• Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Ueda Akinari (tr. by Kengi Hamada)

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    Ugetsu Monogatori 1953 (picnic scene)
     I first came across Tales of Moonlight and Rain after viewing Mizoguchi's brilliant film Ugetsu Monogatori (1953) which adapts two stories ( Homecoming and Bewitched) from a collection of 16th century Japanese Gothic tales written by Ueda Akinari.  Since I was deeply impressed with the Mizoguchi film, I wanted to read the two original stories from the collection. So when Criterion released their wonderful 2-disc set of Ugetsu (the name was shortened to one word for American audiences) they also included the two stories in a small booklet and I was finally able to read them. I was entranced and immediately wanted to find a good edition of the full collection. And thanks to working in a great bookstore, I found an excellent collection published by Columbia University Press in 1972. It reprints the University of Tokyo Press edition which came out the year before.  I've scanned the front, rear and spine of the book for you and posted it below.

    This hardback edition is beautifully designed featuring an inked version of an old woodblock print from, presumably an early edition of the book. Several other b&w versions of the original prints are included as accompanying illustrations for the 9 stories that comprise Tales of Moonlight and Rain. Click on the image above to see a larger version. It's from "Bewitched", one of the stories Mizoguchi adapted for his film.

    And here's another woodblock illustration from "Bewitched". In this scene, you see the two vengeful spirits disappearing in the waves.

    Ueda Akinari (1734-1809) is a highly regarded writer and scholar whose life ran the gamut of experience. He was born to an Osaka prostitute never knowing who his father was. Adopted by a wealthy merchant at a young age. His father cared for him and gave him a good education which set Ueda with an inquiring mind for the rest of his life. He survived a small-pox infection as a young man and felt that his parents prayers to the god of the Kashima Inari Shrine are what saved him. This, perhaps, is what fixed a live-long fascination with the supernatural and the occult.

    Ueda Akinari
    Tales of Moonlight and Rain (1776) was a departure for Ueda, who was primarily known for light comic sketches of contemporary life. His movement towards these supernatural stories reflected his increasing knowledge and love of Chinese literature which is rich in other-worldly tales. According to the translator, Kengi Hamada, who also wrote the fine "About the author" for this edition, Ueda the source material came from "ancient vintages". He states that Ueda "adapted, reshaped, and retold his stories in his own peculiar settings, representing interactions of history, mores, maxims, superstitious beliefs, and personality conflicts of an altogether different milieu".

    The modern reader of Tales of Moonlight and Rain might miss some of the originality of this work since it's central to Japanese literature and has influenced world literature, but is not as well know in America. We so see some of the tropes re-produced in these stories in our own horror/gothic fiction of the present day. Somehow, the social conscience of the original tales is missed in our re-telling of the story-tropes. What struck me in reading Tales of Moonlight and Rain (aside from the wonderful poetry and characterizations) is how masterfully the tales are woven into a moral and social construct. It's as if Ueda is saying "people are always going to mis-understand the supernatural; always going to be a victim because of their lack of knowledge of history". I'd also add "because of their lack of humanity". In some of these stories, for the modern reader, the spirits of the dead are often more sympathetic than the victims. 

    The female ghost in Ugetsu (film)
    Ueda is a powerful writer even in this slightly antiquarian translation. Of course, I very much enjoyed the stories adapted into the Mizoguchi film, but two other stories were equally as captivating: "Demon", the story of a priest who takes on the cannibalistic demon who is haunting a local temple, and "Reunion", which is the story of the power of friendship and commitment. I believe "Reunion" also contains a self-portrait of Ueda in the character of Hasebe Samon, the scholar who loves nothing more than to read and be with his books. 

    One of the stories ("Exiled") requires a knowledge of Japanese history to fully appreciate, but even here the writing is so striking and the situation so poetic/gothic that it hardly matters. All of the stories are sharply drawn with an eye towards a combination of the mundane and the macabre. I savored each story reading one a day at bedtime. I found that familiar shadows in my room started looking strange and disturbing after I finished a story and put the book on my bedside table. 

    Tales of Moonlight and Rain is a remarkable collection of stories written by an imaginative and intelligent man whose love and fear of the supernatural are caught in his words like fireflies in the darkness. This collection is highly recommended as is the film adaptation. 

    Note: Columbia University Press has a new version of Tales of Moonlight and Rain with a new translation and introduction. I haven't read this version, but will be doing so very soon. In the meantime, you can find out more about it here. There's also an attractive edition by Routledge that looks interesting. Well, there goes my paycheck again. 

    Editions of Akinari's other works are hard to find and expensive. Also, books about him are not easy to find in English. I hope that my favorite publisher Reaktion Books will consider doing a new book on Ueda Akinari in their "critical lives" series. It certainly would be welcome by this reader.