Yokai Attack! Interview: Authors Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
Author: Dan Ross
Special thanks to Gregory Starr, Kodansha International Ltd.
A SciFi JAPAN EXCLUSIVE
A new book has arrived in the English speaking world on the Japanese phenomena known as “yokai”. These are the goblins that haunt the night in modern cities and reside in classic folktales. They are as old as Japanese mythology itself and as new as the latest urban legends. Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide takes a look at a selection of the mythical beasties and brings them to the Western world. Matt Alt and Hiroko Yoda are co-writers and creators of this field guide and they will take us behind the scenes on the creation of this book.
SciFi Japan: Matt, you’ve been working in Japan for a while now and in 2003 co-founded AltJapan Co., Ltd., a translation and localization service for entertainment production in video games, television and print media. What motivation and interests originally led you to Japan?
Matt: I’ve always been fascinated with Japan. As a kid I was obsessed with Japanese robots, toys in particular. I loved anime, video games, kaiju flicks — Godzilla and Gamera of course, but also the Ultraman series and (then) lesser known stuff like Daimajin or Gappa. I spent much of my youth (and let’s be honest, my adulthood as well) hunting for Japanese robot toys.
Almost from the start I was fascinated by the concept that somewhere far away lay this land of people who were as crazy about robots and monsters as I was. I grew up in Maryland, in the suburbs of Washington DC, and was very fortunate in that my local public high school offered Japanese classes, which was extremely rare at the time.
SFJ: How did AltJapan come about?
Matt: In the late 90s I was working at the US Patent and Trademark Office as a translator, but was getting a little tired of the daily grind there. Which isn’t to knock it — I mean, it’s the patent office, so of course you’re going to be translating patents every day. One day a translator friend approached me with an offer to translate a video game, and I jumped at the chance. Given my schedule then (I could only work on it at nights and weekends) it was impossible for me to do it all myself, so I asked Hiroko to help.
It turned out that we made a pretty good team together, and after doing a few more game translation jobs we decided to go into business for ourselves. A few years later we had enough steady work for me to quit my day job and focus on video game localization full time. We made the decision to relocate to Tokyo in 2003 and haven’t looked back since. Now we not only translate, but write and produce content together as well. It’s a lot of fun.
SFJ: Along with translation services you and your partner Hiroko Yoda have written some original titles such as Hello Please! Very Helpful Super Kawaii Characters from Japan (Chronicle Books, 2007) and currently Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide (Kodansha International, 2008). What was the inspiration for producing your own original content?
Hiroko: Basically, after years of interpreting other peoples’ works, both of us were itching to create something of our own. And there are so many “authoritative” guides to various aspects of Japanese culture written entirely by non-Japanese people. I’m Japanese, and I wanted to voice my own ideas and thoughts about the yokai myself.
Matt: There was an aspect of frustration to it too. There is all this amazing stuff about yokai in Japan, but so little in English. Both of us wanted to address that.
SFJ: Have you found the process, such as working with the publishers, particularly easy or difficult for creating your original content?
Hiroko: It depends. When you’re working with other people you have to be open to compromise. Sometimes it’s necessary to explain and convince your editor (or sales, or marketing) about certain approaches or ideas. Or, work around budget issues, what the production can and can’t afford. But on the other hand, it isn’t necessarily a bad thing to have your position questioned because it can broaden your horizons too.
Matt: Even in the middle of disagreements, you know that deep down everyone WANTS the book to be successful, so when there are conflicts over direction or content, at least everyone’s heart is in the right place. We’re pretty lucky in that we haven’t really ever had any serious problems on any of our book projects. Yokai Attack! was very smooth sailing. Greg Starr, our editor, was a huge supporter of the concept from the very beginning, and he introduced us to Andrew Lee, who did an amazing job with the page layouts. It’s honestly one of the smoothest projects we’ve ever been involved in.
Hiroko: It was almost spooky how the pieces fell into place.
SFJ: Let’s talk about your latest book Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide. Yokai, while having a great cultural relevance within Japan, have always been a hard sell to the Western world. Though a writer and artist of the yokai genre such as Shigeru Mizuki (Ge Ge Ge No Kitaro) is a Japanese household name, he, along with the yokai themselves are fairly obscure outside of the Pacific Rim. What brought you to the decision to write a book on yokai for the Western mainstream?
Hiroko: First of all, I love yokai. Of course I read and watched Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro as a kid. It will always have a place in my heart. But I also love traditional yokai art and ghost stories and tales of terror, the original material that Mizuki used as the basis for his own creation.
As for why I wanted to showcase the yokai abroad… Well, we touch on this in the book, but both of us feel that yokai represent the roots of Japanese pop culture. Huge amounts of anime, manga, and films have been exported abroad, some of them even featuring yokai-related themes, but the yokai themselves have been left behind. In Japan, the basic descriptions of many yokai are commonsense knowledge, across both genders and all age demographics. Everyone knows a kappa has a dish of water on its head. Or that a tengu has a long nose. Or that tanuki and kitsune are tricksters.
Matt: There’s all sorts of references to yokai in movies and films and even daily life that really sail over the heads of most foreigners. When you start looking for it, you realize that yokai are everywhere in Japan. There are tanuki statues outside of many restaurants. Tengu masks are everywhere. People drink Kirin Beer and eat kappa maki sushi. Yokai really do represent the pulse that beats beneath the surface of modern Japanese culture.
Hiroko: We wanted to introduce these stories to Westerners in an easy to understand way. There isn’t a lot of material on them in English. Most of what is available is pretty academic. We wanted to make something that was fun and engaging but still informational and useful.
SFJ: It seems that collecting stories about yokai has in itself tended to have an aspect of adventure about it. Whether it’s stories of 18th century scholar and artist Sekien Toriyama collecting stories door to door in the rural Japanese countryside or Shigeru Mizuki trading stories with Tolai natives during WWII, there’s always something interesting in the acquisition of these folktales. What sort of reference was used in collecting the information on the yokai featured in your book and did you have any adventures you’d like to relate?
Hiroko: I grew up on yokai stories as a young girl. Rumors about Kuchisake-onna (the slash-mouthed woman) were all over my elementary school, but even as a little girl that kind of thing never freaked me out — I always loved discussing her with my friends and hearing new stories about her.
But I did actually have a little adventure in the writing of the book. There’s a yokai called the Namahage, who lives up north in Japan’s “snow country” on the Oga peninsula. There’s a festival dedicated to the creatures held there every winter, and I wanted to photograph the locals, who dress up as Namahage for it. Matt was on a business trip, so I had to go by myself. It’s really far up in the mountains. At one point, I trudged through subfreezing temperatures and snow to a local shrine that’s part of the Namahage legend. But when I came back to the bus stop into town, I realized the next one wouldn’t come for a really long time. It was cold and snowing, and this local woman invited me into her home and gave me some warm miso soup, rice, and grilled fish. It was a really nice moment and it wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t been doing research for the book!
Matt: The other big “adventure” — if you could call it that — is that the designer’s laptop crashed just before the book was due to go to the printers, taking all of the page layouts with it! He had to rebuild the entire thing from scratch in a couple of sleepless nights. Talk about a real-life Yokai Attack… I’m glad he and the editor didn’t tell us until after it had been fixed, because Hiroko and I probably have had heart attacks.
SFJ: Since there are hundreds or maybe thousands of yokai, what was your process for pairing down to the 45+ yokai presented in the book?
Hiroko: It’s a guidebook first and foremost, so we knew we had to start with the basics, the most obvious and popular ones, like Kappa, Tengu, Tanuki, and things like that. Then we started adding ones we personally liked. It was important to make sure we had variety: not just monsters, but humanoid creatures, animal-like ones, even physical objects. There are a huge variety of yokai out there and we wanted to show that.
SFJ: The illustrator for this book is manga artist Tatsuya Morino, who was an assistant to the previously mentioned Shigeru Mizuki. He has kept his own adventures in yokai going in comics such as Kibakichi which was adapted into two movies as well as in video games such as YOKAI FAMILY from Gainax. How did Morino-san become involved your book?
Matt: Morino-san is a big fan of Japanese robot toys, as am I, and he’d heard about me through some mutual acquaintances here in Tokyo. We were introduced and I gave him a copy of the first book I worked on, Super #1 Robot. We actually spent that evening discussing Chogokin toys, diecast Japanese robots. He’s truly a renaissance man when it comes to Japanese pop culture. A year or so after that, when the Yokai Attack! proposal started coming together and we needed an illustrator, we naturally turned to him. We didn’t even consider anyone else and it was a lot of fun working together.
SFJ: His style for your book hearkens back to his sensei, Mizuki-san and is very effective. Was this a conscious choice?
Hiroko: You’ve got to understand that Morino-san is someone who, at the age of six or seven, figured out Mizuki-sensei’s address, took the train to his neighborhood, and knocked on his door asking for a job. Eventually, years later, he really did become Mizuki-sensei’s assistant, even living in a room in his attic.
He spent a big part of his life in the service of his childhood idol, and even though he’s gone independent and has his own style now, some of the master naturally remains in the pupil. We actually made a point to avoid emulating Mizuki’s interpretations of the yokai. We are all of course big fans of his work but wanted to create something of our own.
SFJ: Why the field guide style and do you feel it will slant the book towards a certain audience?
Matt: We had wanted to do a book about yokai for a very long time. As a kid I had a vague idea about them from comics and anime I’d picked up. But it was Hiroko who really explained their historical background and stories to me, showing me examples of art from hundreds of years ago. The more we talked the more both of us started wondering just why the heck they weren’t better known abroad.
Looking back the survival guide concept seems like an obvious choice, but we spent a long time trying to come up with some way to “package” the yokai in a new and easy to understand way for non-Japanese. We were insistent from the beginning that the book be fun and reach a mainstream audience. That’s one of the reasons why we picked the survival guide concept and aimed for a light tone throughout.
SFJ: There seem to be two primary sets of yokai fans in the Western world: the modern anime fans who have learned of yokai through shows such as NARUTO and INUYASHA, and the more hardcore scholars who take their studies of yokai from the classic folklorists such as Yanagita, Sekien and Mizuki. Do you feel your book will be slick enough for one type of fan and detailed and authentic enough for the other?
Hiroko: We based everything in Yokai Attack! on actual, historic folktales and legends, some of them many hundreds of years old. But we made sure to mention examples from pop culture wherever possible to show readers just how popular they still are in Japan. We deliberately avoided covering the yokai as portrayed in specific movies, anime, or comics, though, because those are all the artists’ individual interpretations of the yokai; they’re unique to the worlds the artists create.
We wanted to make something that was an actual resource and representative of the “conventional wisdom” (information passed down through folktales, legends, and local traditions) rather than how they appear in pop culture. But we think (hope?) it’s fun and accessible enough for anyone to enjoy. If it helps people pick out yokai in their favorite anime or films, though, so much the better!
SFJ: There are some other English language texts with mentions of yokai in them such as soon to be available again The Legends of Tono (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008) by early 20th century writer Kunio Yanagita, but no definitive modern encyclopedic books specifically on the subject. Do you feel this will be THE book on yokai in the Western world for some time, or is there currently enough interests fanning the goblin fires to create some healthy competition in English language books on Japanese folklore?
Matt: Well, we definitely saw a need for an English-language encyclopedia-style book about yokai aimed at a mainstream rather than academic audience. We hope people enjoy reading it as much as we did writing it! It was truly a labor of love. But the whole point of the book is that we didn’t invent the concept of yokai. They’re part of Japan’s cultural heritage. So if our book help opens the floodgates to yokai content from Japan and elsewhere, that would make us happy too.
Hiroko: Definitely. Yokai are really interesting to us because while they’re very old and very well known in Japan, their obscurity abroad actually makes them pretty cutting-edge there. I want the book to plant the seeds of an interest in Japan in readers.
SFJ: Since there are so many yokai to write about, will there be a volume 2 and beyond?
Hiroko: We hope so!
For more information on Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide please see Matt Alt’s blog and the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan: