Yokai University: Matt Alt Interview
Authors: Melanie Bourgeois and Dan Ross
Source: VIZ Media
Special Thanks to Erik Jansen
From October 23rd though November 6th, Viz Media and the New People Center in San Francisco’s Japantown hosted a spooky gallery of Japanese goblins known as yokai. The “Yokai University: San Francisco Campus” exhibit located in the lobby of Viz Cinema showcased original woodblock prints from classic Ukio-e master Hokusai to more contemporary manga artist Shigeru Mizuki, creator of GeGeGe No Kitaro. Along with the prints were video reels of yokai street parades and in glass cases, many classic and modern netsuke and toys. All in all a colorful, fun and educational display.
On October 31st at Viz Cinema, Matt Alt, founder of AltJapan and co-writer of the book Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, gave a free presentation on what yokai are all about. My wife Melanie and I attended. Me with a bit of knowledge about yokai and Melanie had no knowledge at all about them. We thought it would be interesting to get two different perspectives on Matt’s presentation. Matt explained the history of yokai and how to spot them and what to do if you come in contact with one. Can you run away? Can you bribe them? Sometimes one or the other and sometimes you might just be out of luck.
After Matt’s informative and fun talk and a book signing in the lobby, Melanie and I caught up with him for a few minutes to talk about the presentation from both our perspectives, and also looked in on the latest happenings at AltJapan…
SciFi Japan: What brings you out for this lecture today?
Matt Alt: They flew me out here specifically for this lecture. I was really touched by the invitation!
SciFi Japan: Was this through Kodansha [publisher of Yokai Attack!]?
Matt Alt: Actually it’s through Viz and the New People Center, in conjunction with Toei. I’m very grateful for their sponsorship.
SciFi Japan: And this is your first public lecture.
Matt Alt: Yes it’s my first public lecture and it probably showed but I was doing my best there, yeah…
SciFi Japan: We really enjoyed it!
Matt Alt: Alright thank you! This is my one regret, my huge regret is that Hiroko [Yoda, Matt’s wife and co-author] couldn’t join us. She taught me everything I know about yokai and is really the heart and soul of this book. Because of the way the situation worked she just wasn’t able to come out this time.
SciFi Japan: I’m very interested in Faerie folklore and mythology in general. There seems to be similarities between the different cultures, for example between the yokai and the fairies, or the trolls…
Matt Alt: Oh yeah, there is a lot of overlap.
SciFi Japan: And I was wondering do Japanese people “carry” yokai with them?
Matt Alt: It’s a good question! Actually there’s a famous example of this and it’s called the Mujina. [Kwaidan author] Lafcadio Hearn, who I talked about during the lecture, first talked about it. A Mujina looks like a human but they have no face. It’s totally smooth top to bottom. They look like they have a face at first but when they look back they don’t have a face. They love scaring people. In the 1960s they started appearing in Hawaii. There’s a big Japanese population in Hawaii. If you ask Hawaiians about the Mujina they all know what it is.
As Hiroko puts it, she loves the idea of yokai taking a vacation in Hawaii. We’ll take a vacation in Hawaii, why not the yokai? (laughter) But it’s definitely more about and we both agree on this, yokai are a part of the heart and soul of Japan and Japanese people. So wherever Japanese people are, yes, there could be yokai.
SciFi Japan: Yes, even out here there’s a big Japanese population…
Matt Alt: This is Japantown right, I saw some Tanuki in the windows out here.
SciFi Japan: You were talking about how the illustrator for Yokai Attack! [Tatsuya Morino] kinda didn’t like the idea of putting a burger in the hand of a yokai. Did you get a lot of resistance to that?
Matt Alt: Oh no, I hope I didn’t come across as he was argumentative, because that wasn’t the case at all. He was just surprised because he’s so used to drawing these in a way that just appeals to Japanese people. There traditionally hasn’t been any market for yokai abroad because nobody [outside of Japan] really knows what they are. We went into this with the expectation that we would be reaching out to foreign audiences.
So for example, I was talking about Tsukumogami in there… the haunted objects. Traditionally in Japan they are umbrellas, buckets, plates, things like that or a futon coverlette, that kind of thing. But in our book we drew the Tsukumogami as old radios, vacuum tubes, old phonographs, and those sorts of things. Because that’s the old type of items that would reanimate as Tsukumogami, so we decided to do that because it would have a little more grounding for foreign audiences.
SciFi Japan: But people are possessive about that?
Matt Alt: No, they aren’t upset by it or anything. The reactions we’re getting from Japanese is number one they were really happy that they were seeing English translations for a lot of these things, because they had no way to communicate about it. It’s so Japanese, so they were laughing along with us in a good way. For instance there’s one called Wanyuudou which we would translate as “fire wheel” is one of the alternate translations, and they’re thinking “oh yeah it IS a fire wheel, that’s true I never thought of that!” (laughter) And that kind of thing.
The Japanese reviews we were seeing would really laugh… like our Azukiarai is really fancy looking, and they’re like “he’s supposed to be this grizzled old man out in the countryside but wow, he’s so fancy!” (laughter) And they loved it! These are a fresh approach to the characters they know and love so much.
So yeah, we’ve never had any kind of resistance or anything. Japanese yokai fans that we know are very happy to broaden the knowledge and exchange information and stuff like that.
SciFi Japan: How’s the reaction to the book itself been?
Matt Alt: Japanese people are maybe frightened off by how much English text there is in there, but people have been buying it a lot in Japan and enjoying it for the illustrations. Morino-san, our illustrator, has a cult following in Japan and so his fans have been picking it up and stuff like that. But it was made for the foreign audience, it was made for the West and so that’s where it’s been mostly reviewed. We’ve been really happy with the reception.
I noticed actually between last year and this year’s Halloween people doing and talking about yokai related stuff really went through the roof. And of course I wouldn’t presume to take all the credit for that, or at all… and Hiroko certainly wouldn’t either but it was very cool to see it getting more popular and even if we aren’t responsible for that, I’m happy, and if we are responsible I’m happy too. (laughter) So it’s cool, yeah!
SciFi Japan: You mentioned that you would like to do more books about it, is it in the works or is like “one day”.
Matt Alt: It’s in the works in our heads, but we haven’t actually… there’s no concrete plans. We ARE working on another book that isn’t about yokai. I can’t go into the details about it right now but we’ll be announcing it a little bit later in the year or early next year. It’ll be due out in the Spring/Summer time frame. It’s not supernatural but it is very much in the vein of Yokai Attack! and we hope the fans will appreciate that. So yes, we have other books in the works.
We really like the concept of taking old Japanese culture and kind of, dusting it off is maybe not the right word, but re-tweaking a little to make it show modern audiences who are used to more modern types of entertainment how this is just as cool as anything they’re watching. It’s just as cool as the anime or manga that are out right now in it’s own way and if they know a little bit about it, they’ll be able to appreciate it that much more.
We’re into doing all sorts of stuff like that, so stay tuned!
SciFi Japan: What does this mean for AltJapan? Are you focusing more on books now or are you still doing a lot of translation for games and stuff like that?
Matt Alt: Our bread and butter is still what’s called “Localization”. We produce the English versions of Japanese video games, that’s our bread and butter and also comic books to a certain extent. But mainly games, we’ll not only translate the scripts but also produce the recording sessions, we’ll set up the studios and we’ll set up the voice actors and directors and auditions and stuff like that and then produce those recording sessions and deliver all that stuff back to the client. That’s our bread and butter, but we’ve also been getting into what’s called “Content Production” and that means making our own content of various kinds, the books are one aspect of that.
We’ve also been recently doing a lot of work as field producers for National Geographic producing short segments throughout Japan on a variety of topics and I’ll be posting more information about that, but it’s for this show called WOW that’s going to be debuting next year on National Geographic television. So we’re doing a lot of fun stuff like that too.
We’re kind of Jack of All Trades. We get so much satisfaction.. we don’t make a living off of the books or anything like that, we get satisfaction from doing them that it’s just kind of a passion of ours.
SciFi Japan: Lectures like this make the subject seem concrete and easy to access, are you planning on making further presentations?
Matt Alt: I would love to keep doing presentations like this, but Hiroko and I, our entire modus operendi, if you want to call it that, our entire approach is taking Japanese pop culture and interpreting it in a way that people outside of the country can appreciate it without watering down what it is. Because it’s really easy to just be like, “oh this is wacky, Japanese people are just crazy or nutty” or something like that and laugh at it… the point is to laugh with it, to laugh with Japanese people at it, the point is to kind of understand it.
There’s reasons that these creatures were created, they didn’t just pop out of peoples’ heads for no reason. And kind of going into the background story this isn’t just related to yokai even, all sorts of things. Hiroko and I are fascinated by Japanese history and culture and she and I are a really great team. Either one of us could do this together, I certainly couldn’t do it without her and I don’t think she could do it without me. She’d be the first one to say that, and I think that’s our strength. She’s a woman I’m a man, she’s Japanese, I’m American and we bring all these differences together into a focused form, in this case Yokai Attack! but in everything we do.
That’s what we do, so… and we do it for YOU! (laughter)
SciFi Japan: Well it worked very well.
Matt Alt: Thank you.
For more information on Yokai Attack! and other yokai-related topics, please see Matt Alt’s blog and the earlier coverage here on SciFi Japan:
- THE GREAT YOKAI WAR
- New Book Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide
- Yokai Attack! Interview: Authors Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt
- TOTORO FOREST PROJECT Charity Auction
- KITARO on Region 1 DVD and Blu-ray
- KITARO AND THE MILLENNIUM CURSE
- KITARO now on UK DVD
- Free Halloween Exhibit: Yokai University San Francisco Campus