‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ Brings Japanese Folklore To The Masses

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In an email interview with WIRED, Yoda explains the long tradition of how yokai and Japanese ghost stories are told. One of the most important aspects, when it comes to Ghostwire’s unique tone, is the distinction between yokai and yurei. Although the two terms often conflate in popular culture as “yokai,” she describes those spirits as referring to “something,” while yurei refers to “a someone.”

While yurei “are intimately associated with the afterlife” and “generally manifest when someone is horribly mistreated and dies unjustly”, to take revenge “or just make their torment known to everyone”, yokai, as representatives of all kinds” phenomena” ranging from disasters to strange noises to even simple things like feeling a brush against your legs when nothing is there are usually not so much “dangerous presences, but things that startle or surprise you.” Like Ghostwire itself, they can be sad, funny or, perhaps most interestingly, used as vehicles for social commentary.

This last aspect of Yokai storytelling is immediately apparent in the game. A story in a Ghostwire text log features headless ghosts in school uniforms who complain about the number of followers beyond the grave and are exorcised when their social media accounts are followed. The Noppera-Bo-like visitors who make up the game’s enemies are all described in Ghostwire’s codex as incarnations of various ordinary struggles. Faceless women in customer service uniforms are “born of a life spent maintaining a lackluster facade, with empty smiles always at the ready.” They are now spreading “the same negative energy they had to carry.” Men in business suits are “born from the hearts of those whose work has driven them to the point of utter exhaustion,” while other yurei are embodiments of “pessimism fueled by an empty existence” or “the sense of resignation felt by those whose desires disappear unfulfilled.” Kenji Kimura calls these “evil spirits” images of the “very strong negative emotions felt when we, as humans, enter different, new phases in our lives.”

Yoda explains that it’s far from a new way of thinking about ghosts, but yurei stories “can be seen as a kind of moral instruction: don’t mistreat others in this way.” Yokai, on the other hand, are often “morally instructive,” used as a bogeyman to prevent, in an example both she and Masato Kimura cite, children from playing near water by characterizing the abstract possibility of drowning as a potentially terrifying water yokai like the Kappa. Yoda cites the subcategory Tsukumogami yokai as another example of this type of social instruction. Tsukomogami consists of everyday objects “that were thrown away carelessly” before returning as moving tools that “got angry and started parading around indignantly”. This “kind of early consumer culture satire” appears in Ghostwire through what is perhaps the most famous depiction of a Tsukumogami: a long-tongued, pogo-hopping umbrella yokai named Karakasa Kozo.

Noriko Tsunoda Reider, professor of Japanese at the University of Miami and author of books including Japanese Demon Lore: Oni From Ancient Times to the Present and the more recent Mountain Witches: Yamauba, writes in an email interview with WIRED that “notes of good and evil affect yokai characters of all kinds and dimensions,” especially in the way they “often reflected the Buddhist teachings of the time,” such as “karma and reincarnation.” Reider also mentions Tsukumogami, who were used not only to discuss consumer culture, but also to “critique other religious sects of the time”. She points to the “strong social commentary on power, money, loyalty and treatment of women” in the play Ghost Story of Yotsuya and the “fierce satire” of early 20th century Japanese society written in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s folklore novels. framed novel Kappa as well.

The framework for Ghostwire’s plot is also reminiscent of a psychological scar from recent Tokyo history. The game’s waves of deadly fog, seen from a culturally specific standpoint, are eerily reminiscent of the 1995 subway sarin gas attack launched by the Aum Shinrikyo sect, whose leader, like Ghostwire’s terrorist mastermind Hannya, is a radical, millennial destruction of the body preached in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. (Far from a forgotten tragedy, a terrorist attack related to Aleph, the name of Aum Shinrikyo’s current incarnation, took place in 2019.)

This evocation of yokai as part of apocalyptic events is not unprecedented. Yoda mentions that “yokai often manifests itself in difficult times to help people process the things they are struggling with.” She cites a Twitter trend where an obscure 19th-century “pest yokai” named Amabie was repurposed, thanks to an account that mentioned it in connection with an 1846 newspaper article. The article reported that Amabie rose from the ocean and asked to be pulled and shown to people if an epidemic breaks out. The Covid-19 pandemic caused Amabie to circulate and gain modern relevance as, Yoda writes, “a kind of guardian angel or symbolic talismanic character of the pandemic, protecting people from disease, or [controlling] the pandemic and [making] it disappears.” While Yoda writes that “nobody in Japan believes this silly drawing will actually solve the current pandemic,” it’s being used by the nation — and government — as something that can help make an event as amorphous and terrifying as a pandemic something. to make it more manageable.

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