It’s Halloween!, and what is scarier than true love? Romantic horror in Izumi Kyoka’s fiction

[Content warning: suicide in a literary context]

Japanese Gothic tales
Halloween was two days ago, but whatever…

A few weeks ago, a Japanese acquaintance asked me about my hobbies. I don’t really like the question. Especially coming from an older adult, it feels unfair. Am I supposed to answer “anime and grindy, definition-of-insanity online games” and then wait for that immediate, inevitable look of disappointment? I usually just abbreviate it to a generic “TV and games” to spare myself the embarrassment.

But oh! This time I had a respectable answer! Some real, serious literature! I had recently read Japanese Gothic Tales, a collection of four love-horror stories from the late-Meiji-into-Taisho period writer Izumi Kyoka (translated by Charles Shiro Inouye). Surely that would impress, I thought.

Maybe not. I probably realized my mistake too late. First, having escaped academia, few people really care about literature, especially boring, brooding gothic horror. Second, Kyoka has a reputation in Japan as a bit of an oddball for writing in an obscurantist, intentionally archaic style that few people can stand to read anymore. And third, I caught myself calling shinjuu — the genre of Japanese love-suicide stories common in much of Kyoka’s fiction — “cute.” My acquaintance looked shocked, but remained polite and disagreed before wandering off.

At first, I wondered if I had butchered my already broken Japanese. No, I thought, I know the meaning of “kawaii” well enough. I meant what I said in both languages. But then, I considered the implication of my statement. In calling a collection of love suicide stories “cute,” I had perhaps suggested that I thought the suicides themselves were cute. Ooo… oops. Yikes!

The moment was mostly just stupid foot-in-mouth awkwardness on my part, especially because my limited vocabulary in Japanese makes it difficult to explain the nuances of my thinking. But now that I’m back in an English language environment (hello… blog?) perhaps I can better explain myself. I still consider Japanese Gothic Tales just a little cute. But no… not like that. Not like a puppy or kitten or moe anime girl. I call the love suicide stories cute for the same reason I can’t help but laugh at the terrifying “Here’s Johnny” scene in The Shining. It’s too scary and too disgusting, so much so that I actually seem to wrap around and experience the opposite emotion. Staring at the full horror of Kyoka’s shinjuu stories, I could only think “this is cute.”

Do I still sound crazy? Let me explain…

Maybe I should start with some actual psychological research to demonstrate that my unexpected “scary equals cute” impulse has some scientific validity (when in doubt, argue from authority! This stuff came from ~Yale~).

Consider the concept of “dimorphous expression” of emotion, proposed in this research paper and explained without the jargon in this nice bit of science journalism from National Geographic. Though the paper’s experimental evidence on “cute aggression” does not convince me with its odd measurement model (popping bubble wrap implies aggression? color me a skeptic…), the explanatory thesis seems about right. The authors propose that the human body regulates strong emotions by countering them with an opposite emotion. For example, the same researchers have done further studies inspired by the phrases “tears of joy” and “so happy I could cry.” The National Geographic article also cites different a cute-psychology researcher with an interesting suggestion: disgust is the opposite of cuteness, not aggression.

That idea perhaps comes closer to my reaction to the love suicides in Japanese Gothic Tales. In the same way that I sometimes cry during happy Pixar movies or laugh my way through horror movies (think back to The Shining example again), Kyoka’s bleak, dangerous worlds disgusted me so much that I may have felt a tinge of cuteness.

The conceit of each story in Japanese Gothic Tales requires that the reader accept the fairytale concept of true love, bound by fate, eternal and irreplaceable. However, Kyoka escalates this romantic ideal to its literal, logical conclusions. As the traveler in “One Day in Spring” argues, if the romantic, almost religious imagining of true love exists, you must think of your love. And if you must think of your love, you must see them, and then speak with them, and then touch them and then sleep with them. However, that progression begs the question: does it stop there? True is a lofty target, and two fate-bound soulmates might require more than just sex to prove their devotion. Taken to its extreme, “true love” seems to require nothing short of a full mind-meld of the lovers’ consciousnesses to permanently cure their loneliness. That’s well… maybe a bit impossible.

Even worse, if we follow the conceit of true love to the letter, it suggests that the only agony worse than true love is to survive it. For example, what if society denies the lovers’ union? Could they stand to live apart? Both lovers must also someday die. Could the survivor carry on alone? Considering those questions literally in the context of eternal and irreplaceable true love, it begins to seem necessary for both lovers to depart together so that they never risk losing each other. In other words, it implies a classic Pure Land Buddhist-inspired shinjuu: a lovers’ suicide undertaken on the promise of reuniting in the afterlife (for a detailed example, see my analysis of the flawed shinjuu structure in the horror anime Happy Sugar Life).

However, in “One Day in Spring,” Kyoka makes a final, terrible twist on the idea: what if no afterlife exists, and even a simultaneous love suicide will not guarantee an eternal union? That thought transforms such an adorable, childish concept as “true love” into a sort of existential horror. The woman in “One Day in Spring faces an impossible choice. First, she can continue living with only the slight comfort of knowing her dead man. However, in light of Kyoka’s escalation of true love, that choice commits her to the worldly torment of never seeing or speaking with or touching her lover again. Second, she can take a suicidal leap of faith on the slim chance that she can reunite with her love in the afterlife. But that option carries a severe risk: she might instead leap into an abyss and doom herself to the eternal torment of no love at all. When she first meets the traveler in the story, she oscillates between the two choices, only kept alive by sheer indecision. But ultimately, the worldly torment overwhelms her and she jumps. She discovers the “destination of the dead,” but to the living, her fate is unknown.

Those thoughts scare me and Kyoka’s logic disgusts me. But as I loop back through his conclusions again and again, I cannot find a flaw in his reasoning given the extreme assumptions of true love, bound by fate, eternal and irreplaceable. Perhaps this is when the psychological model of “dimorphous expression” takes over. I suppress that overwhelming feeling existential horror and reduce the story back down to its adorable, childish notion of “true love.” It feels cute again, and I may have even laughed at the last gorgeous image of the white-and-crimson woman resting on the beach among the waves. The priest in “One Day in Spring” makes a similar observation, saying “When it comes to love’s agony, we on the outside are more than willing to laugh and let a person die before our very eyes.” But I don’t laugh for some sadistic enjoyment of the suicides. I laugh because the deaths are perhaps too horrifying to confront. It’s nervous laughter, nothing more.

Maybe I should take this as a lesson in the dangers of romanticism. The traveler in “One Day in Spring” begins the story as a sworn romantic, declaring his envy for the luck of the woman’s dead lover in a shocking line that bears repeating: “I envy that fellow’s luck, actually. Being able to find someone like that, a woman you’d kill yourself for.” However, by the time he has heard the priest’s cautionary tale of true love’s impossible escalations, he declares the very possibility of love “dangerous.” He fears that should he meet the woman, he might fall in love, and then, as Kyoka’s logic suggests, surely kill himself.

So here is my quasi-hopeful postscript: a different pessimistic writer, the Romanian Emil Cioran, took a similarly bleak, faithless premise and reached a selfish conclusion. If we should reject the dangerous passions of true love and romanticism, maybe we should aim for something more modest. In The Trouble with Being Born, he wrote: “I ask those I love to be kind enough to grow old.”

Ordinary love is good enough. True love is too cute, too scary.

As an appendix, here is the passage about the escalation of love from “One Day in Spring.” It was maybe too long to fit into the post itself, but I think it’s a gorgeous example of the book’s excellent prose-in-translation. For a little context, the still-romantic traveler is describing adoration for the bodhisattva Kannon:

“Is it enough to yearn for your beloved, to love and to pine for someone without ever thinking you’ll be together someday? Is it all right never to see her? And if you do see her, then is it acceptable never to speak to her? And if you speak to her, wouldn’t you want to touch her hand? And if you touch her hand, would it matter if you never slept together? Ask them that.

The truth is that you’d want to embrace the one you love even if it could only happen in your dreams. Come now. Even if it were a fantasy, you’d still want to see the gods, wouldn’t you? Shaka, Monju, Fugen, Seishi, Kannon. Tell me that you aren’t thankful for their images.”

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