If there’s anything at all to old cliche that to understand someone, you must know what they fear and what they desire, then reading ghost stories from a different culture must qualify as some sort of significant cross-cultural exchange. Lafcadio Hearn’s “The Faceless Ghost” and Other Macabre Tales from Japan, adapted by Scottish writer Sean Michael Wilson and illustrated by Michiru Morikawa, gives the English-language audience a great opportunity to immerse themselves in a creepy horror-comic environment that hits authentically Japanese notes. It also happens to be nominated for a 2016 Eisner Award in the category of “Best Adaptation from Another Medium”.
The Faceless Ghost is an adaptation of Lafcadio Hearn’s Oriental Ghost Stories, itself a collection of Hearn’s many translations/interpretations of the ghost stories he heard while living in Japan. Hearn, a late Victorian writer whose nationality could be claimed to be Irish, Greek, American and finally an English professor living in Japan, was instrumental in opening western eyes to Japanese culture in the late 19th century. From the template of Hearn’s original stories, Wilson fashions six stories, some longer than others, but all compelling evocations of a mysterious and unfamiliar sense of the macabre.
The first story, “Diplomacy”, is typical of the collection in that it leads the western first-time reader down roads that seem familiar, and then suddenly veer off into unexpected directions. A criminal is being executed, and begs the executioner for mercy; none of this is unusual. Then, the criminal makes a pact that if his severed head can bite a nearby rock as it rolls away, the executioner will recognize this as a sign of his spirit’s hunger for revenge. The usual course from here would be for the head to bite, then the criminal’s spirit return to haunt the executioner and his family, and that is precisely what his wife and family believe is happening when, some time after the execution, strange things start occurring about the house. But the gentleman has no fear: he knows that in the highly parsed vernacular of the spirit world, his pact with the criminal was for the ability to bite down on a rock, and nothing more. On first blush, this seems to follow some of the usual western ghost story contours, and particularly in the twist ending involving a bit of legal doublespeak worthy of Macbeth. But while many western folk tales feature peasants making fun of the upper class and invert gender power dynamics (think of “The Maiden Wiser than the Tsar”), here the social order remains firmly intact, with the big man on top and chuckling at the silly women and fretful servants.
Order is, in fact, a theme that seems to run through all of these stories. Bad thing happen to those who disobey the rules, even (in “Of A Mirror and A Bell”) obeying the rules but not really “feeling it”. That second virtue — being authentic in one’s emotions — also rings loud and clear, especially in the final story, “The Gratitude of Samebito”, where a friendship is tested by a convenient “super power”. Based on these stories, in Japan, a deal is a deal, and not honouring one’s commitment to that deal is a far graver sin than, say, murder or theft. For those earthly crimes, one would be punished, and maybe even killed, but for dishonour, the punishments can last an eternity, and are dealt with by the spirit world. The spirits have very long memories and are on the hunt for deception, as the second story, “Yuki-Onna”, makes perfectly clear. And, making deals with them can lead mortals into unexpected places, such as in “Of A Mirror and A Bell”, which also happens to feature the boldest twist ending in the entire book. The fact that such subtle culture imperatives can be absorbed from an entertaining collection of comic book ghost stories speaks to why this book is one of the Eisner-nominated titles.
The art, by Michiru Morikawa, is dramatic and evocative, with all the hallmarks of the best Japanese comics: beautifully minimalist composition, a great sense of the grotesque, meticulous attention to certain period detail and dress, combined with an energetic comedic sensibility. Black and white was an excellent choice as well, giving particularly the rainy night scenes (and there are plenty of those) a wonderfully eerie quality. And, by the time we get to the final story which features (mild spoilers), a man-shark monster, Morikawa finds a way to make him a fully realized and effective character, asked to play a wide range of emotions.
I learned a great deal from reading this comic and was entertained a great deal more. Its subtle and beautifully pruned storytelling never succumbs to the clumsy posing that sometimes accompanies cross-cultural adaptations, and its art perfectly mirrors the quiet, confident hands behind these wonderfully presented stories. Like all the books profiled in this series, Lafcadio Hearn’s “The Faceless Ghost” and Other Macabre Tales from Japan is deserving of its Eisner nomination and a place on a discerning comic fan’s bookshelf.