Strange Tales and Modern Legends

This semester I taught a seminar called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” (You can find links to the syllabus and course materials here.) A major element of this class was our study of how folkloric traditions have influenced literature. My specialty is contemporary fiction, so we spent a good amount of time talking about what urban legends are and how they work.

I believe that urban legends have the following three characteristics:

First, these stories are specific to a time and place, and they’re generally tied to a specific person as well. This person is someone known to the storyteller, and they’re either a reliable source of information or a direct witness to the event or phenomenon in question.

Second, the story is understood to be “real” and therefore nonfiction. In fact, it often isn’t much of a story at all. Unlike creepypasta, which is shortform fiction, the characters in an urban legend don’t have interiority, and they’re often not attributed with motivation. Rather, the story is stated as a simple fact. At the core of these stories is a statement like “you’ll die if you eat [a certain type of candy] mixed with soda” or “a child was once murdered in [a certain department store] bathroom.” The purpose of additional details is to add authenticity.

Third, urban legends almost always have a cautionary element, and the unfortunate events of the story are related to social and cultural anxieties. These fears tend to be politically sensitive and thus can’t be discussed openly, so urban legends function as a sort of pressure release valve. In the United States, for example, a lot of urban legends reflect racial tensions, while there are a lot of urban legends about bullying and social ostracization in Japan.  

This isn’t really a defining characteristic, but I find it interesting that an urban legend need not necessarily be untrue. Rather, the act of making something into a “story” adds an element of speculation. This means that, even though the story is stated as fact, both the teller and listener understand that the veracity of this fact is debatable. In other words, the story could be true, but both parties acknowledge that there’s no way to prove it.

Having provided the students with these criteria and a number of examples to use as potential templates, I asked them to write their own urban legends. I was absolutely blown away by the work they submitted. I promised that I wouldn’t spread their stories outside of class, but I decided to make a class zine so that they could share their work with each other. The image at the top of this post is the cover I created for the zine, which ended up being a 76-page book.

I like to think that Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell would be proud.

You Died Anthology Review on WWAC

My review of the Eisner Award winning comic anthology You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife has just been published on the website Women Write About Comics. Here’s an excerpt…

Despite the success of the death positivity movement, death remains a difficult subject for many people. You Died: An Anthology of the Afterlife understands this tension and respects both the critical importance of the topic and the feelings of the reader. As befits the theme of positivity, the anthology’s tone is gentle and uplifting. With its range of unique and beautiful art styles and its entertaining yet contemplative stories, You Died celebrates a diversity of lives in its embrace of a fascinating array of afterlives.

You can read the full review (here). Although my review ended up being entirely positive, there were a few aspects of certain pieces in the anthology that didn’t initially land with me. As always, I extend my thanks to my brilliant editor, who helped me see these comics and this fantastic anthology in a different light.

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights

Ender Lilies: Quietus of the Knights is a fantasy-themed 2D adventure-platformer with moderate elements of horror and a moderately high level of difficulty. Unlike many modern Metroidvania games, there is nothing retro about the graphics. The backgrounds are gorgeous works of HD digital art filled with stunning details, and the characters and enemies are all beautifully animated. Both the combat and exploration are a lot of fun, and it’s a joy to move through this ruined world.

You play as a young unnamed priestess (referred to by the user interface as Lily) who wakes in the catacombs beneath a cathedral filled with monsters. You’re greeted by an adult knight (initially called “the Umbral Knight” but later revealed to be named Ferin) who accompanies Lily outside, where the landscape is dark and dripping with the water of a poisonous rain. Everything touched by the rain becomes “blighted,” or monstrous and undead. Lily has the ability to purify monsters by removing the blight from their bodies, thereby allowing them to die. Although the game has no quest-givers to explain what’s going on, it’s easy enough to make the assumption that Lily’s job is to find the source of the blight and purify it.   

Lily is a small child who is physically fragile, and she cannot defend herself on her own. Your attacks are therefore performed by the Umbral Knight, who is gradually joined by other spirits. The Umbral Knight performs a basic sword attack, but Lily meets spirits who can perform heavy attacks, ranged attacks, area-of-effect attacks, and so on. You can equip two sets of three spirits at a time and map them onto whatever buttons you wish in order to create different combos and skill sets appropriate to different bosses and exploration challenges. This is much less complicated that it sounds, and the Umbral Knight is strong and versatile enough to carry you through the game.

You can upgrade these spirits using different types of limited resources that you find through exploration. Aside from Lily, everyone in the world of the game is either dead or undead, and there is no “economy” to speak of – only the relics and resources that Lily can scavenge from corpses. Spirits are acquired by defeating boss monsters, many of which are optional and must also be found by exploration. I really love this system of fighting a powered-up version of a regular monster in order to acquire its abilities, especially since the player should already be familiar with these abilities from having faced a number of such creatures in combat.

The optional minibosses are tricky but fun, but the mandatory zone bosses are legitimately challenging. This challenge is mitigated by the game’s leveling system, in which defeating enemies gives Lily experience points that allow her to gain levels. Health and attack upgrades must be acquired elsewhere, but each new level grants Lily ever-so-slightly better defense and a tiny boost to the power of the Umbral Knight. There is always a save point right before a zone boss fight, as well as an enemy-dense screen on the other side of the save point that provides a good opportunity to level up if needed. The only real way to defeat these bosses is to learn their attack patterns while optimizing your own set of attacks, but the zone leading to each boss does a good job of teaching you the skills you need to survive.

You can also find various relics in the world that grant enhanced abilities, such as giving you more healing charges, increasing the amount healed with each charge, increasing your defense, strengthening certain types of attacks, and so on. In addition, you’ll find items that allow you to equip more relics, as well as items that permanently increase your health bar. Some of these items are hidden behind illusory walls, but these “secrets” are never unmarked, and the game teaches you how to read the environment fairly early on. If you pay attention and don’t mind an occasional bit of backtracking – which you’ll need to do anyway to find a path forward through the interconnected zones – you should be able to strengthen Lily just enough to keep going without having to grind for levels.

Ender Lilies is clearly inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight. It’s not easy, but I would say it’s more “challenging” than “punishing.” The combat is a lot of fun, but the true emphasis is on exploration and paying close attention to the environment. Each screen of the game has its own unique design and artwork, meaning that you’ll be inspired to explore just to see what’s around the next corner. In addition, each relic and spirit and upgrade material you find is valuable, as is every zone boss spirit, all of which grant you an additional exploration ability. I found the gameplay loop of Ender Lilies to be extremely satisfying.

Given that everyone in the world of the game is dead, careful exploration also allows you to find bits and pieces of the story in the form of Fallout-style journals and missives that have been left lying around. Like the gameplay, the story is inspired by Dark Souls and Hollow Knight, and the overarching plot is similar – a morally ambiguous king has made a difficult choice involving arcane forces that were poorly understood by hubristic scientist-wizards. Ender Lilies adds a few interesting twists to this formula, especially towards the end, and the abject tragedy of what happened in this kingdom feels earned, narratively speaking.

What I love about the story is that every textual object you find has a distinct narrative voice. It goes without saying that the presentation of information is not linear, and it’s always a fun surprise to find something written by a blighted monster you encountered much earlier in the game. Some of these characters are much more important than others, but the gradual accumulation of their stories leads the player to the dawning realization that, despite the horror of the situation, the kingdom was filled with flawed but deeply human people who were doing the best they could.

It’s easy to dismiss Ender Lilies as “2D anime Dark Souls for casuals” at a glance, but I ended up being genuinely moved by the story and characters. The horror themes are expressed with creativity and style, and Ender Lilies is nothing if not atmospheric. In terms of gameplay, I think Ender Lilies may be a perfect Metroidvania, and the game features various ease-of-life concessions that help make it more accessible without diminishing the thrill or challenge of the gameplay.

And finally, I appreciate how the spirits Lily has purified hang out with you at save points. There’s nothing I love more than the image of a cute girl sitting amongst weathered ruins surrounded by grotesque monsters as rain falls in the background. That’s the good stuff right there.  

At the End of Everything: A Night in the Woods Fanzine

I’m excited to have a story in At the End of Everything, a fanzine celebrating Night in the Woods. My piece is a series of connected vignettes about the subtle uncanniness of daily (and nightly) life in Possum Springs, and the atmosphere is pure Rust Belt Gothic heavily based on my own experiences in rural West Pennsylvania. Preorders for the zine are open until November 30. In the meantime, please feel free to check out the free wallpapers available on the zine’s Carrd site. 

🍂 https://nitwzine.bigcartel.com/
🍂 https://nightinthewoodszine.carrd.co/

League of Enthusiastic Losers

League of Enthusiastic Losers is a chill and beautiful visual novel set in Moscow in the 1990s. You play as Vitya, a handyman, who is often accompanied by his friend and roommate Volodya, a copywriter who’s working on a novel. It’s not clear whether the two men are in a romantic relationship; but regardless, they’re close friends who love and support one another. Unfortunately, while all of their friends from high school are off being successful and moving up in the world during the boom economy, the two of them can barely pay rent.

As the player, your task is to follow Vitya and Volodya as they try to figure out how to pay their landlord a portion of the rent they owe. Both men are extremely sweet and gentle, and they keep getting sidetracked as they do things like adopting a stray dog and helping their landlord’s son fix his toy airplane. Their grand plan is to dig up a “buried treasure” in the local public park that ends up consisting of several small tokens of Soviet life. Thankfully there are no antagonists in this game, and everything turns out okay. The men’s landlord is just as much of a sweetheart as they are, and their friends are happy to help support them.

The player can control Vitya and Volodya’s movement through linear 2D spaces, make a few dialog choices, and enjoy a few simple flash games like “glue the wings on the toy airplane” and “use the metal detector in the park.” There’s no stress and no point of failure, just two soft but handsome men and their adorable dog navigating a beautiful city depicted in a colorful painterly art style.

There are two things I love about the character Volodya in particular. First, he walks with a pronounced limp. It’s never explained, and no one ever comments on it, but people slow down their own pace when they walk with him. I don’t think Volodya has a “disability,” necessarily, but the game does a good job of depicting that sort of human difference.

Second, everyone around Volodya understands and accepts the fact that it takes time to write a novel, and that it probably won’t be picked up by a publisher right away. In fact, the first press he submits the manuscript to rejects it. When I compare this to the writer plot in the game Coffee Talk, in which Freya takes five days to write a novel that’s immediately accepted by a publisher with no agent necessary, I appreciate this game’s honesty about the fact that no one is immaculately conceived as a literary genius.

Everything about League of Enthusiastic Losers is honest, and the honest truth about life is that sometimes everything really is going to be okay. More than anything, League of Enthusiastic Losers is a game about being in your late twenties and gradually finding your place in the world. None of the characters is “good” or “bad,” but all of them are human, and it’s a joy to follow them through their everyday lives.

League of Enthusiastic Losers takes about half an hour to play, and you can pet the dog anytime you want.

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight

Momodora: Reverie Under The Moonlight is a 2D fantasy Metroidvania with adorable 16-bit pixel graphics and an emphasis on cute magical girls. It has an Easy Mode that’s genuinely chill, and it took me about seven hours to get 100% completion. Momodora features a lot of nods to the Dark Souls games in general and Bloodborne in particular, but I think a more accurate comparison (at least on Easy Mode) is the mellow Nintendo DS adventure-platformer Super Princess Peach.

I came to Momodora not knowing what to expect, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s absolutely delightful. The game is relatively simple, but that’s okay, because it’s very good at what it does.

You play as Kaho, a cute girl wearing a white mage hood over a black miniskirt dress and thigh-high stockings. I get the feeling that her theme is supposed to be “sexy Shintō shrine maiden,” and she uses a giant red maple leaf as a sword. She also has a bow with unlimited arrows whose attack can be charged, an adorable dodge roll, and the ability to double-jump right out of the box. Her animations are lovely, and she’s a lot of fun.

Kaho is a silent protagonist, but what you pick up from other characters is that she’s come from abroad to talk to the Queen of Karst about a curse that has spread from the castle city into her small village. You begin the game on the border of a beautiful and vibrant 16-bit pixel forest before entering Karst, which is what the gothic Victorian city of Yharnam (from Bloodborne) would look like if it were rendered in Chrono Trigger style graphics. Whatever curse is threatening Kaho’s village has subsumed Karst in full force, and Kaho has to fight all manner of cute imps, cute witches, cute sorceresses, and cute devils, all of whom have colorful and interesting anime designs.  

Before you can go into Karst Castle proper, you need to find four seals that unlock its gate. This quest sends you into a maze of interconnected areas that include a flooded graveyard, an overgrown garden, a giant crematorium, and the rafters of a ruined cathedral. All of these areas are beautifully rendered and a joy to explore, and along the way Kaho meets a handful of cute NPCs and picks up a limited arsenal of items whose flavor text provides a hint of worldbuilding in classic Dark Souls fashion. Kaho gains a few more abilities – one in particular is a true blessing and a miracle on this earth, but I won’t spoil it – but Momodora sticks to its core gameplay and never gets too complicated.

In addition, you can find and collect 17 health upgrades, as well as 20 silver bugs to trade to a garden rabbit for prizes. About half of these collectables require minor exploration and backtracking, and the other half are hidden in ridiculous ways that I don’t think most players would be able to find without a walkthrough. Thankfully, if you’re playing on Easy Mode, it’s totally fine not to worry about the collectables you don’t find naturally.

You also pick up currency from defeated enemies that you can use to buy relics (which are essentially magic spells) from various merchants, but none of these items are necessary. Since Kaho doesn’t otherwise gain levels or become more powerful, I can imagine that some of the boss fights might be challenging and require a bit of an extra advantage, but this isn’t an issue in Easy Mode, in which Kaho begins the game with two powerful relics that will carry the player through the entire game.

In conclusion, Momodora is a chill and beautiful Metroidvania style action-exploration game that’s like Bloodborne for people who want to enjoy the gothic story and atmosphere without having to spend dozens of hours slamming their head against a wall to git gud. Also, since almost every character and enemy is a super cute magical girl or sexy adult witch-demon, I guess you could say that Momodora is like Bloodborne for lesbians.

I mean, Bloodborne itself is very much “Bloodborne for lesbians,” but you get what I’m saying.

Quiet Haunting

I moved to South Philly toward the end of the pandemic. My landlord raised the rent, and it was cheaper to buy a house. Granted, it’s not a big house, nor is it particularly nice. The floors are uneven, and the ceiling sags. The kitchen is like a set from an old movie, and the basement is infested with house centipedes. But it’s affordable, and it’s quiet, especially since no one lives next door.

Recently, however, I’ve started to hear things moving on the other side of the townhouse wall. The noises aren’t loud or frequent. It’s mostly soft shuffling and light tapping, usually right before dawn and just after dusk. To make matters even more curious, someone has been watering the plants in the house’s back yard. Two leafy fig trees have grown from small sprouts to extraordinary heights over the summer.

Earlier this evening, I noticed that the house’s back door was open. It was just a crack, as if someone had forgotten to close it. The opossums that live in the alleyway that will come inside and eat your trash if you let them, so I figured I’d be doing someone a favor if I closed the door. I climbed over the crumbling cinderblock wall and maneuvered through the foliage. When I put my hand on the knob, the door surprised me by swinging open.  

The was nothing inside, just uneven floors and sagging ceilings like my own, but I could hear a beeping sound emerging from the basement. I peeked down the stairs, where I saw an older man in a colorless cardigan sweater sitting on a metal folding chair. He was flipping through an issue of National Geographic that he’d taken from a sagging cardboard box filled with old magazines.

I froze in alarm, but he looked up and met my eyes before I could back away. “I’m sorry to bother you,” I apologized. “I live next door, and I heard the beeping. I was worried something was going to explode.”

“It’s fine.” He shrugged. “It’s just an oven timer. I figured I’d give it a few more minutes, but I might as well turn it off.”

I felt awkward, like I couldn’t just leave, so I asked him why he was sitting in the basement with an oven timer.

“They pay me to look after the place,” he answered. “You know, rattle a few chains, make some thumping noises in the night. Feed the spiders, maybe put a bloody handprint on the window, that sort of thing. It keeps the property values down.”

I realized that I could see the back of the chair through the man’s sweater. This didn’t bother me as much as perhaps you’d think it would. I’d seen stranger things in the neighborhood, and the man seemed nice enough. “I haven’t really heard anything from next door,” I admitted. “Do you want me to be more scared?”

“Don’t sweat it. They’re not paying me much, and I haven’t gotten a raise in years. My heart’s just not in it these days.” With a sigh, he closed the magazine and tossed it back into the box before disappearing in a thin whisp of smoke.

I left the basement, closing and locking the door behind me before returning to my own house. I guess the post-pandemic economy has been tough for everyone. All things considered, I don’t mind living next to a haunted house. Like I said, it’s affordable, and it’s quiet.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

This illustrated short story was originally published in the Philly Zine Fest 2022 Anthology. This year’s Philly Zine Fest was held at Temple University on Saturday, November 5. Despite a giant political rally happening right across the street that afternoon, it was a very chill and relaxed event with lots of good vibes and creative energy. It’s been my dream to table at the Philly Zine Fest for years, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be. Here’s to many more celebrations of independent artists and writers in years to come! If you’re interested, you can find the Philly Zine Fest website (here), and it’s definitely worth checking out their parent organization, The Soapbox Community Print Shop & Zine Library.

Also, I should mention that I really do live next door to an abandoned funeral home. True story! I posted a photoset on Instagram (here).

The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi

I’m delighted to announce that my short essay “The Gentle Inclusivity of Kawakami Hiromi’s ‘Summer Break'” was just published in the 21st volume of the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies. Here’s the abstract…

“Summer Break” (Natsu yasumi), the second story in Kawakami Hiromi’s 1998 collection The God of Bears (Kamisama), is narrated by a young person who spends a summer working as a laborer in a pear orchard. Like the other stories in The God of Bears, “Summer Break” operates according to the logic of magical realism, which is perhaps why the owner of the orchard tells the narrator not to worry about the small, talking creatures that run through the trees and devour fallen fruit. The narrator nevertheless forms a bond with one of these pear spirits, whose panic attacks mirror the narrator’s own dissociative episodes. At the end of the story, both the pear spirit and the narrator grapple with anxiety and suicidal ideation, but the story’s conclusion embraces self-acceptance.

From the first publication of the award-winning title story of The God of Bears in 1994 to the appearance “Summer Break” in the complete collection in 1998, various public figures attempted to address the social malaise that characterized Japan’s economic recession. Several highly influential public intellectuals, including the clinical psychologist Kawai Hayao and the cultural critic Saitō Tamaki, viewed mental illness as a symptom of broader cultural forces.

In “Summer Break,” however, Kawakami portrays the experience of mental illness as embodied and personal instead of abstract and societal. This paper analyzes how the fantasy elements of “Summer Break” render its treatment of mental illness as sympathetic and relatable, an aspect of the story that is enhanced by its use of magical creatures that externalize the narrator’s psychological state. I will place this analysis within in the context of recent narratives in Japanese fiction and popular culture categorized as ijinkei (“about nonhuman characters”), as well as critical discussions of the folkloric qualities of this period of Kawakami’s writing.

…that’s a lot of material to cover in such a short essay, but I think I did a decent job of contextualizing the story. This piece of writing was intended to serve as an introduction to my translation of the story itself. Unfortunately, despite almost a year of constant work and the assistance of multiple high-profile translators, we weren’t able to secure the publication rights. It’s a disappointment, but I hope the silver lining is that there are plans for the full God of Bears short story collection to appear in translation soon.

My essay is available on JSTOR; but, since I understand that not everyone has institutional access, I’ve also made a copy available on my website (here). Although it’s unofficial, you can download a PDF of my translation of the short story “Summer Break” (here). Years ago, I translated all of the stories in The God of Bears, and the illustrator I was once planning on working with to create illustrations is Maru, who you can find on Twitter (here). And finally, you can learn more about the Proceedings of the Association for Japanese Literary Studies on their website (here).

The Museum of Hyrule

I was recently thinking about what a modern version of Hyrule would look like, and I was imagining how fun it would be for Link to encounter the Master Sword during a class trip to a museum. When I started sketching, however, what I ended up drawing is a reincarnation of Ganon seeing his crown from Ocarina of Time. The moment I wanted to capture is the calm immediately before a terrible storm.

Also, as someone who loves art and history, I tend to dislike museums, but that’s another story entirely.

Review of Japanese Role-Playing Games

This past summer I was given an opportunity to review an academic essay collection titled Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG. The work the two editors did for this collection is incredible, and every single essay is fantastic. Here’s a short excerpt from the book review that I published in the journal Asian Studies Review:

Japanese Role-Playing Games: Genre, Representation, and Liminality in the JRPG is the first English-language collection of essays focusing entirely on a genre of Japanese games known for their complex stories and rich worldbuilding. The fourteen essays in this collection cover the construction of the JRPG genre, the formation of transcultural gaming communities, and the representation of issues such as nationality, gender, and disability.

Japan Studies scholars with varying degrees of familiarity with the specific titles used as case studies will find a wealth of information and resources in these essays, which briefly summarize the games while explaining why they are representative, important, and connected to broader currents in Japanese history and society. Meanwhile, Game Studies scholars will find approachable yet intellectually rigorous discussions of culture and national origin, which have thus far been relatively few and far between in the field outside of the work of a few specialists.

If you’d like to read the full review, you can find it (here). I understand that not everyone has institutional access to academic journals, so I’m also hosting the PDF on my own website (here). In addition, you can find Japanese Role-Playing Games on the publisher’s website (here), and you can follow the journal Asian Studies Review on Twitter (here).