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Last Thursday Review: Silence Fallen and Etched in Bone

So this month is a little special, in that I will be tackling two novels for review. Am I feeling a bit guilty for only reviewing a 40 page graphic novel last month, and trying to make up for that? Nope. I just happened to be lucky enough to have two novels  was waiting for come out on exactly the same day. It was like finding that health vile hidden in the corner of the room when you were just 1 HP away from “Game Over” when you saved the file for hours. So this month I will be presenting Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs, and Etched in Bone by Anne Bishop. Two sides of a similar coin when it comes to alternate modern world fiction.

As always, I will preface the review with a mild spoiler warning; I will do my very best to keep the juicy bits of the story under wraps, and I will try to avoid speaking too much about plot. If you are like me and enjoy jumping blindly into the rad and letting the twists and turns take you where they will, hopefully this will give you a sense of what you are in for without giving away anything much. If you want to be cautious and save absolutely everything but what you read on the book jacket for your own discovery, I won’t be hurt if you stop reading right this instant, just keep me in mind and come back after you’ve read the book (We could have a tete-a-tete about the finer points, I am absolutely certain.)

SILENCE FALLEN by PATRICIA BRIGGS (4.5 out of 5)

Silence Fallen is the 10th instalment in the Mercedes Thompson Series by Patricia Briggs, an epic bard of the urban fantasy genre. We have followed Mercedes, our Mercy, through thick and thin. From the military abductions and experimentation, to the vest uncertainty that is Underhill, she has led us on quite a journey. This time, we see Mercy further from home than we’ve ever seen her. Patricia’s delving into the actual past in this story, into the Old World of Europe and the even older things that inhabit it, reminds me a bit of the whimsy created by Kevin Hearne in The Iron Druid Chronicles, when Atticus ventures through Europe (thinking specifically the sort of romantic atmosphere he created when he spoke of the Polish Witch Coven).

Briggs’ approach to this novel is quite interesting; as always we read Mercy in her own voice, experience everything through her eyes. However, in order to tell the diverging stories, this time she also had to split her party. While we do not experience the story as Adam in the “I” voice, we still decidedly see what he experiences through his eyes, though somewhat less reliably than Mercy. This has to do with the of first person for Mercy, while staying with third person when speaking of Adam and his entourage.

Briggs had taken us through the gamut of the creatures in her world; we’ve been inside the wolf pack, as well as outside of it, with and against the Fae and the Grey Lords, and surrounded by Vampires (Who honestly play the longest game ever, no one ever really seems to be able to determine which side they will fall on, just that it had best benefit them). This time, after the events in Fire Touched, we finally see  a larger united front, a true ‘adventuring party’, where a little bit of everything comes together. The Fae are relegated to a less central role in this story. This could have either been a conscious choice, as the last novel focused so strongly on them, or a side effect of moving the story to Europe, which Briggs has established, since the beginning of the story, as a place that is virtually void of Fae, since the creation of Cold iron and the need to hide the magic.

As far as Silence Fallen goes, I feel that it delivers exactly what I have come to expect from a Mercy novel, with the same sort of addictive quality that makes Briggs’ books so difficult to put down once you start reading. She does this all while introducing us to a new host of characters. We meet some of Europe’s movers and shakers, people that Bran left behind when he came to the new world. Libor  and the Vltava Pack in Prague, Bonarata and the Vampires of Italy, and some very interesting ghosts, just to name a few. As always, Mercy manages to stumble into more trouble than initially would have come her way, all while mostly being able to take care of herself . We also see the return of one of my favourite small characters, Elizaveta, the Russian Witch. Honestly, I would absolutely love it if Briggs gave us a book just about the live and experiences of Elizaveta. She is a little bit grandmother like, but also steel and unforgiving power. If Briggs had not already brought us the Baba Yaga before, I would almost be strongly inclined to think Elizaveta was hiding something else.

There were a few points of minor confusion, either because I missed some tiny clue or a switch occurred that wasn’t entirely explained. After it happened it did make me look back over the previous passages to see if I could spot what it was, but I was still unable to put my finger on the reality of it. I won’t speak to much more on that point though, because I don’t want to venture too far into speaking of plot points.

So, overall, Silence Fallen earns a very strong 4.5 Stars from me. Maybe I am biased, in that I have read this series since the initial release, and wait on the edge of my seat for a new addition to the series (Sometimes with barely contained glee and excitement when the preview chapter goes up online). It’s release also came at a hard time, as the author unexpectedly lost her husband just weeks before the release. So it may be some time before we return to Mercy, the werewolves, and our other ‘friends who may or may not like to eat us’, but I will wait patiently for that day.

ETCHED IN BONE by ANNE BISHOP (3.5 out of 5)

Coming off the excitement that was Visions in Silver, Etched in Bone left me a little wanting for content. Where Visions in Silver felt like a massive leaping point for change, Etched in Bone felt  a bit lacking, a lull in an otherwise usually very exciting world. As the 5th book in the series, it may just be that the author is trying to tie up some ends, to give the reader bits and pieces more on things she had hinted at before.

As far as the story goes, it seems to drag a little bit in this book. There is some stagnation, and some contrived “thriller” elements that are somewhat predictable. I have really enjoyed this world before, and was excited to see where it was going, especially after the world remembered what threat was right outside their doors, that didn’t really need them to survive. Our larger world had shrunk down to basically just the courtyard and a few other areas. For a novel series that held a strong, wanting to be independent character at its centre, we actually spend fairly little time with Meg this time around, and even less time in the Liaison office. Was this sacrificed in order to create the tension between members of the human pack, so that the Others and the Elders could see small-scale power struggles instead of just large-scale events? Either way, there is a decided lack of threat and colour in this one. The baddie is exactly who you expect, and he does exactly what you expect. Bishop may even go slightly too far in order to paint him like a stereotypical baddie, lacking the subtlety that would have worked to help emphasise the ease with which a human can compromise the herd for the benefit of the self.

Meg and Simon are exactly as you would expect, and Bishop does not elevate the level of sexual tension between them, though there is a decided focus on their relationship (As there has been from the beginning); all in all, the characters are just as they have been, perhaps with a little bit more struggle on Meg’s part, and a little bit more confusion on Simon’s. Perhaps we even spent more time with the fully human element than ever before, as they try to deal with the lack of a face for the Humans First Movement, while still suffering and dealing with the consequences wrought back those actions. It is like they are walking a line, somewhere between cohabitation and beneficial relationships, and everything just falling apart, back to how it was before. We do see a decided return to the “Other” portion of the others, as they try to deal with things in ways that even they are unaccustomed to (Focused on a single target threat, rather than a whole score of adversaries).

In my opinion, the real moment of true build up also fell a little flat, or maybe, just a little too ‘human’? The anticipation and build up did not lead the expected impact, and it felt perhaps just a little rushed for what it was.

Possibly the greatest piece of growth in the whole story comes from Skippy, as he pushes to be part of the group despite his difficulties. In this, we also get a closer look at Ms Twyla, Crispin Montgomery’s mother, who turns out to seem much more wolf mother anything else, as she somehow seems to hold the fort and make the stands where others are unable to (At times, it even seems like she outranks Simon). Personally, I was moved by Skippy’s advancement as a character, maybe because his innocence reminds me of that innocence that was so integral in Sam, when Meg first worked him out of his shell.

As much as it pains me to say it, this may be the logical point to end the series, as I cannot see another crescendo to large action, and what follows might just be too close a resemblance to wish fulfilment and fan fiction, unless this was just a piece that was necessary to bridge one larger event to another, in which case it may have served just to tie some ends together for the readers before launching them towards something new in the world. The biggest threats within the human world have largely been dealt with (though Bishop keeps hinting at another larger threat coming to the Blood Prophets, there was only a very small build toward it in this instalment).

Over all, I would give Anne Bishop’s Etched in Bone a 3.5 out of 5. I can’t say that I enjoyed it as much as the first 4 novels in this series, and most certainly not as much as Silence Fallen, but I can’t deny the fact that I still had trouble putting it down, as I read it in hopes that something grand would happen. If this was not the end of the series, I hope that the next novel is a massively moving piece of fiction, willed with the tension and excitement that the series started out with. 

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Avidas, Readers! Spotlight on The Return of Rat Queens

For the past two years, I have been an absolute regular at my local comic store. They know my name, and pretty much the exact time I come in each week. Usually they have my comics already set aside for me, and they know my tastes as well, or even better, than I do when it comes to picking out new titles. They are really some of the most amazing people I have the opportunity to know. They, as much as the books I read, are why I love my weekly experience, and look forward the chance to chat and catch up with them.

This week I am extremely excited to go for my weekly pick up on Wednesday, as I know that there will be something very special waiting for me. Something that I have giddily been anticipating.

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Illustration by Stjepan Sejic

March 1st, 2017, marks the relaunch of Rat Queens, with a new number one, a new arc , and a new artist at the helm. Rat Queens is a series that focuses largely on a party of female adventurers. However, instead of feeling like something pulled from the pages of Dragon Magazine or Dragon Lance, the Rat Queens definitely feels more like a group of very close friends, sitting around a table and playing an honest to goodness game of Dungeons and Dragons, no holds barred; meaning it is rife with foul language, sex, drugs, ridiculous conflict resolution, and just a shit load of absolute crazy. The four main characters, all females, are exciting characters, and their pasts and presents thrilling and engaging. In the sea of super heroes and scantily clad women of fantasy, Rat Queens provides a breath of fresh air for the genre. As Image Comics is fairly creator run when it comes to story and content, it offers some truly inspired and entertaining series, featuring powerful women who are no longer just the arm candy or the damsels in distress, or even token members of a cast.

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Personally, I am a fan of Hannah, the foul-mouthed, dark magic welding mage (Elf? Pact born? Still so much to know about her, though she is currently defined as ‘elf’ on the wiki page), as well as Dee, the former cultist cleric who both kicks ass and saves it. Maybe it is because these two resonate with the types of characters I like to play. Either way, I absolutely loves the first fun, and still fondly page through the previous columns when I get the chance.

Written by Kurtis Wiebe, this series has been one of the shining lights of my collection, and a series that I recommend (and force) on all my friends.

Now, this is a relaunch of the series with a brand new number one. In the previous run, writer Kurtis Wiebe ran into a few issues with artists, including deciding to take Roc Upchurch out of the position due to an arrest for spousal battery ( according to an interview, Wiebe states that the decision was made because it didn’t make sense to have that kind of baggage going on with a series of strong female characters and views), short turn over, and ‘creative differences’ ( thought some of the events surrounding the parting with the last series artist remain a little hazy). This eventually led to a hiatus, with a mid story arc drop off.

For this new birth of the series, Wiebe has teamed up with artist Owen Gieni, who in my option is absolutely astounding, both as an artist and an individual. Gieni’s other series include Shutter and Manifest Destiny, both of which I would recommend. I have the luck to meet both Wiebe and Gieni in September 2016, when they attended that Saskatoon Entertainment Expo, and I spent a fair bit of my time fan-girling between their tables and the line up to meet Carrie Fisher.

As with any relaunch of a series, there is always a little bit of hesitance to immediately pick up an issue. Anyone who has been reading comics or graphic novels knows that sometimes a relaunch of a title is worse than simply letting it fade away. Take both Marvel and DC, who have revamped and relaunched some of their major titles so often that there’s an absolute spider web of ‘continuity’, and often gaps that leave the reader wondering which past is relevant and which can be left aside. From what had been put out there in regard to this relaunch, I am quite certain that this will not be the case with Rat Queens.

Wiebe, Gieni, and a host of other comics creators have lent their hands to the relaunch of the series, putting out weekly additional content in the form of comic shorts (My personal favourite is by Stjepah Sejic, best known for insanely beautiful artwork, comics, and Sunstonewhich just wrapped its 5 book arc this January). All of that additional content can either be found on Wiebe’s web page, or Gieni’s Twitter ( @owengieni), as the prep for the imminent launch date. Up until launch day, Wiebe and Owen are celebrating the 12 days of Queensmas, showcasing a new piece of art each day. These only serve to make it even more difficult to wait to pick up that first issue this Wednesday.

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The creators have said that the relaunch of Rat Queens will be a pick up, rather than a complete revamping of the mythos and lore of the series. Hannah will still be brooding, mysterious, and likely using magic that she probably should not be. Dee and Violet will bring the hurt. Betty will, of course, bring the mischievousness and the drugs. It is also my hopes that The Dave’s will be back and more ready than ever to Dave it up. Some of the promotional content has also hinted at the fact that there may even be a new member, the impressive Braga. With the promises that have been leaking from the helm team of Rat Queens, this is going to be something that every fan, new and old, will enjoy.

With Wiebe continuing to write the series, and with Owen Gieni as the main artist, this is a relaunch that I am absolutely psyched up for. With Wiebe’s ability to write strong, motivated female characters who leap of the page, and Gieni’s talent with colours and drawing the eye across the story, the world of the Rat Queens will once again come alive.

If you are a fan of the series and were saddened by the hiatus and the break off of the previous story, or a fan of other work by Owen Gieni or Kurtis Wiebe, I would encourage you to get to your local comic book store and pick up the first issue when is comes out, March 1st, 2017.

Beware N’rygoth, happy reading, and Sidas,

Megan

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Publication news!

So, it has been a considerable amount of time since my last post. Life has been a little busy, and I have let a few things fall by the wayside. However, there is exciting news. Quite some time ago I answered a call for entries for a new encyclopedia, focused wholly on amassing information and entries pertaining to Japanese horror cinema. The process was both educational and quite fun, considering it was absolutely right up my alley.

The initial research was a bit painstaking, as it took some time to find the various films and individuals who I chose for my entries (of course, these all came from a pre-established list set forth by the volume editor). With the media in hand, I set out to do my research, watching the films and doing my best to capture the themes, plot, and vital information that would be important to crafting my entries.

As with these things, there was a lot of down time between submission and review, but as of August 15th, 2016 (tomorrow, very exciting), this collection will be released.

In others words, I have been published alongside some of the more known names in the area of  Japanese popular culture and film studies (Like Jay McRoy, Jim Harper, Jeffrey Bullins, Joanne Bernardi, etc.)

It is really a remarkable collection of information. My particular entries focused on Actor, director, and icon Izumiya Shigeru, The Guinea Pig CollectionNoroi (2005), and Death Powder (1986).

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The Encyclopedia of Japanese Horror Films

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The Forest: A history of Japan’s “Sea of Trees”, Aokigahara

As a historian and horror enthusiast, I am always both excited and apprehensive when a horror film draws on the byline “Based on a True Story or True Events”, as so often that true story has been warped and torn in so many ways that the truth which inspired the initial horrific reaction is muted in favour of sensationalism and loud scream-y “jump out” moments. It’s why I am a much bigger fan for movies like “Gojira” and “The Devil’s Backbone” than I am for the mistake that was “The Chernobyl Diaries.” What is worse is the fabrication of horror films based on a completely fake history, or one that takes the tragic history of an event or location and renders it trivial, hidden behind the “story” that is created based on the stories based on the real experiences.

I have spent no small amount of time researching the history of such a place, that is about to reach an even wider audience that it has since the mid 1990’s and early 2000’s as a place of real tragedy.  Aokigahara, known as both “The Sea of Trees” and “The Suicide Forest”, is such a place. I am fascinated by the long history of tragedy, and of cultural association with death, that the forest has endured. On the North-facing slope of Mount Fuji, arguably one of the most iconic places, both spiritually and culturally for the people of Japan, lies a forest of trees so dense and old, that getting lost and never returning from within is not only a fear, but in fact an inspiration and a lure for those who have suffered the many trials of living in the modern world.

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

Peter Ten Hoopen, Dutch photographer on Aokigahara

The forest has appeared in Japanese fiction, popular/pulp culture, manuals for death, and even been the subject of psychological study since the mid 20th century. Some are drawn by this very “macabre” culture, drawn by the accumulation of death and the forbidden idea. Others seek the loneliness of the forest to make their final escape from life, driven by depression, social pressure to succeed, financial hardship; it is there that they go to disappear, where the must feel that the burden they assume they carry will not pass on to others when they die. The forest also draws those who seek to help; signs caution those who seek to disappear that there are others who can help them, debt services, an ear to listen (Though mental health issues are still a major concern in Japan at this time, due both to stigma and to a lack of adequate supports within the healthcare system). Others, like Azusa Hayano, walk the forest in hopes of discovering the desperate before it is too late, to bring them back to the world and give them the help they need. However, there is a large chance that, venturing far enough into the densely packed forest, they will instead encounter the long missed remains of the very ones they want to help. Shoes, empty bottles and pill packets, and ropes are among the foliage. Where they cannot help the living, there are those who would seek to help the dead; Buddhist monks often dedicate time to walking the forest, either between the trees or around the perimeter, to pray for those departed, to offer their spirits a proper mourning, so that they will not return as ghosts to lure more individuals into the lullaby of death.

Since 2010, American producers and directors have released no less than 4 films which focus on Aokigaraha; all but one of these films is from the horror genre (Notably, 2015’s Gus van Sant film “The Sea of Trees”, seeks a different dramatic approach to the forest, and what it represents). Conversely, the most apparent title from Japan was released in 2013, titled “Aokigara”, and directed by Taku Shinjou, is also a drama/mystery, rather than a horror film. Coming alter this week is another addition to the horror genre’s repertoire starring Aokigahara. “The Forest“, directed by  Jason Zada, written by Ben Ketai, Nick Antosca, and Sarah Cornwell, and staring Natalie Dormer, is set to be released to North American theatres on January 8th, 2016. While The United States’ Golden Gate Bridge is similarly infamous as a site for suicide,  it has already received a rather intimate treatment as a documentary, while Aokigahara seems to feature more prominently in North American films as a “spooky haunted place of supernatural proportions.

While the intersection of horror and history is always interesting, there is something to be said about knowing the real history, and the cultural and social role that such places and stories have. Above everything, Aokihgahara is a place of tragedy, A place that must be understood, based on its long history in association with death and suicide. To merely see it as a “spooky forest”, a “supernatural hive of evil” or “that place where people go to kill themselves”, is a mistake. Aokigahara is much more, and its story should not be swept under the rug of theatrics and superficial scare moments and special effects (I can’t say anything for the movie plot itself yet, as I have not had the chance to see it, though I likely will see it shortly after release). While it is true that there are many who have ventured into the forest and never returned or been found, we cannot forget that they went to disappear, that they felt it was their last option. It must be remembered that this is not merely a place where the trees grow so close together that it is easy to lose your way, that without the proper navigational equipment you may be going in circles, or where the wind blowing through the branches may seem to call out for others to join the countless others who have walked through the trees before. It is a place of dep spiritual connection, of desperation, and of tragedy and loss. It indicated and highlights serious  social issues, and as such is a serious place, that must be given the respect it deserves.

Be warned, some might find this topic difficult to deal with, and this research is still in progress, as much of the more recent sources for historical comparison are not readily or easily obtainable. If the history of Aokigahara as a spiritual place, or as a suicide pilgrimage point does not interest you, I encourage you instead to watch either one or both of the documentaries linked at the bottom of the post, as they are informative both on the subject of Aokigahara, and the reality of suicide in Japan.


Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

Photo credit: Rob Gilhooly

THE FATALISTIC PILGRIMAGE IN JAPAN

Aokigahara-jukai and the Translocation of Mount Fuji’s Sacred Identity

For the Japanese, Mount Fuji is a place of cultural and spiritual memory; it is the most recognized symbol of Japanese culture, and a spiritual beacon shrouded in mythology, mystery, and beauty which is unlike any other place in the world. In her late 19th Century travel letters, Isabella Bird described Fuji as a mountain of lonely majesty, and reports that she understood why it was so spiritually and culturally valued by the Japanese.1 While Mount Fuji is an awe-inspiring representation of natural beauty, it is not alone in the Fujigoko area in having a sacred identity. Caressing the North-Western flank of the mountain rests the 3,500 hectare forest of Aokigahara-jukai,2 called the Sea of Trees, but more popularly documented as ‘The Suicide Forest’. Aokigahara is a place that has been shaped as much by its spiritual associations as by its actual history. Left untouched by the push for Japanese modernity,3 Aokigahara has become the terminus for a macabre pilgrimage tradition, where despair and an eerie sense of foreboding permeate the atmosphere. Long associated with demons and yurei (ghosts),4 since the 1970’s the forest has become an infamous locale where weary Japanese venture in order to end their lives. Scholarly documentation concerning Aokigahara is sparse in comparison to the research that has been done concerning the spiritual and historical role of Fuji, but there is a strong cultural and spiritual connection between these two spaces.

Aokigahara shares in Fuji’s sacred identity in a very interesting manner, and also has its own associations with cultural memory that make it a pilgrimage location in its own right. However, while Fuji could in all likelihood continue to thrive and exist without the presence of Aokigahara, it might be argued that the forest requires the mountain in order to retain its identity and to be understood as a meaningful cultural space. However, due to the vast number of suicides, as well as the haunting atmosphere of the forest itself, Aokigahara has come to be considered the most haunted space in all of Japan.5 Fuji and Aokigahara are a linked space not only due to their proximity, but also because of shared history and the translocation of sacred identity. As will be argued, this allows such polar opposites of beauty and the macabre to be juxtaposed. Fuji and Aokigahara are two sides of the same coin; both are locked in cultural memory and steeped in spirituality, despite the differences in their individual identities.

Understanding Aokigahara-jukai’s appeal as a site of fatalistic pilgrimage first requires an investigation Fuji’s cultural identity as a sacred space. This will be achieved by looking at the sacred value of mountains in the Japanese culture, and particularly at the history of Fuji as a sacred space associated with death. Next, the concept of pilgrimage and the attitudes in regards to suicide in the Japanese culture will be examined. Finally, a closer look at the history of Aokigahara-jukai will reveal how history and association have shaped the forest into a pilgrimage site in Japanese cultural memory. Aokigahara provides pilgrims with a private space which Fuji, as a highly trafficked destination for both foreign tourists and Japanese, cannot. The forest is a sacred space, steeped in cultural memory, and creates a private locale where distraught, desperate, and despondent individuals can completely disappear.

In order to make the connection between sacred space and the pilgrimage which takes place in Aokigahara, the identity and history of Fuji must be briefly addressed. There is no question that Fuji played an important role in the creation of Japanese national and spiritual identity; it is historically one of the most sacred spaces in all of Japan. Despite the role Fuji played in nationalistic fervour during World War II,6 its reputation and importance remained unharmed and untainted even when General Douglas MacArthur, as Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers (S.C.A.P.), forbade Japanese film directors from showing Fuji during the Occupation.7

The sacred and spiritual identity of Fuji was established by Shinto and folk tradition, which are based largely on reverence for nature and the natural world. Later, Buddhist practices in the area reinforced this sacred reverence by linking both the Buddhist paradises of Dainichi and Amida to the peak of the mountain.8 In establishing an understating as to why mountains, in particular Fuji, play such a role in Japanese spirituality, Edmond Rochedieu’s text Le Shintoïsme cites two important principles. First, Rochedieu states that the religious value of any mountain is based on its presence in daily life and practices.9 Considering that Japan’s geography is 70% mountainous,10 and that Fuji is still visible from Tokyo barring certain atmospheric conditions,11 it is not difficult to understand how mountains would take on a role of great sacred and spiritual power in early folk practices. A triumvirate of sacred association exists between Mount Fuji, Buddhist Bodhisattva’s,12 and Japanese kami. These associations allowed Fuji to retain its unique sacred and national identity in cultural memory despite the fluctuations in belief and national political sentiments over the course of Japan’s modernization.13 This can be argued to make Fuji a space which exists both in the capacity as a provider of identity, as well as a deeply important sacred icon, for the people of Japan.

Most importantly for the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji onto Aokigahara, Rochedieu emphasizes that mountains were perceived as locations where it was possible to invoke the souls of the deceased.14 In the vicinity of Fuji, a place that also exists outside the mundane world, such a belief is supported by mythology, folk practices, and religious traditions. This triumvirate served to establish Fuji as a pilgrimage destination early on, as it provided the necessary spiritual, religious, and environmental connections. There are many small shrines dotting the area,15 in addition to the purification lakes used by those making the traditional Fuji pilgrimage.16 The whole area offers a great spiritual security, and can be understood as affirming a sense of belonging to the larger identity of Japan. However, the mountain itself is an open space, offering little privacy. Because of this lack of privacy, Fuji itself is not able to provide the proper atmosphere for the ultimate and final pilgrimage of one seeking to take his or her own life.

Byron Earhart’s Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan says that “through history Fuji has been celebrated more as a religious or sacred site and as a cultural and aesthetic ideal.”17 Social and religious history in Japan supports a wide variety of pilgrimage concerns, ranging from leisure pursuits to self-sacrifice. Also, pilgrimages of self-sacrifice are well documented in the history of Fuji. Take for example Jikigyo Miroku. He was the leader of a Fuji-centric Buddhist sect in the Edo period, and within his sect promoted Mount Fuji as “the pivot-stone of the Three Lands,”18 increasing its spiritual and cultural importance to a new level. Based on the idea that Mt. Fuji is the fulcrum of China, Japan, and India, Miroku scripted his suicide, planning to make the ultimate pilgrimage to the summit of Fuji. However, such action was forbidden by the shrine in control of the summit, Sengen in Fujinomiya, due to a spiritual concern that such a death would pollute and defile the purity of the mountain.19 With his original plan thwarted, Miroku chose instead to establish himself in a cave on the Northern slope of the mountain, above the Eboshi-iwa, or 7th station, facing the forest of Akiogahara.20 In 1733, Miroku committed himself to thirty-one days of fasting and meditation, and died as he had predicted.21 This choice of location is interesting, as it resembles a similar religious sacrifice which took place much earlier, inside the forest of Aokigahara. Historically, religious deaths, especially suicides and sacrifices by Buddhist teachers, were seen to “sever as models on which future deaths might be patterned.22 Based on this idea, it can be argued that since Miroku’s time the spiritual associations connected to Fuji have continued to evolve, with the mountain serving equally as a symbol of the sacred and place of cultural memory, as well as a beacon for the ideal death, as its connection with suicide, especially suicides committed for the salvation of others, dates back centuries.

When looking at the nature of pilgrimage traditions, it is important to note that the summit of Fuji is not always the ultimate goal, or the most significant space; the true goal of any Japanese pilgrimage lies in achievements of a more spiritual nature,23 and relies on the experience of some sort of cathartic personal realization.24 In addition, Buddhist thought dictates that the nature of a location in the natural world can aid in the escape from an aggressive karmic cycle.25 Because the forest is closely connected to Fuji, as well as an untouched piece of the natural world, Aokigahara-jukai is tantamount to a true pilgrimage; it is a sacred area associated with and sharing in Fuji’s identity, but designed to meet a different cultural and spiritual need. Where Fuji is a public space, Aokigahara has a haunting and intimate sense of privacy, as noted by those who venture into the forest as ‘tourists’, or to seek out the bodies of the dead.

When examining the fatalistic pilgrimage made to Aokigahara annually by dozens of Japanese,26 there are three additional mitigating factors which serve to validate the forest as a culturally and historically informed choice. The first is the Japanese attitude towards suicide. The second is the historical memories and religious ideas associated with death and Aokigahara. Finally there are contemporary influences, and physical geography which play a large role in perpetuating the individual identity of Aokigahara. Based on these factors, Aokigahara-jukai’s pilgrimage tradition, though macabre, can be shown to be rooted in history and ingrained in the cultural memory of the Japanese.

The historical attitudes toward suicide in Japan are very different from those held in the West. In Japan suicide is not considered illegal, or taboo, by religious or moral standards.27 Historically, suicide was sanctioned as a sacrificial act to prove loyalty and regain honour;28 it was accepted as an act of dedication and redemption and came to bear heavy influence on the sacrificial spirit attributed to the Japanese national identity.29 It was also historically viewed as a sacrifice that could be made in times of dire starvation, where the elderly or the infirm would lay their lives down in order to help their family survive, by becoming one less mouth to feed.30 Presently suicide is still believed to be an acceptable solution for a wide variety of social problems stemming from heavy societal pressures.31 In

Aokigahara-jukai, the number of documented suicides has gone from an average of 20 per year in the 1970’s,32 to 108 in 2004. 33 After this date, authorities hesitate to release numbers, in an effort to deter others from seeking to end their lives in the forest.34 An exact record of the number of deaths which take place in Aokigahara-jukai per year is difficult obtain, as it is believed that the bodies of many of those who are successful will not be found or recovered.35 Behavioural psychologist Takahashi Yoshitomo wrote in his 1988 case study of individuals that survived their suicide attempts in Aokigahara that those who choose the Aokigahara pilgrimage sought a quiet death in a place where they felt accepted as a member of a group, namely those who had also felt that their only choice lay in taking their own lives. He also states that they want to purify and beautify their death by committing their final act in the seclusion of this culturally important forest.36 This desire for purity and beautification can be argued to be closely associated with the sacred identity of Fuji, and the historical and cultural memories established between the living and the dead at such spiritual locations.37

Aokigahara is culturally connected with death, stemming from religious practice as well as local history. The first documented suicide in Aokigahara occurred four centuries prior to Miroku’s pilgrimage on Fuji. In 1340, a Buddhist monk named of Shohkai entered a cave within Aokigahara and began his ritual fast, saying that his sacrifice would liberate the people from their karmic transgressions.38 The records indicate that Aokigahara-jukai possesses its own deeply rooted cultural memory as a sacred pilgrimage location. Due to the number of important similarities, Shohkai’s actions can be argued to have influenced those later taken by Miroku: both men were devote Buddhist monks, chose the Northern area of Fuji, and committed their suicide through ritual fasting. It is important to note that there were many other religious suicides committed in such a manner.39 These religiously oriented suicides can be seen to serve as yet another justification for the pilgrimage to Aokigahara-jukai. The notion of karmic release from a sinful world,40 as created by these religious teachers, can be argued to strengthen the cultural memory of the forest as a place of great spiritual power.

While religious suicides are individually documented, Aokigahara was also the resting place for many rural and peasant people during the Sengoku Jidai (the Warring States Period; 1467-1603).41 War and bitter famine were common during this period, and it was to Aokigahara and the foot of Fuji that people brought the old and young who they could not feed.42 They hoped that through their sacrifice, the spirits would find rest and pacification in nature. This type of behaviour gave rise to Aokigahara’s ghoulish infamy as a haunted space, and is believed to have created a cyclical vortex of the dead drawing the living to final repose.43 As will be shown next, this historical association has largely influences to the manner in which contemporary media and art treats Aokigahara-jukai.

Contemporary media such as fiction and journalism have served to perpetuate the understanding of Aokigahara as a place of macabre sacred pilgrimage. Paired with modern religious and cultural ideas, such as the financial burden a suicide by train or a full Buddhist funeral places on the family, it is difficult to dispute Aokigahara’s treatment in stories and reports as a spiritual magnet and pilgrimage spot for those who have thought of suicide. According to modern Buddhists, such as Showzen Yamashita44 and Kyomyo Fukui,45 the spirits which linger in Aokigahara are actively “calling people [to the forest] to kill themselves.”46 Considering the rich and storied past the Japan has regarding the ghost story and the concerns regarding the proper treatment and mourning of the dead, such a phenomenon is not unheard of. It has been documented by notable writers and used a plot device in the creation of truly haunting ghost stories; This phenomenon appears in Lafcadio Hearn’s work In Ghostly Japan,47 as well as popular manga Kurosagi Shitai Takuhaibin (The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service).48 This phenomenon, the eerie sense of being pulled by some unseen force inside of Aokigahara, has also been by journalists who have ventured into the trees in an attempt to understand the suicide phenomena.49 When there exists so much cultural memory and history in a single space, it can be argued to have the ability to affect the minds and perceptions of those who are inclined to believe, and serve to shape the pilgrimage route into something more personally and spiritually meaningful. In this, there is a sense of the prevalence of pre-modern Japanese social and spiritual connection, where, as Moerman states, “the dead come to attract rather than to repel the living.”50 To this effect, modern Buddhist monks have taken to setting up

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

Photo credit: Richard Atrero de Guzaman

temporary alters in order to make offerings to pacify the spirits, and walk the woods in hopes that one day the spirits will stop drawing people to making this fatal and final pilgrimage.51 Journalists who have ventured in the Aokigahara often speak of the position in which bodies are found; while some hang from the tress, others are on their knees,52 a position associated with spiritual thought, and Buddhist meditation.

Popular media has played a role in the perpetuation of the social memory and associations of the Aokigahara pilgrimage. In 1960, author Seicho Matsumoto released his novel Nami no Tou, or Tower of Waves, in which the heroine makes a final trek into Aokigahara for the purpose of committing suicide.53 It is interesting to note that Matsumoto’s most controversial piece has been adapted for television multiple times since the 1970’s, echoing the fact that suicide in Aokigahara is still prevalent in Japan. In 1993, Wataru Tsurumi’s self-help book, Complete Suicide Manual, called Aokigahara the perfect place to die; this book has since been found with many bodies during the annual search of the forest.54 The appeal of Aokigahara-jukai is in the associated history of suicide, the proximity to a place of great spiritual importance, as well as the nature of the forest itself; Aokigahara is not on the agenda for innocent leisure hikes, family trips, or sightseeing due to the high probability that a scene of a past suicide will be discovered.55 There is a loneliness to Aokigahara, and a sense of belonging to something larger than self.56 This loneliness, previously attributed to Fuji by Isabella Bird, can be argued to provide a sense or separation from the mundane world, while establishing a strong connection to the sacred past and cultural memories.

Aokigahara thus exists as a place between reality and the spiritual; it is at once sacred, accessible, and isolated. Popular belief prior to World War II was that once one entered Aokigahara, here or she would be unable to find their way out,57 trapped in a perpetual twilight, with a limited field of vision which made it impossible to see the stars or even the peak of Fuji.58 In that place, one is completely cut off from the outside world and Aokigahara becomes a surreal space cut-off from the outside world,59 and haunted by a persistent, ever-growing history of death and cultural memories associated with despair and death. This belief is actually supported scientifically: the whole of Aokigahara-jukai is located on top of a lava plateau which formed after the 9th century eruption of Fuji.60 Due to the igneous nature of the ground, the high iron content creates an area of higher than normal magnetic activity,61 and makes the forest very difficult to navigate in comparison to other forests in Japan; it has been shown that within Aokigahara common commercial compasses do not function properly due to the higher level of magnetic activity.62 Based on this geographical anomaly, even the Jieitai (Japan Self-Defense Force or JSDF) admits that commercial equipment would be virtually useless one someone was lost within Aokigahara.63 All of these elements come together shape Aokigahara as a place of the lost and those who are seeking to not be found, and the earlier assertion that juxtaposition of identity and the translocation of the sacred identity of Fuji plays a large role in establishing Aokigahara in cultural memory, and influencing the idea and nature of the fatalistic pilgrimage is supported. With the added fact that navigation the forest is problematic, there is a much higher chance that the individual who has ventured to Aokigahara with the intention of committing suicide will not be found until long after they have died, if they are ever found at all.64

Cultural memory, history, and spirituality have all been factors in the creation and perpetuation of the Aokigahara-jukai pilgrimage. The forest presents an accessible and acceptable alternative to Mount Fuji; the forest shares in part of Mount Fuji’s sacred and cultural identity, and exists as a spot steeped in cultural memory. Aokigahara-jukai builds on the majestic loneliness ascribed to Fuji, and allows for pilgrims to find a deep association with Japan and Fuji’s deeper sacred aspects. While the prospect of a pilgrimage for the purpose of suicide is macabre, its existence is not only supported by historical predecessors, but it also served a require social function. Takahashi’s interviews with survivors of Aokigahara support his idea of psychogenic amnesia, by which he means that the trauma of the suicide attempt has caused the individual to be unable to recall their motivation.65 However, there are some survivors who site debt, depression, and anxiety due to the excessive social pressure to succeed as their reasons for attempting suicide within the forest.66 Though the inhabitants of local area towns express a desire for journalists to look beyond the macabre nature of the forest,67 there is still very little material in the media concerning the forest as a site of natural beauty. Aokigahara-jukai becomes much more than a lonely and beautiful forest at the foot of Mount Fuji, chosen due to its seclusion and infamy; it has become a refuge where connection can be established to cultural identity, and a sensation of belonging can be achieved.

1Isabella L. Bird, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (San Francisco: Traveller’s Tales, Inc., 2000 [1880]), 2.

2Peter Hadfield, “Japan Struggles With Soaring Death Toll in Suicide Forest.” The Telegraph (Nov. 5, 2000).

3Yoshitomo Takahashi “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour, Vol. 18 Issue 2 ( Summer 1988), 165.

4Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

5Ibid.

6Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2011), 129.

7Ibid., 176-177.

8Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 27.

9Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme (Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968), 76.

10Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia, 2nd Ed (Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010), 4.

11 The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. Eds. Richard Browning, and Peter Kornicki

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 9.

12Byron Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan , 7.

13Ibid., 178-182.

14Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 76.

15Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

16 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 7.

17 Earhart, “Preface: Invitation to Fuji.” Mount Fuji: Icon of, XVII.

18 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 55.

19Ibid., 53.

20Ibid.

21Ibid.

22Bryan J. Cuevas, and Jacqueline I. Stone, “Introduction.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007), 19.

23 Earhart, Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan, 143.

24Antonio Santos, “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, eds. Maria Rodriquez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez (New York: Routledge, 2007), 131.

25 Peter Ackermann, “Pilgrimages in Japan: How far are they determined by deep-lying assumption?” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan, 99.

26Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

27Rob Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.” The Japan Times Online (January 26, 2011), 2.

28 Edmond Rochedieu, Le Shintoïsme, 184.

29 Boyé Lafayette De Menth, Japan Unmasked: The Character of Culture of Japan (Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2005), 94.

30 Whether a myth or reality, the practice of ubasute (Parent abandonment) exists, whereby a family member, elderly or infirm, would be left or sacrifice themselves to a mountain or forest to slowly die in times of starvation and drought in order to alleviate the burden they placed on their families. The Ballad of Narayama (1968 dir. Keisuke Kinoshita, 1983 dir. Shohei Imamura) depicts a mother encouraging her son to help her sacrifice herself on a mountain so that she will no longer be a burden.

31 Louis G. Perez, The History of Japan, 2nd Ed. (Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009), 212.

32Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

33 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 2.

34 “Suicide Forest”, Studio 360 (Japan). January 8, 2010

35Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.”

36Yoshitomo Takahashi, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, Vol. 18 Issue 2 (Summer 1988): 172-173.

37D. Max Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japan” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations, 285.

38Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

39 Ibid.

40Ibid.

41“Japan’s Harvest of Death,” The Independent

42Ibid.

43Ibid.

44Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 2.

45“Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday, October 24, 2000).

46Ibid.

47Lafcadio Hearn. In Ghostly Japan (Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971 [1889]), 238.

48Otsuka Eiji,Delivery #4: Waltz” in The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 3 (Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004), 141-191.

49 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest”, 1.

50 Moerman, “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Pre-modern Japan”, 267.

51 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

52Ibid.

53Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest”. 166.

54 Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.”

55Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

56Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 174.

57 Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest.”, 1.

58Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

59Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

60Yoshitomo, “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest,” 165.

61Ibid., 166.

62Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent (Tuesday October 24, 2000).

63Zack Davisson, “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan.

64Laura Sesana, “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Communities. ( August 19, 2012).

65Yoshitomo “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest, 167-173.

66Gilhooly, “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest,” 1-2.

67“Japan’s Harvest of Death” The Independent

Bibliography

Ackermann, Peter. “Pilgrimages in Japan: How far are they determines by deep-lying assumption?” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. ed. Maria Rodriguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. London: Routledge, 2007. pp. 97- 106.

Bird, Isabella L. Unbeaten Tracks in Japan. San Francisco: Traveller’s Tales, Inc., 2000 [1880].

The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Japan. ed. Richard Bowring, and Peter Kornicki. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Cuevas, Bryan J, and Jacqueline I. Stone. “Introduction.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Eds. Bryan J. Cuevas, and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. pp. 1-31.

Davisson, Zack. “The Suicide Woods of Mt. Fuji.” SeekJapan. As of Oct. 21st can be found at: http://janettedillerstone.wordpress.com/2010/09/22/suicide-woods-mt-fuji/

De Menthe, Boyé Lafayette. Japan Unmasked: The Character & Culture of the Japanese. Singapore: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

Earhart, H. Byron. Mount Fuji: Icon of Japan. Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2011.

Gilhooly, Rob. “Inside Japan’s ‘Suicide Forest’.” The Japan Times Online. Jan. 26, 2011. http://www.japantimes.co.jp/text/fl20110626x1.html

Hadfield, Peter. “Japan Struggles with Soaring Death Toll in Suicide Forest.” The Telegraph. Nov. 5, 2000. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/japan/1373287/Japan- truggles-with-soaring-death-toll-in-Suicide-Forest.html

Hearn, Lafcadio. In Ghostly Japan. Rutland: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1971 [1889].

“Japan’s Harvest of Death.” The Independent. Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/asia/japans-harvest-of-death-635356.html

Moerman, D. Max. “Passage to Fudaraku: Suicide and Salvation in Premodern Japanese Buddhism.” The Buddhist Dead: Practices, Discourses, Representations. Eds. Bryan J. Cuevas and Jacqueline I. Stone. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2007. pp. 266- 296.

Otsuka, Eiji. “Waltz.” The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 3. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2004.

Perez, Louis G. The History of Japan. 2nd Ed. Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2009.

Rochedieu, Edmond. Le Shintoisme. Paris: Cercle du Bibliophile, 1968.

Santos, Antonio. “Hiroshima, mon amour: An Inner Pilgrimage to Catharsis.” Pilgrimages and Spiritual Quests in Japan. eds. Maria Rodriguez del Alisal, Peter Ackermann, and Dolores P. Martinez. London: Routledge, 2007. pp. 130-137.

Sesana, Laura. “Aokigahara, Japan’s Suicide Forest.” The Washington Times Community. Aug. 19, 2012. http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/world-our- backyard/2012/aug/19/aokigahara-japans-suicide-forest/

Takahashi, Yoshitomo. “Aokigahara-jukai: Suicide and Amnesia in Mt. Fuji’s Black Forest.” Suicide and Life Threatening Behaviour. Vol. 18. Issue 2, 1988. pp.164-175.

Tobira: Gateway to Advanced Japanese Learning Through Content and Multimedia. 2nd Ed. Tokyo: Kurosio Publishers, 2010.

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Read it; Watch it; Listen to it: Recommendations from the Darkness

So, I’m in the final leg of thesis work on my MA, working on last revisions and all that rigmarole. However, I do have some recommendations for those out there looking for something to watch, read, or listen to that they might had missed the first time around. Nothing ground breaking, but these are some of the series and songs that I have been really taken in by lately. Now, some of these are available on Netflix or iTunes, others require a bit of creativity to get, and yet others you will have to purchase, because that’s what the artistic teams and artists deserve. Check it out, and if there is something that had really caught your attention or imagination in the past while that you think needs more attention, leave a comment.

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