The Plot

(Critical Survey of Science Fiction and Fantasy)

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Kwaidan translates as weird or horror tales. Lafcadio Hearn attributes most of the twenty stories in Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things to old Japanese books but adds that some were legends he acquired through informants. The entire book embodies his lifelong fascination with the exotic, particularly themes that associate the mysterious with the macabre and the morbid. These stories also suggest a faith in the ancient gods of all parts of the world based on the concept of the collective memory of humankind.

Mythological deities and forces represent the workings of nature and serve as instruments of communication with the infinite. Hearn uniformly conveys these elements of universal philosophy in Japanese dress. In the preface to an earlier collection, Some Chinese Ghosts (1887), he had described his work as that of “a man who tried to understand the Far East from books—and couldn’t,” but Kwaidan reflects Japanese culture throughout. Hearn considered ghosts as aspects of infinity, combining the god of nature with individual souls and manifestations of the Shinto notion that the world of the living is governed by the world of the dead.

One of Hearn’s favorites in the collection, “The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hchi,” was told to him by his Japanese wife. Hchi was a blind singer befriended by a Buddhist priest, who offered him food and lodging at a temple in return for periodic musical performances. One evening during the priest’s absence, the singer was summoned by a mysterious stranger to what he thought was a noble castle, where he was commanded to recite episodes from a famous battle song. When he was summoned on subsequent nights, the priest noticed his absence and had him followed. Hchi was found sitting alone, playing and singing in a cemetery surrounded by the spirits of the dead. The next night, when the stranger repeated his summons, Hchi refused to obey, and the stranger cut off his ears. When the priest discovered him the next morning, he explained that Hchi had been saved from death because holy texts had been written all over his body except on his ears. He recovered from his injuries but was henceforth known as Mimi-nashi-Hchi, or Hchi-the-Earless.

The gods’ influence appears in the story “Ubazakura,” which resembles a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (1-8 c.e. ). When a young girl falls ill, her wet nurse prays for her recovery. The girl gets better, but the nurse fails in health. She tells the family that in her prayers she had promised the gods to have a cherry tree planted if her prayers were answered. She dies, and the family plants the...

(The entire section is 676 words.)