinese and Japanese fiction and lore. Along with The Tale of Genji and The Tales of the Heike, Tales of Moonlight and Rain has become a timeless work of great significance. This new translation, by a noted translator and scholar, skillfully maintains the allure and complexity of Akinari's original prose.
Ghosts, angry spirits, demons in human form…this was a fascinating look at old Japanese beliefs regarding the supernatural. It’s a slim book and the 9 tales themselves are not long but it wasn’t a book to rush through. Chambers’ introduction and notes were quite extensive and certainly added to my enjoyment and understanding of the work even though they slowed my reading down considerably. He set the scenes and provided enough background information for each story to make them meaningful in a scholarly yet readable format, also making me rather envious of the depth of his knowledge. I’m a compulsive footnote and endnote reader, but I imagine you can read and enjoy the stories without them. (Bellezza did, you can see her review here). I also enjoyed the inclusion here of the woodcut illustrations from the original 1776 edition.
The tales also contained several references to The Tale of Genji, so that was a nice way to start off my year of reading Genji. Every time I read this kind of Japanese classic I feel like I’ve learned just a tiny bit more about Japan and its culture. I’m glad this book caught my eye while browsing at the bookstore one day and I’m sure I’ll be revisiting these tales again.

My Rating: 4/5
(#3 for 2007, Japanese Literature Challenge #4, What's in a Name Challenge - 'Weather')


  1. I've read some Japanese literature but nothing quite like this. It sounds fascinating. I'm going to have to remember this one.

  2. That book sounds amazing! Wonder if I can find it in the states! Off to see :-)

  3. I really liked this book, Tanabata, which I never would have found without you. I'm impressed that you read all those footnotes (some seemed longer than the story itself!). I read this for Carl's RIP II challenge, and was mesmerized by the thought of the supernatural in our lives even today. Although of course the stories were from so very long ago. I particularly remember the one about the man who left his wife, assuming she'd wait for him while he conducted business then stayed for something like fifteen years. I won't soon forget him coming home and finding her still in their house, but as a ghost. Powerful stuff.

  4. This sounds fascinating! I'm going to have to look for it.

    I admire your courage in reading Genji! It's something I'd like to do someday, but the sheer size scares me away. I'll be looking forward to your thoughts on it.

  5. Iliana- It was fascinating. At least I thought so. It would be a good one to read during Carl's R.I.P Challenge.

    Janet- It's published by Columbia University Press and I'm pretty sure it's available at Amazon. :)

    Bellezza- I can't not read footnotes, I feel like I'd be missing something but that's me. I thought the translator did a great job on them though and they helped place the stories in context and explained things I wouldn't have guessed from the text.
    That was a good story about the husband returning years later to find his wife still there. I think he was gone for 7 years but same difference.
    I'm sure many of the tales and the images they evoked will stay with me.

    Nymeth- The size of Genji scares me too. I think I'll need lots of courage but I am going to try.

  6. Wow! This one does sound good. I love the title and it sounds like the content is well worth reading too. Straight to my wish list! Thanks, Tanabata.

  7. Literary Feline- It is a great title. I hope you enjoy if/when you get around to it. :)


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