‘Ghostwire: Tokyo’ Brings Japanese Folklore to the Masses
In an email interview with WIRED, Yoda explains the long tradition of how yokai and Japanese ghost stories have been told. One of the most important aspects, when it comes to Ghostwire’s unique tone, is the distinction between yokai and yurei. While the two terms often blur together in popular culture as “yokai,” she describes those spirits as referring to “a something” while yurei reference “a someone.”
Whereas yurei “are intimately connected to the afterlife” and “generally manifest when someone is horribly mistreated and dies unjustly,” in order to seek revenge “or simply make their torment known to everyone,” yokai, as representatives of all kinds of “phenomena ranging from disasters to strange sounds to even simple things like feeling a brush against your legs when nothing’s there,” aren’t usually “dangerous presences so much as things that give you a fright or surprise you.” They can be, like Ghostwire itself, sad, funny, or, perhaps most interestingly, used as vehicles for social commentary.
This last aspect of yokai storytelling is immediately evident in the game. One story contained in a Ghostwire text log features headless ghosts in school uniforms that moan about follower counts from beyond the grave and are exorcised when their social media accounts are followed. The Noppera-Bo-reminiscent Visitors that make up the game’s enemies are all described in Ghostwire’s codex as incarnations of various ordinary struggles. Faceless women in customer service uniforms are “born from a life spent maintaining a vapid facade, empty smiles ever at the ready.” They now “spread the very same negative energy they have been forced to bear.” Men in business suits are “born from the hearts of those pushed to the point of utter exhaustion by their work,” while other yurei are embodiments of “pessimism fostered by an empty existence” or “the sense of resignation felt by those whose desires go unfulfilled.” Kenji Kimura calls these “evil spirits” depictions of the “very strong negative emotions that are felt when we, as humans, enter different, new stages in our life.”
Far from a new way of thinking about ghosts, Yoda explains, yurei stories “can be seen as a sort of moral instruction: Don’t mistreat others this way.” Yokai, on the other hand, are often “morally instructive,” used as bogeyman to, in an example both she and Masato Kimura mention, keep children from playing near water by characterizing the abstract possibility of drowning as a potentially frightening water yokai like the Kappa. Yoda mentions the subcategory of Tsukumogami yokai as another example of this type of social instruction. Tsukomogami consist of everyday objects “that were carelessly discarded” before returning as animate tools that “got angry and started parading around indignantly.” This “sort of early satire of consumer culture” appears in Ghostwire through what is, perhaps, the most famous depiction of a Tsukumogami: a long-tongued, pogo-hopping umbrella yokai called Karakasa Kozo.
Noriko Tsunoda Reider, professor of Japanese at Miami University and the author of books including Japanese Demon Lore: Oni From Ancient Times to the Present and the more recent Mountain Witches: Yamauba, writes in an email interview with WIRED that “notions of right and wrong affect yokai characters of all types and dimensions,” especially in the way they “often mirrored Buddhist teachings of the time,” like “karma and reincarnation.” Reider also mentions Tsukumogami, which were used not just to discuss consumer culture but also to “criticize other religious sects of the time.” She points out the “strong social commentary on power, money, loyalty, and treatment of women” contained in the play Ghost Story of Yotsuya and the “fierce satire” of early 20th-century Japanese society written in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s folklore-framed novel Kappa as well.
The framework for Ghostwire’s plot is reminiscent of a psychic scar from recent Tokyo history too. The game’s waves of deadly fog, viewed from a culturally specific standpoint, eerily call to mind the 1995 subway sarin gas attack launched by the Aum Shinrikyo cult, whose leader, like Ghostwire’s terrorist mastermind Hannya, preached a radical, millenarian destruction of the body in order to achieve spiritual enlightenment. (Far from a forgotten tragedy, a terrorist attack connected to Aleph, the name of Aum Shinrikyo’s current incarnation, occurred in 2019.)
This evocation of yokai as part of apocalyptic events isn’t unprecedented. Yoda mentions that “yokai often manifest at difficult times to help people come to terms with things they’re struggling with.” She mentions a Twitter trend that saw an obscure, beaked 19th-century “plague-yokai” called Amabie being repurposed, thanks to an account that mentioned it in connection with an 1846 newspaper article. In the article, it was reported that Amabie rose from the ocean and asked to be drawn and shown to people if an epidemic arises. The Covid-19 pandemic saw Amabie circulate and take on modern relevance as, Yoda writes, “some kind of guardian angel or symbolic talisman character of the pandemic, protecting people from disease, or [controlling] the pandemic and [making] it disappear.” Though Yoda writes that “nobody in Japan believes this silly drawing will actually solve the current pandemic,” it’s been used by the nation—and its government—as something that can help make an event as amorphous and terrifying as a pandemic feel slightly more manageable.