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Tuesday, July 16, 2024

'Ghostwire: Tokyo' Brings Japanese Folklore to the Masses

The city streets are empty, strewn with discarded shopping bags and unattended bicycles and cars. But this city isn’t uninhabited. Around the corner of every neon-lit storefront and lurking in gloomy alleys and shrub-bordered parkettes are ghosts and ethereal creatures of all kinds. Pale blue figures float in the air, ghostly apparitions still muttering mundane complaints about daily life though their bodies have disappeared. Teenagers in school uniforms mill around deserted intersections, their missing heads only becoming apparent when they wander into closer view. A splash of water from a sewer ditch, if studied carefully, reveals a turtle-like monster wading in circles just beneath an overpass. Floating cats with forked tails doze behind convenience store counters, waiting for customers to notice them before waking and floating upright in the air.

At the margins of normal perception, Ghostwire: Tokyo’s seemingly abandoned Tokyo is actually humming with all kinds of activity. Though the city’s human population has mysteriously disappeared, leaving behind piles of rumpled clothes as makeshift grave markers after an otherworldly fog absorbed their corporeal bodies, ghosts and creatures from Japanese folklore have begun to make themselves readily apparent everywhere protagonist Akito Izuki turns.

As George Yang described in a WIRED preview from last month, Ghostwire is steeped in Japanese culture. The game’s setting is distinct, explicitly located in Tokyo as its subtitle makes clear, and populated with paranormal iconography that sets itself apart from the vengeful ghosts and crucifix-fearing demons derived from Christian religious traditions that populate so much mainstream global horror today.

The various creatures encountered throughout the game are yurei, Japanese ghosts, and yokai, a term defined in Michael Dylan Foster’s The Book of Yokai as “a weird or mysterious creature, a monster or fantastic being, a spirit or a sprite” that embodies a natural or paranormal force. Yokai are, as Foster writes, “creatures of the borderlands” that have in common the characteristic of “liminality, or ‘in-between-ness,’” which makes their appearance in Ghostwire’s eerie, newly apocalyptic urban landscape appropriate. They are also, crucially, spirits from Japanese tradition rather than the kind of culturally indistinct ghosts and demons that typically appear in video games.

Speaking to WIRED in a video call through a translator, Ghostwire director Kenji Kimura explains how the game was born from a desire to bring Tokyo’s unique urban character to global audiences. While exploring the city for research, Kimura and the team at Tango Gameworks were struck by the blend of history and modernity that their home offered—old shrines and Jizo statues next to gleaming high rises—and began to look at the way the past and modern technology intertwine to give the city its identity. The game’s producer, Masato Kimura, adds to Kenji’s description of this process, saying “a process of rediscovery” led the studio to rethink what are, for them, familiar aspects of Tokyo.

Kenji Kimura refers to Ghostwire’s depictions of yokai and yurei as an extension of this new way of seeing the city—of “thinking about the un-ordinary things that are lurking amongst the ordinary” and, by extension, dreaming up ways to depict “paranormal things that are sitting amongst the normal things.”

Creating that paranormal Tokyo involved, as Masato Kimura puts it, thinking “in the sense of, ‘Hey, this entity might exist, or this thing might actually be here’” just beyond our normal ability to see it. “We think that’s probably a feeling that’s kind of universal amongst other countries and cultures,” Masato continues, though his team filtered it through the “yokai stories and the urban legends we grew up with” when creating expressions of the hidden world that Akito encounters throughout Ghostwire. Masato says Tango’s creativity was fueled by walking around Tokyo, imagining places where spirits could be hiding—a “process that allowed us to populate the city with the different kinds of yokai that we have in the game.”

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The result is a kind of best-of lineup of famous yokai, selected from the enormous, constantly expanding volume of spirits documented under the umbrella of the term. Ghostwire’s convenience store cat-clerks are Nekomata, and the amphibious water monster is a Kappa, a water yokai renowned for its love of cucumbers, sumo wrestling, and the snatching mythical organs from the human anus. The game tasks players with chasing fluttering Ittan-Momen across rooftops, cornering Rokurokubi as they drape their long necks from the sides of buildings, and exposing shape-shifting Tanuki by spotting their fluffy tails poking out from various everyday objects. Enemies include murderous, ice-flinging Yuki-Onna, masked and unmasked, bloody-faced Kuchisake-Onna, and a variety of faceless Noppera-Bo dressed in business suits or office dresses. Yokai and yurei are everywhere in Ghostwire’s version of Tokyo, waiting to be found wherever Akito looks.

This way of thinking about—and depicting—the world is part of a long tradition, common to folklore and animist spirituality from across the world, but it is specifically Japanese in the form Ghostwire takes. Whereas Tango Gameworks’ previous work, The Evil Within horror series, took place in culturally nonspecific but Western-based cities and towns, the studio’s latest departs from both the tone and generality of its past. Aside from its setting and the cultural tradition behind its paranormal entities, this is apparent in the game’s tone, which is sometimes frightening or eerie but can just as often be melancholy, sad, or downright funny.

Hiroko Yoda is president of the localization company AltJapan, author of Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide, and translator of Toriyama Sekien’s 18th-century yokai guidebooks, collected under the title Japandemonium Illustrated. (Yoda was also contacted by former Ghostwire creative director Ikumi Nakamura for consultation on the game “very, very early on,” in order to “help create lists of yokai and occult phenomena, urban legends, and things like that to help stimulate the creative process there.”)

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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.

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Just because Ghostwire’s depiction of the paranormal is so specifically Japanese doesn’t mean that its vision of an apocalyptic Tokyo can’t speak to universal preoccupations with life and death—the mysteries of life and the afterlife. When asked whether Tango was concerned about alienating players better used to the kind of “default,” hegemony-prompted American settings so often chosen by creators hoping to appeal to the largest possible audience, Kenji Kimura says that early worries in this vein were eventually replaced by a confidence that his team’s depiction of Tokyo and their game’s tone would appeal to global players. He cites the “tingling sensation on your spine” that’s felt when encountering “something that’s a little off” in daily life when discussing this.

“You know, that’s not just specific to Japanese people,” Kenji says. “That’s something that people in other cultures and countries would feel.”

Aside from that “tingling sensation,” Kenji also speaks about the very human need to grapple with the concept of loss as being key to Ghostwire. The game is “about facing loss, it’s about dealing with it, and coping with it,” he says. “There’s always something that, as we grow up, leaves a kind of hole in our hearts.” The characters in the game vary, but they’re all “trying to find their own ways to deal with their loss. Trying to either recover what they have lost or just deal with the reality that things get lost, trying to find their own way to overcome it.”

Though the shape its vision of the paranormal and afterlife takes may come specifically from Japan, every culture has learned to tell stories to make sense of the enormity of death. Masato Kimura says the term “wire” in the game’s title is meant to reflect a sense of connection, whether “a connection to what you have lost” or a connection between human beings and our larger connection to the mysteries of worlds beyond our own.

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As Yoda notes, “Japan isn’t unique in having supernatural characters.” Yokai may be distinguished by their “sheer variety” and the fact that the nation has preserved them through yokai encyclopedias and reinterpretations as pop culture staples. But, ultimately, yokai are born of the same need to understand the everyday struggles and fears—to grapple with the intangible mysteries of life and death—that every culture experiences.

And, when considered this way, Yoda, Reider, and Ghostwire’s creators all agree that yokai aren’t going away anytime soon. Reider states that “yokai will continue to transform, survive”—that, whether in ancient or modern forms, they’re “a folkloric expression of the human condition” that “can always be reimagined, providing a framework of timeless adaptability and relevancy.” Yoda, too, notes that the mutability of yokai allows them to be reinterpreted in a seemingly infinite number of ways. “That’s the great thing about yokai,” she writes. “They shape-shift to suit the times. They can be cute. They can be scary. They can be helpful. They can be whatever you need for the purpose.” Masato Kimura says yokai’s value as a way to protect children from danger or explain everything from bad weather to “morals about how to treat others” will keep them around forever.

Kenji Kimura echoes this point but mentions, too, that even in a time when we’re more likely to explain away yokai and yurei phenomena with science, the “0.1 percent chance that they still exist” means “the fantasy lives on.”

“Yokai were created for a reason that is pretty strong by itself,” he says. “They’re interesting for a reason, and that interesting reason is probably strong enough to be passed down for generations.”

The same interest that’s made yokai fascinating within Japan for centuries is relevant to audiences across the world. Though the spirits that hide throughout Ghostwire: Tokyo are incarnations of a specific cultural tradition, they were created in order to fulfill needs and answer questions that haunt us all.


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