Friday, November 20, 2009

BOOK REVIEW: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide

Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide

Authors: Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda

Kodansha International

191 pages

ISBN: 9784770030702

Published: 2008

Reviewed by Eric Evans

You're walking down a lovely side street in downtown Kyoto hoping to catch a glimpse of some Maiko shuffling along on errands when you see, hurtling toward you at a high rate of speed, a meter-long flaming wheel with a man's disembodied, bearded head at its center. How will you react? Should you bow, use a friendly greeting, or…? Too late. Your hesitation has cost you as you're torn limb from limb and left to die in the gutter.

It's too bad really, because you could have avoided this messy death at the hands--er, wheel--of the Wanyudo had you read Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt's "Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide." Together with manga illustrator Tatsuya Morino (of "Kibakichi" comic-book fame), they've supplied the intrepid traveler with a digest-sized full-color guidebook to the folkloric ghosts, beasts and creatures you'll likely encounter if you spend any time in Japan. Presented the same as any restaurant or city guide, the book divides the yokai in convenient groups (Ferocious Fiends, Gruesome Gourmets, Annoying Neighbors, The Sexy And Slimy, and The Wimps), lists the identifying characteristics of each one, and even includes a map so you'll have a better idea of which creatures haunt the night wherever you are. The individual entries are often peppered with bits of real-world trivia such as monuments or museums related to their subjects, and there are tips to URLs with animation and other goodies. A glossary of terms up front prepares you with the basics, and the resources section at the back lists other books and websites with which you might augment your Yokai knowledge.

The book is fun, falling into roughly the same category as Max Brooks' "Zombie Survival Guide" but without any serious literary pretensions. The authors seem to be enjoying themselves, and they've done their homework: The book looks like kid's stuff but it's probably the most authoritative mass-market book on Yokai out there. Morino-san's illustrations vary in style according to the needs of the monsters, and at first blush I assumed that multiple artists had worked on the book. (Any cartoonists and commercial illustrators reading this will recognize that as high praise.) My only beef with the book is the design, which is at times fussy and dense. Entries come complete with yellow highlighted portions like a used college textbook, and the courier-ish main body typeface doesn't do the reader any favors.

But there's nothing so wrong with the book that the casual reader, teenage monster-movie fan or Japanese culture enthusiast won't find a lot to like. In fact, if you're a fan of Yokai films, this book is a necessity. The story of the Kuchisake Onna (slit-mouthed woman) might be familiar to you owing to her starring roles in several recent films, but many of the Yokai seen in "Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro", the "100 Monsters" trilogy, "Kibakichi" 1 & 2, "Onmyogi", "Great Yokai War" or even the animated "Hellboy: Sword of Storms" may be completely baffling. For example, we've all seen the Kara-kasa – the one footed, one-eyed, tongue-wagging umbrella. But who knew that his weapon of choice is the Bronx cheer, and he's not interested in doing anything more than scaring you then hopping off to his next 'victim'? The book adds a dimension of enjoyment to those films by filling in all the who's, what's and why's of the various monsters. (A choice bit of trivia: the book's authors were extras in Takashi Miike's "Yokai War".)

In case you're still wondering, the opening of this review was a bit of a cheat: there is no correct way to greet the Wanyudo. Once you've seen him you're more or less doomed to be ripped to shreds, your soul forfeit to his rage. Sorry!

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