Japanese Ghost Stories

This fall, I’m teaching a new class called “Japanese Ghost Stories.” Here’s the course description…

This course offers a survey of the numinous and supernatural through Japanese fiction, drama, comics, animation, and video games from the Heian period to the present day. Students will assemble a foundational knowledge of Japanese religion and folklore while studying popular narrative traditions representative of their historical eras.

By peering into the liminal spaces connecting the living with the dead, students will develop critical thinking and media literacy through careful investigation into the matters that people of different times and places have perceived as monstrous, alien, and unspeakable. Issues of gender, sexuality, and ethnic minority status will receive special attention as we navigate theories relating to the cultural role and social relevance of ghosts. By the end of the semester, students will possess a broad perspective on Japanese narrative traditions and popular culture, as well as an understanding of how fantastic stories of the dead reflect the tangible experiences of the living.  

You can download a copy of the syllabus (here).
I’ve collected PDF files of the course readings on Dropbox (here).
If you’re interested, a copy of the course assignments handout is (here).
You can check out the work of artist who drew the banner image (here).

I’d like to acknowledge that this course was inspired by Professor Naomi Fukumori’s class “The Monstrous in Japanese Literature and Culture,” and I encourage anyone who is interested to check out the course syllabus (here).

Whisper of the Heart


My husband is a fan of European football, and he spends a lot of time scrolling through football Twitter under a pseudonymous throwaway account. Most of the accounts he follows are British. He got annoyed with not being able to watch the region-locked videos people linked to, so a week or two ago he set up a VPN. (If you’re curious, he uses ExpressVPN, which is $8 a month and seems to be working nicely for him.) His computer now registers as being in the UK, and he employs this for the nefarious purpose of watching a few minutes of football videos a day and being amused by the British ads that Twitter shows him (mostly for snacks).

Even though he doesn’t use it much these days, my husband never stopped paying for his Netflix account, and it recently occurred to him that, with a UK address, he could watch British Netflix.

So the other day I was standing in the kitchen waiting for tea to brew, and my husband was sitting on the couch looking at Netflix UK. I asked him if he’s found anything to watch, and he started complaining that Netflix keeps trying to show him animated movies. He told he that they look Japanese.

I was like, “Okay, yes, go on.”

And he was like, “Have you ever heard of Studio Ghibli?”

That’s when I realized that my husband had never heard of Studio Ghibli.

. . . . .

My husband enjoys movies, but he’s in his forties and comes from a country where there hasn’t been a culture of anime fandom until relatively recently. He likes the Makoto Shinkai movies we’ve watched, which he calls “documentaries about Japan,” so I thought that Whisper of the Heart would be the best Studio Ghibli movie to show him. He loved it.

I loved it too. It’s been about ten years since I last saw Whisper of the Heart, and I was not expecting it to hit as hard as it did.

Whisper of the Heart is about a middle-school girl named Shizuku who loves reading. Shizuku checks out books from the local library, and she’s noticed that there’s another kid’s name on almost all of the library borrower cards inside the covers of the books she reads. She ends up meeting this boy, who is her age but wants to study the craft of violin making in Italy instead of matriculating to high school. Inspired by his determination to follow his dream, Shizuku decides to follow her own dream of writing a fantasy novel.

Shizuku gets really absorbed in her writing. She tells a friend that she has no appetite because she’s too preoccupied with her novel, and then she eats shortbread cookies so she can stay awake while she’s writing in the evening. She stops hanging out with her friends after school so that she can fantasize about her novel while walking home. She only puts in the bare minimum of work necessary to get by at school, and her grades drop. She gets explosively irritated when people interrupt her while she’s writing. When she’s done with the story, she gets super neurotic about feedback. She cries a lot.

I was just sitting there, like, “Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

How dare Hayao Miyazaki come into my house and call me out like this.

. . . . .

The range of what my husband does and doesn’t know about internet culture is a mystery to me, so I was surprised when he asked me if the anime girl from the Lofi Hip Hop Radio channel on YouTube is modeled on the protagonist of Whisper of the Heart.

The answer is yes, of course she is. This reference is so obvious to me that I never thought about it as something other people might not get.

Because I teach upper-level seminar classes that don’t have any formal prerequisites, I spend a lot of time thinking about what my students do and don’t already know. I treat grad students like the educated adults they are, but it can sometimes be difficult to tell with undergrads. At George Mason, most of the students were either immigrants or the children of immigrants, but they had all gone through American public high school, so I could assume that they were vaguely aware of certain cultural touchstones. At UPenn, on the other hand, the students who went to public high school in America might actually be a tiny minority. Each new microgeneration of kids is going to create its own common knowledge base regardless of where they come from, so you have to be sensitive to that, but it’s just the nature of working with a large and heterogeneous group of people that there will be all sorts of things you don’t think about.

I went to college early, and then went to grad school right after college and got my PhD fairly quickly, so I was roughly in the same generation as my students for most of the time I was teaching. I’ve gotten older, though, as people tend to do. Now it surprises me when my undergrads are genuinely curious about Harry Potter because they’ve never read the books or seen the movies. Things I just absorbed by osmosis because I grew up with them are now units of knowledge that need to be explained, and that’s wild.

I can’t help but wonder if that’s what getting older is about – being able to pick up on more cultural references because I’ve had more years in common with the people who create media. And then I wonder when the cross-over point is going to be, like, when will I stop getting references because I’m so old that younger people no longer have any culture in common with me?

In any case, Whisper of the Heart is set in the 1990s but feels timeless. It’s still just as beautiful to me now as it was when I first watched it in college. The fact that the vast majority of anime fans under the age of thirty have probably never even heard of movie feels a little weird, but it’s also kind of nice. It’s wonderful that amazing stories were created in the past, but the genius and creativity of past work doesn’t need to be a burden, as there will always be cultural room to create stories in the future that build on the past but still feel fresh and new to each generation.

School’s Out

I’m like this at the end of every semester, but it hits especially hard this year.

It’s tough to get to know a group of interesting and talented people as you watch them learn and grow from week to week, only to then no longer see or talk to (most of) them ever again.

Video Games and Japan

This semester I’m teaching a class about The Wind Waker! I commissioned the artist Visi Herman (@visicolors on Instagram) to create the image above to use on promotional posters and flyers, which I hope to use to try to nudge the GMU Game Design program into crosslisting my “Video Games and Japan” course in the future. If you’re interested, I’ve posted a syllabus for this semester’s class here:

https://kathrynhemmann.files.wordpress.com/2019/01/japa-370-syllabus-spring-2019.pdf