Anthony Kwai-dan

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At the end of Anthony Bourdain’s Hungry Ghosts you are given recipes for several of the dishes mentioned in the stories: Tokyo Ramen, meatballs, Osso Buco, Saffron Risotto, and duck breast.

Hungry Ghosts is set at a lavish dinner prepared by renowned chefs for the winner of a charity auction and his guests. The winner thanks the chefs and kitchen staff for the meal and challenges to them a game of “One hundred candles.” To play, the participants take turns telling ghost stories. At the end of each story the storyteller blows out a candle and looks in a mirror to confirm that they have not been possessed by a demon. 

In his afterward, co-author Joel Rose shares that “One hundred candles” is a real game played by samurai during Japan’s Edo period, “Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.” it was a test of courage with the same rules described at the start of the story.

Joel also shares that it was Bourdain who introduced him to Japanese ghost stories, “kaidan” and eventually turned him into a fan too. The stories in this book are retellings of classic Japanese supernatural tales as interpreted by Bourdain, Joel, and the illustrators. To help readers not familiar with the genre, a glossary of the demons and spirits is also included at the end of the book.

You are not given a hundred stories in this collection. You are given eight. The most familiar may be, “The Snow Woman.” In it a hunter is spared from an icy death by the “Snow Witch,” “Yuki Onna” on the promise that he never speaks of their encounter. Some time later he meets and falls in love with a woman on her way to find work in a neighboring town. More years pass, they marry and have children.

Everything is fine until one evening he is reminded of the incident with the Snow Witch. He shares the story with his wife and Bam! She reveals she is the Snow Witch. Per their bargain, she kills him. In Bourdain’s retelling it’s not clear what “the one final service” she refers to is or if their children are now orphaned.

The ending is clearer in the 1965 movie, Kwaidan. In their retelling, “The Woman of the Snow,” the loose-lipped hunter’s life is spared for the sake of the children. Yuki Onna leaves.

I highly recommend Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan. Visually, the movie’s set in “The Woman of the Snow” is surreal with its sharp lines and intense colors. The very stylized backgrounds are actively used to help tell the story. For example, a set of clouds look like two eyes watching the hunter. “The Woman of the Snow” is the only story that is repeated in Hungry Ghosts. The other three stories Kwaidan are new. My favorite being “Hoichi the Earless” (a blind singing monk has his life force drained each time he sings for a court of ghosts). The meaning I derive from the story is particularly meaningful.

My favorite story in Bourdain’s collection is “Boil in the Belly.” It’s the story of a cook at an “Asian fusion big box” restaurant who suddenly develops a boil on his stomach. The supernatural boil is insatiable and continually demands to be fed. The resolution is near comical when presented as a comic book illustration but it does not detract from the story’s intensity.

While I enjoyed Hungry Ghosts, I do sort of wish Bourdain would’ve taken greater liberties with the original tales and modernized them. As I read I kept thinking of English horror anthology movies like Dr Terror’s House of Horrors and the 1972 Tales from the Crypt movie. Strangers telling ghost stories to each other after dinner would have been a convenient vehicle for additional cohesion between the stories.

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