Goblins, shapeshifters, and vengeful ghosts don’t just materialize on Halloween in Japan. They haunt the dreams of the superstitious. They are rumored to appear in strange visions. They creep around every corner of the country’s folklore and fairy tales. Author and artist Matthew Meyer was so enchanted by these otherworldly creatures, he decided to document every single dragon, demon, and disembodied spirit.
The Book of the Hakutaku, named for the wise nine-eyed ox of Japanese folklore who supposedly knew every supernatural being in existence, is Meyer’s illustrated love song to the yokai of Japanese folklore. Yokai is an amalgam of the characters 妖 (yō), meaning “attractive”, “bewitching,” or even (as is appropriate for some of them) “calamity,” and 怪 (kai), which translates to “mystery” or “wonder.” Meyer was one of those sci-fi-obsessed kids who not only binge-watched Star Trek but memorized every single extraterrestrial species the Enterprise encountered. He also took Dungeons & Dragons seriously. So seriously, he insisted on using creatures from actual folklore in his games. That was no place for the Demogorgon—unless it wanted the monster centipede otherwise known as an ōmukade to eat it alive.
“It's hard to get into Japanese art without encountering yokai, ghosts, and folklore, because it is so ingrained in the art over here,” Meyer told SYFY Wire in an exclusive interview.
Japan has been obsessed with yokai, many of which emerged from the gods of its pre-Shinto animist religion, for centuries. They were often seen as the paranormal reasons behind natural phenomena. Everything from illness to lightning to comets streaking across the night sky could be explained by the presence of yokai. New eras dawned with new yokai, which is why their evolution is often a mirror for Japanese history. Some arose from legends, crossed over from China and India along with Buddhism. Others were created as political symbolism and satire in the wake of government censorship or dreamed up by artists and storytellers who wanted to appease the national fascination with yokai. Edo-era artists would conjure encyclopedias of these mythical beings in the 19th century, which Meyer emulates with his own strikingly illustrated bestiary.
Meyer unearthed so many obscure yokai through both his wifi connection and years of living in Japan (mostly that second thing). Sometimes even the dustiest corners of the internet can’t reveal parts of a mythology that lurk in the backs of old libraries or have been passed from generation to generation as spoken words while eerie shadows played in the firelight. Fortunately for those of us who are all but plugged in to an internet IV, many libraries and universities have uploaded their scans into databases that feature some of the earliest known books and paintings to bring yokai folklore to life.
“Many of the books I use as source material were written in the 1800s, 1700s, or earlier, so without the internet getting access to them would be very difficult,” said Meyer, whose extensive research ventured beyond the digitial world. “Because yokai are folklore, part of their nature lies in the oral traditions of everyday people. Talking to locals and hearing their yokai stories that they remember their grandparents telling them when they were children is a very important part of studying folklore. A lot of that stuff is not recorded in books anywhere, so hearing it straight from people's mouths is the only way.”
Some of the yokai that lured Meyer into this branch of cryptozoology:
“The story behind this yokai really entertains me, but even more than that I just love his facial expression,” Meyer admitted. “It really looks like a clueless creature just floating through space without much on its mind.”
Shiroukari, or “white floater,” is a wide-eyed ghost that aimlessly floats around on the wind. The brainchild of an Edo-era artist, it appears nowhere in folklore, only drifting through a few scrolls from the same time period. How did it come into being? “Shiro” means “white” but can also be whispered behind the back of someone especially naïve. The urban socialites of 19th-century Edo (now Tokyo) stuck their noses up at country folk who didn’t fit into their luxe urban surroundings—“shiro” people.
The “ukari” part of the name only emphasizes this more. While it literally means “to float,” it can also be used in a more negative sense to describe dazed tourists who wander around an unfamiliar city, as disconnected as a ghost is from its former body. Speaking of ghosts, this yokai is also representative of wayward spirits that are unable to pass to the beyond because of sin or unfinished business. They eternally haunt the realm of the living.
Meyer found Dōnostsura and the pun behind its name so bizarre he just couldn’t get it out of his head. It literally translates to “torso face.” That’s right, the entire face of this thing is on its torso.
There were never any rumors about this yokai stalking people on the street at night because it crawled out of someone’s sick sense of humor. The Japanese expression “dono tsura sagete” is the type of thing you’d expect to hear said to someone laughing at a funeral. Meaning “to lower a face” (hence the creepy headless body), it is used as a reprimand for those who may show a trace of a smile in a totally inappropriate situation. Think bereaved relatives crying out, “How dare you put on that face when everyone is bawling over your great-aunt Edna!”
“I think Hangonokō has a genuinely creepy and even tragic story,” said Meyer, who feels that while this yokai is not the goriest or most grotesque, its effect on believers is especially chilling. “Plus, I like the idea of this sort of being used for an early form of a seance.”
This “spirit calling incense” is a strange breed of yokai, being a phenomenon rather than a creature. It’s something like the Japanese version of a Ouija board that you can burn. Legend says you will see spirits of the dead in the smoke, which will visit but once before they vanish. Hangonokō is a Chinese import that a Taoist sorcerer offered to the inconsolable Emperor Wu of the Han dynasty after his favorite concubine passed from this mortal coil.
The spectral tentacles of Hangonokō smoke made their way into everything from theater to books of ghost stories during the Edo era. The tale of the grief-stricken emperor has taken many forms. Those who will not rest until they see a loved one who left this earth too soon should take caution when using it. You will only see the spirit for as long as the incense burns, and the gaping void left behind when the last of the smoke dissipates could plunge you into infinite sadness.
“There is a lot of symbolism in the way foxes are presented at shrines, which I did not know about before I researched this one,” Meyer explained. “Myobu are good, holy foxes, while other foxes are usually considered to be evil, or at least not so good.”
As opposed to trickster kitsune, which can possess you in what is known as kitsune tsuki and have you streaking through the streets and foaming at the mouth without realizing it, Myōbu are celestial fox spirits that are supposed to bring you everything positive. Statues of them guard temples and shrines of the harvest god Inari. Foxes have been considered holy in Japan since time immemorial, especially for hunting the rats and mice that would chew through crops, and statues of Myōbu are usually surrounded by offerings.
Forget everything you think you know about mermaids, because jinja hime (“shrine princess”) is the opposite of sirens who beckon men to their drowning deaths. It also looks more sea serpent than humanoid, with its long, scaly body and horns on its head.
These servants of the mythical sea dragon king Ryūgū are antisocial when it comes to interacting with humans. However, if you do see one, you might end up suriviving the zombie apocalypse, because they can see into the future. The legend behind these amphibious creatures speaks of a beach sighting by Edo-era scholar Katō Ebian (seems everyone was seeing yokai back then).
The jinja hime foretold seven years of prosperity but warned of a cholera epidemic before it was swallowed up by the waves. Before it vanished, it told Katō that anyone who saw its picture would not get infected. Katō illustrated the mysterious being in the local newspaper to inoculate as many potential victims as possible with the supernatural vaccine. Stories like this soon spread throughout Japan like a virus.
“Oiwa is the quintessential Japanese ghost, so it would be hard to leave her off of this list,” said Meyer. “She is terrifying, and her story is very brutal. She is also kind of like the ancestor to modern-day Asian horror ghosts, so she is quite an influential figure.”
“Terrifying” is an understatement. Oiwa is not just a ghost but an onryō, a spirit that seeks vengeance by causing destruction among the living and then dragging the wraiths of those who wronged it from their dying bodies. She lived during the 17th century, trapped in an unhappy marriage to the immoral samurai Iemon. He resented her and sought to divorce her in the cruelest way after she gave birth and became dreadfully ill.
The wealthy doctor Iemon visited for medication just happened to have a beautiful granddaughter he would do anything to rid himself of Oiwa for. He even got the doctor in on the conspiracy. What was supposed to be an ointment for the sick woman was actually poison that disfigured her face beyond imagining and made her hair fall out in bloody clumps. That still wasn’t a legit enough reason to divorce his wife, so he hired his friend to rape her. Things didn’t exactly go as planned. When the friend gave her a mirror, Oiwa was so horrified by her reflection she slashed her own throat. As if that wasn’t enough, Iemon murdered his suspicious servant, lied about him and Oiwa having an affair, and nailed their bodies to the door before heaving them into the river.
Oiwa meant it when she cursed her husband’s name over and over as she lay bleeding to death. On his wedding night Iemon was convinced she was facing him in bed only to slash at his new bride. When he ran to her father for help, he knifed him to death when he thought he was seeing his dead servant. Oiwa followed her ex-husband everywhere, invading his dreams and shrieking for vengeance, until he finally spiraled into insanity.
What fascinates Meyer about the ōmukade, despite the fact that it’s a colossal centipede, is that its backstory “is a great little adventure that resembles Western fairy tales.” They also creep him out for obvious reasons, because “imagining a centipede as large as a mountain is pretty good for giving yourself the chills.”
In case you’ve never had a venomous mukade centipede crawl up your arm and scare every last shred of sanity out of you before, ōmukade are that magnified to kaiju size. Not to mention that the yokai version is much more venomous and will kill you with its crushing jaws if not with poison. How terrifying are they? They can even frighten away dragons.
The twisted fairy tale associated with this arthropod follows the warrior Fujiwara no Hidesato, who was intrepid enough to crush a serpent under his feet, so why not Centipede-zilla? He got the incentive to undertake this dangerous quest when the daughter of the dragon king implored him to bring an end to the ōmukade that was threatening her family. Except this thing made the sea serpent he’d previously trampled look like a tadpole. It had coiled itself around Mount Mikami no less than seven times, deflecting all his arrows except the one he remembered to lick. Apparently human saliva is the only thing that can penetrate that kind of armor.
After that it was all happily ever after.
Get your claws, fins, or other appendages on The Book of the Hakutaku, which just survived a successful Kickstarter, soon when it hits Meyer's site next to his other two otherworldly books, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons and The Night of Meeting Evil Spirits.