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’Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny’ -- book review

31 Days of Halloween

’Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny’ — book review

Rare Japanese horror, translated into English for the first time.

Welcome to another installment of 31 Days of Halloween! This is our chance to set the mood for the spookiest and scariest month of the year as we focus our attention on horror and Halloween fun. For the month of October we’ll be sharing various pieces of underappreciated scary books, comics, movies, and television to help keep you terrified and entertained all the way up to Halloween.

Okamoto Kidō was born in Tokyo on October 15, 1872, and grew up during the tumultuous cultural and political period that was Japan’s transition from the Tokugawa to Meiji era. Though he would become famous as a playwright, Okamoto is also recognized as one of the foundational authors in Japan’s horror and detective genres.

While a collection of this celebrated writer’s detective stories has been available in English since 2006, it is only with Kurodahan Press’ latest volume, Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny (2020), that English language readers are finally able to enjoy the chills and thrills of 12 of Okamoto’s best supernatural short stories.

Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny contains the following…

  • “The Kiso Traveler” – An aged woodcutter recalls a visit from a mysterious stranger. Is his guest a man, a ghost, a yōkai … or something worse?
  • “The Green Frog God” – Set in ancient China, Okamoto spins a supernatural bridegroom tale redolent of those found in Pu Songling’s Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, but with a batrachian twist worthy of Clark Ashton Smith.
  • “Tone Crossing” – A ferryman takes in a blind man with a shadowy past. Fans of Shimozawa Kan’s Zatoichi – made famous by actor Katsu Shintarō – will enjoy this story.
  • “The Monkey’s Eyes” – Bad luck befalls an antique dealer who acquires an old, wooden mask resembling a monkey’s face.
  • “The Snake Spirit” – The exceedingly strange life and adventures of an area snake-catcher.
  • “The Clear-Water Well” – A feudal lord seeks to uncover the enigmatic origins of a local well which seems to have bewitched his two daughters.
  • “Crabs” – A rich man’s unreasonable desire for a crab dinner leads to an evening of madness and death.
  • “The One-Legged Woman” – Set against the backdrop of the Hakkenden, an aristocratic couple learns too late that their random act of kindness comes at a terrible price.
  • “Here Lies a Flute” – A tale of obsession and murder revolving around a pair of samurai and a cursed flute.
  • “The Shadow-Stepping Game” – A children’s game goes awry, leading a young woman down a path of paranoia and possession.
  • “The White-Haired Demon” – In a story were everyone seems to hiding something from someone, a young law student find himself haunted by a beautiful ghost.
  • “The Man Cursed by an Eel” – Masako is a newlywed bride who knows her husband is hiding his strange appetite for live eels from her; however she is unprepared for what happens when she finally confronts him about it.

As the collection’s subtitle suggests, Okamoto’s tales are more “uncanny” then overtly horrific. Each story is presented as if it was being relayed to the reader by a knowing witness either around a campfire, in a bar, or as written down in some quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. Most begin with some mundane drama which provides the tale with a veneer of verisimilitude that’s only shattered when the reader slowly realizes that some supernatural force has subtlety come into play.

In this way, Okamoto’s stories are reminiscent of the spookier tales of his younger and more internationally recognized contemporary, Akutagawa Ryūnosuke. Like Akutagawa, Okamoto undoubtedly drew on traditional Japanese legends, as found in late Heian period collections such as the Konjaku monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past). In this way, Okamoto’s stories also recall the frightful Japanese folktales collected and retold by another contemporary, the Irish expat Lafcadio Hearn.

Readers with knowledge of Japanese folklore and spirituality will recognize many familiar themes. As an animistic culture, Japan’s folklore is filled with anthropomorphized animals and objects. The same is true in Okamoto’s fiction, as snakes, frogs, crabs, and eels all take on a supernatural aspect via their unusual interactions with the story’s human characters. Then there’s the titular instrument in “Here Lies a Flute,” as well as the mysterious mask in “The Monkey’s Eyes,” both of which seem just as alive as any animal.

For the truly adept reader, Okamoto’s “The One-Legged Woman” may recall the work of folklorist Yanagita Kunio – another contemporary – and his controversial theories regarding acts of ritual amputation in pre-modern Japan. Likewise, those familiar with the story of Lady Rokujo from Murasaki Shikibu’s medieval classic, The Tale of Genji, might be able to suss out the conclusion to “The White-Haired Demon” in advance, though now I fear I’ve wandered into spoiler territory.

Like Akutagawa and Hearn, Okamoto wasn’t limited to Japanese sources of inspiration, having translated the works of such macabre masters as Frederick Marryat (“The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains“) and W.W. Jacobs (“The Monkey’s Paw“). This western influence in no way dilutes Okamoto’s work, but enhances it, showing his skill at drawing the best from both foreign and traditional materials. It’s no surprise then that Okamoto’s tales continue to resonate with contemporary Japanese readers as well as writers like Miyabe Miyuki, whose own spectral stories betray a knowing influence.

justin mullis kido collection

Photo by Justin Mullis

Over the last 15 years, Kurodaham Press has been distinguishing itself as the premier translator of Japanese horror literature. Though far from the publisher’s only output, their translations of the works of Edogawa Rampo, as well as short-story collections like Vampiric: Tales of Blood and Roses from Japan (2019), the Kaiki trilogy (which presents stories based on traditional Japanese ghosts and yōkai), and their four volume Lairs of the Hidden Gods series (which offers a Japanese take on the Cthulhu mythos), has been a continual boon to anyone interested in the Land of the Rising Sun’s shadowy side.

Likewise, Okamoto Kidō: Master of the Uncanny, as expertly translated by Nancy H. Ross – whose work allows Okamoto’s clear, crisp prose to come to life – is sure to be a welcomed addition to the library of anyone looking for a good, scary story on moonlit night.

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