An earlier version of this article appeared in Knights of the Dinner Table #181 (November, 2011).https://www.kenzerco.com/product_info.p ... cts_id=797
Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things & In Ghostly Japan by Lafcadio Hearn
A review by Paul Westermeyer
We’ve all met them, the gamers convinced that the katana is a mystical weapon capable of defeating any and all foes with a single slice. Those who believe ninjas can defeat pirates, that Japanese martial are more dangerous, and that Japanese mysticism is more spiritual than that found elsewhere – especially traditions found in the familiar West. Sure many of these gamers confuse kung-fu and karate, or mistake a ninja for a Shaolin monk, and they are all as annoying, to me at least, as an itch I can’t reach. It’s enough to drive one away from Oriental style roleplaying much the same way ‘emos’ and ‘goths’ drive others away from Horror roleplaying.But, when the hush of the night was at its deepest, there noiselessly entered a Shape, vague and vast; and in the same moment Muso found himself without power to move or speak. He saw that Shape lift the corpse, as with hands, devour it, more quickly than a cat devours a rat,—beginning at the head, and eating everything: the hair and the bones and even the shroud. And the monstrous Thing, having thus consumed the body, turned to the offerings, and ate them also. Then it went away, as mysteriously as it had come. –‘JIKININKI’ from Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things.
And that’s a shame, because the East offers a wealth of folklore and legends for the roleplayer, as well as intriguing environments and cultures for those looking to pass even further beyond The Fields We Know. There have been many excellent products for roleplaying in the mysterious East, from gaming’s earliest days.
The man most responsible for the West’s early fascination and knowledge of Japan was a remarkable writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Patrick Lafcadio Hearn. Hearn was born in 1850 in Greece, the son of an Irish soldier and a Greek woman. As a young man he immigrated to America and became a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer, writing vivid, sensational accounts of local crimes. Hearns married an African-American lady; something not done in 1870s America, leading to a scandal that eventually drove him from Cincinnati. He moved to New Orleans, where he worked as a reporter and later traveled the Caribbean. His writings there are excellent and worthy of their own reviews, anyone interested in games set in New Orleans should read those works.
In 1890 Hearn traveled to Japan as a reporter but soon lost his job. He remained in Japan and took a series of teaching positions there, meanwhile he began writing what would become more than a dozen books on Japan. Entranced by the country, the divorced Hearn married a Japanese woman and himself became a Japanese citizen, taking the name Koizumi Yakumo. Hearn never left Japan, dying there in 1904.
Hearn’s works were part of the wave of interest in Japanese culture and society that swept through Europe at the turn of the century. His works were very popular and for the next century they remained widely available, especially in public libraries. Two of his most popular works were In Ghostly Japan (1899) and Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things (1903).
Both of these works are short story collections, in them Hearn retells various bits of Japanese folklore and ghost stories. The short story collections do not have recurring characters; the connecting thread is Japan itself. The tales are sometimes horrifying, sometimes comic, sometimes romantic or sad. In addition to the ghost tales, In Ghostly Japan includes talks on Japanese Buddhist practices and beliefs, as well as some poetry, while Kwaidan includes a long discussion on insects.
Hearn’s prose is simple, even elegant. Clearly affected by the sparse poetry of the Japanese language his English expresses the atmosphere of the country very well. Masaki Kobayashi made a film, Kwaidan, based on Hearn’s book of the same name.
For gamers, the Hearn’s works are an excellent resource. Players can find inspiration for how to properly play most of the various Oriental-style character classes, especially if they aspire to do more than ape the conventions of Japanese movies. For game masters the books are even more useful, most of the short stories are ready made plot outlines for encounters and adventures.
Hearn’s work is rarely recalled these days, as Japan is far better known and its culture widely regarded. But his clear prose and concise tales deserve a second look from any gamer or fantasy fan interested in the early origins of today’s copious works of Asian fantasy.