We all have expectations for certain kinds of stories – a romance will have two characters fall in love and get together by the end, a mystery will have at least one murder to be solved, an epic fantasy will have un’usual apo’strophes in the middle of words.
The first expectation is that they will be stories, formed into a narrative with beginning and end, and preferably a middle as well. But that is not always true.
Tono Monogatari is a collection of folktales, in the first instance. An amateur folklorist collected them, a hundred-plus years ago, mostly from one tale-teller in one Japanese region, gathering all the bits of lore that one guy could tell him about the yokai and kami of the area.
And a lot of of them are not stories. There’s some “oh, yeah, one time this guy saw something!” or “and he was walking, and it was creepy!”, plus the more story-like “this thing came into town and here’s what happened.” But a lot of them are basically “yokai, man, they’re bad news – didja hear about the one that killed a guy over in that village?”
The noted manga-ka Shigeru Mizuki turned that collection of folklore into a manga – call it a graphic novel or comic, if you want to use English-language terms – late in his life, about a decade ago. It was published in an English translation by Zack Davisson (who also provides an introduction and a number of short text pieces explaining various Japanese cultural and folkloric ideas) last year.
And the Mizkui Monogatari is a fairly faithful visual version of the original book, as far as I can tell, taking the 119 tales in the original, mostly in order, and turning them into comics pages mostly directly, only adding himself as a commentary character, most often with a panel of reaction at the end of each tale. So he’ll be saying things like, “Oh, yeah, that happens all the time!”
So, the first thing to note is that Monogatari is episodic. More than that, it’s fragmented. It retells little bits of lore, some of which are in story-like shapes, about the semi-mythical creatures that people in the Tono region in the decade of the 1900s sort-of still believed in, we think, more or less. And those stories had already been retold once to put them into more elevated literary language and make them more consistent. Monogatari was edited rather than compiled; it was the product of a viewpoint and a purpose, to capture these stories before they disappeared and transmute them into the true literature of the nation. And, as I understand it, that was mostly successful: the underlying book is seen as a masterwork of Japanese literature.
Then the second thing to note is that “folklore” isn’t the same as “supernatural.” I was surprised to realize that the first batch of stories were all about yama otoko and yama onna, who are slightly larger, wild people who live (supposedly) up in the mountains and often are in conflict with “normal” people. And it goes on from there – I may be reading these tales the wrong way, but a vast number of them come across to me as “these other people, who we do not count as human, are evil and should be killed.” And putting this in historical context – towards the end of Japan’s forced modernization, in a time of resurgent militarism towards its near neighbors – gives me an uneasy feeling, as if one of the hidden purposes of Monogatari was to insist on the superiority of the rural Japanese people, the true lords of the world.
Back to the point about supernatural creatures: sure, there are some kappa near the end, and other things that are obviously powered by the supernatural. But there’s also a lot of “so I saw a woman in the woods I didn’t recognize, and killed her, so she’s totally a yama onna!”
I may be biased, but that strikes me as just pure “don’t talk to strangers” and garden-variety Othering, presented in a very stark and (frankly) bland way. I tend to like a lot more freakiness and magic in my folklore, and less “kill those people on sight.”
So I may have been a bit bored with Tono Mongatari. Mizuki tells all of this in a fun, semi-goofy way – he draws people with funny faces and in embarrassing situations a lot of the time (even when “people” means “him,” which I greatly appreciate), so he keeps it light and entertaining and amusing the whole time. He’s definitely a master, and does great work with this material. But the material feels dark and twisted at its core, in ways I’m both not comfortable with and don’t have enough background knowledge to really engage deeply with.
So keep that in mind, if this is an area that interests you. It’s not just “funny stories those rural peasants used to believe.” But, then again, folklore was never that simple, in any time or place, which may be my real point.