Strange Light Afar by Rui Umezawa

Catch a glimmer of old Japan’s ghouls and goblins in these eight modernized folk tales.


Author info

Rui Umezawa is a Toronto writer whose work has appeared in the Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Descant Magazine. His adult fiction novel, The Truth about Death and Dying, was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Book Prize for Best First Book.

Mikiko Fujita is a Japanese-German visual artist based out of Japan. In addition to Strange Light Afar, in 2014 she published the picture book Night Dreamer (Nachtschwärmer, 夜を彷徨うひと) with German publisher Jaja Verlag.


Folk-tale and young-adult fiction enthusiasts alike should go pick up a copy of Strange Light Afar: Tales of the Supernatural from Old Japan, by Canadian writer Rui Umezawa. This is a col- lection of eight ghostly stories retold with a modern twist, and rated for young adults age 10 and up. Japanophile readers will instantly recognize famous characters like Urashima Taro, but that familiarity won’t take away from the book’s charm, because Umezawa adapts the old yarn in unexpected ways. For readers unfamiliar with Japanese folk tales, the collection serves as a great introduction.

Originally, these classic stories were passed down through the centuries in order to deliver a moral message (about the dangers of vice, envy, pride, etcetera), and the characters were fairly didactic and one-dimensional. But Umezawa adds a psy- chological dimension to these archetypes, letting readers burrow into the dark, shameless under- belly of their desires. Half of the stories are told in the confessional voice of a sinful main character, who speaks directly to the reader. And while the setting is still historical, the characters speak to us in an intimate, contemporary language. That’s a bold move for a folk-tale adaptation, one that pays off with catchy, creepy opening lines, like:

“Let me stress that I stopped hitting my wife a long time ago.” The author’s unusual approach adds a bit of depth to these time-tested folk tales, giving readers a glimpse into the psychology of a baddie.

Umezawa alternates between this bold writing style and the more traditional fairy-tale narrative, with an omniscient narrator who lets readers sit back and watch from a distance. The cumulative effect is pleasantly strange and thought-provoking. As a whole, the collection asks us to take a second look at each character—human or otherwise—to be curious about who they are and where they come from, and to sit with their ugly hearts in our hands and feel a fleeting sympathy.

Each story begins with a one-word title and a black-and-white pencil drawing by Japanese-German artist Mikiko Fujita. In the first story, “Snow,” a young boy’s mother dies one desolate winter night, and years later the boy grows up to marry her murderer. In “Trickster,” a travelling con artist’s failed scam leads to karmic retribution. In “Honor,” a dashing samurai gives his life to hon- our a promise made to his beloved blood brother. In “Envy,” a bitter and violent man is consumed by a hopeless love for his brother’s beautiful, gentle wife. In “Captive,” a fisherman snags an immortal princess through selfish deception. In “Vanity,” a narcissistic monk takes a supernatural journey to enlightenment—or so he believes. In “Paradise,” an ungrateful drunk plunges into a sea of indulgence, only to come home empty-handed. Finally, in “Betrayal,” a handsome gambler is willing to kill for an equally stunning wife, only to discover how deadly beauty can be.

All the stories include some sort of supernatural encounter, as well as a motley crew of non-human characters, from telepathic turtles to crow-headed demons. Some of the stories are also quite gruesome, and, though none of them are scary in the typical Western sense, fans of Japanese horror will feel subtle shivers of appreciation. As a child, I always thought the scariest monsters were the magical kawauso, the otherworldly otters Umezawa modifies to reflect his own family lore in “Trickster.” Readers can sample this story online at 49thShelf.com. Though you can’t see Fujita’s eerie accompanying illustration, the excerpt is a good representation of the collection as a whole. The book is a solid contribution of a global bookshelf of fairy tales and ghost stories. It’s also a good fit for creative writing classes geared toward young adults.


More supernatural Japanese folk tales

P34-01

Tales of Moonlight and Rain by Akinari Ueda

First published in 1776, this classic collection of nine stories blends the occult with literary realism.

P34-02

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things by Lafcadio Hearn

This collection of 20 “ghostly sketches” was adapted at the turn of the 20th century by one of the first Japan scholars.