“Hell Screen” is a 1918 short story by the celebrated Japanese writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa that tells of the great artist Yoshihide, who is fascinated in the beauty he sees in horrific things. In the newest television incarnation of Hannibal Lector, the cannibal psychologist is a connoisseur of all things beautiful, including exquisite gourmet recipes for preparing human flesh.
The images contained in both narratives are ghastly and horrendous. Yet beneath them — under the gore and the grotesque — we discern a sublime sorrow, tragedies of immense proportions.
In interviews and discussions surrounding my new collection of stories, Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan, the idea has been put forth more than once that Japanese ghost stories are sadder than their Western counterparts. My reaction to this has been to suggest that all horror stories, Japanese or otherwise, tend to be as tragic as they are horrible.
I am, for example, an avid fan of The Walking Dead. (I had the thrill of a lifetime when I met Norman Reedus and Steven Yuen a couple of years ago at Toronto’s Fan Expo.) I do not watch the show, however, to watch zombies repeatedly feast on human entrails. As gruesome as such images are, one gets desensitized to them quickly.
In contrast, the tragedy of the zombies, and of the survivors who try in vain to hang on to their humanity, have not diminished over the five seasons the show has been on. I remain empathetic, heartbroken and mesmerized, like Yoshihide in “Hell Screen” watching Hell materialize in front of his eyes.
Most all horror stories therefore are tragic to me, regardless of the culture from which they originate. Stories of souls encased in hideous shells, trapped in a world into which they did not ask to be born. The Japanese undead are no more sorrowful than any other.
On the other hand, this sensibility that discerns poignancy in terror may indeed reflect certain Japanese qualities. The Japanese, after all, often use dead wood in flower arranging.
From the religious symbols present in Dracula to the sin of idolatry in Frankenstein, in Western horror traditions, terrible things happen in the presence of a Judaeo-Christian God. We understand there is justice that transcends the chaos. This perspective is comforting.
When one looks at horror in terms of karma, however, it becomes less personal. Like some twisted variation on Newtonian physics, in folly we throw certain kinds of energies into the world which inevitably return to us. It is as absurd as nature, and as inexplicable.
In the Chinese five-elements theory (wu xing, which actually means “five progressions”) fear arises from sorrow. In observing the ruthless, random tragedies in life, we understand we might be affected at any time. And from this fear rise anger and violence, as the flight or fight instinct takes command of us. This is the sadness of the world, the foundation of fear for those of us who do not believe in a loving, supreme being.
So while Japanese horror stories may not be intrinsically more tragic, my tendency to discern the sorrow behind the terror may indeed reflect Japanese traits. Just as I can appreciate the comforts of a Christian God, however, so can my non-Japanese friends appreciate the bleakness of His absence. Truths are multiple and depend on perspective.
This idea is at once a source of despair and of hope.