Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan

Source: Lafcadio Hearn, Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan (Boston/New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), vol. II, pp. 646-647

Text: Out of hell, we found our way to a magic-lantern show being given in a larger and even much colder structure. A Japanese magic-lantern show is nearly always interesting in more particulars than one, but perhaps especially as evidencing the native genius for adapting Western inventions to Eastern tastes. A Japanese magic-lantern show is essentially dramatic. It is a play of which the dialogue is uttered by invisible personages, the actors and the scenery being only luminous shadows. Wherefore it is peculiarly well suited to goblinries and weirdnesses of all kinds; and plays in which ghosts figure are the favourite subjects. As the hall was bitterly cold, I waited only long enough to see one performance – of which the following is an epitome:

SCENE 1. – A beautiful peasant girl and her aged mother, squatting together at home. Mother weeps violently, gesticulates agonisingly. From her frantic speech, broken by wild sobs, we learn that the girl must be sent as a victim to the Kami-Sama of some lonesome temple in the mountains. That god is a bad god. Once a year he shoots an arrow into the thatch of some farmer’s house as a sign that he wants a girl – to eat! Unless the girl be sent to him at once, he destroys the crops and the cows. Exit mother, weeping and shrieking, and pulling out her grey hair. Exit girl, with downcast head, and air of sweet resignation.

SCENE II. – Before a wayside inn; cherry-trees in blossom. Enter coolies carrying, like a palanquin, a large box, in which the girl is supposed to be. Deposit box; enter to eat; tell story to loquacious landlord. Enter noble samurai, with two swords. Asks about box. Hears the story of the coolies repeated by loquacious landlord. Exhibits fierce indignation; vows that the Kami-Sama are good – do not eat girls. Declares that so-called Kami-Sama to be a devil. Observes that devils must be killed. Orders box opened. Sends girl home. Gets into box himself, and commands coolies under pain of death to bear him right quickly to that temple.

SCENE III. – Enter coolies, approaching temple through forest at night. Coolies afraid. Drop box and run. Exeunt coolies. Box alone in the dark. Enter veiled figure, all white. Figure moans unpleasantly; utters horrid cries. Box remains impassive. Figure removes veil, showing Its face – a skull with phosphoric eyes. [Audience unanimously utter the sound ‘Aaaaaa!’] Figure displays Its hands – monstrous and apish, with claws. [Audience utter a second ‘Aaaaaa!’] Figure approaches the box, touches the box, opens the box! Up leaps noble samurai. A wrestle; drums sound the roll of battle. Noble samurai practises successfully noble art of ju-jutsu. Casts demon down, tramples upon him triumphantly, cuts off his head. Head suddenly enlarges, grows to the size of a house, tries to bite off head of samurai. Samurai slashes it with his sword. Head rolls backward, spitting fire, and vanishes. Finis. Exeunt omnes.

Comments: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. His Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan is based on his time in Matsue in the early 1890s. The opening mention of ‘hell’ refers to a puppet show he had just seen.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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