One of the joys of Japanese summer is ghost stories, a tradition that dates back to the Edo when the official holiday of Tanabata (seventh day of the seventh lunar calendar month) flowed naturally into Obon season (13~15 of the seventh month) immediately following it, with ghost story tellers and ‘house of horror’ festival attractions popular staples of the day. Nothing like a good chilling scarel to cool down on a hot summer evening.

The old Edo tradition is alive and well today with a raft of Japanese ‘Kaidan’ YouTuber ghost~strange~believe it or not story tellers…most of it boring though occasionally interesting enough to keep watching. When I first came to Japan, August was still a fun month for making vacation plans and watching “THE心霊写真” (The Ghost Pictures) special annual broadcast (TBS I think). 

There have been many incarnations of the basic ghost picture program concept. The early versions (said to have started around the 1973 oil crisis) had a host who showed the pictures and a panel of guest stars who provided entertaining commentary. Some 50 years later you still this on Japanese TV which demonstrates how little things have changed, and how unimaginative TV producers are.

People would send in their ghost pictures for free coupons and stuff and resulting ghost picture boom was big enough where magazine and books would feature ‘how to’ instructions how to fake ghost pictures…remember this was film, paper and darkroom age. Fake or not, a smartly edited collection can be great entertainment and I’ve always thought THE心霊写真 was the best of the lot.

First of all, the ‘THE’. THE is an integral, nay essential, part of of the program title, a sly insider nod that this is entertainment product. But the program itself is anything but flashy, it’s almost minimal with calm voice over narration, ken burns pan and zoom effect that slowly focuses on the ghosty part of the picture with unsettling looping ‘dark ambient’ sounds that would comfortably fit on Brian Eno’s On Land.

The producers cleverly divined the inner workings of the greatest special effects machine of all: the human imagination. Suggestion is way more powerful, and scary, than the actual so called horror, of seeing a ghost. Take some well chosen photos, add some dark ambient background sound, and well written low key narration that conveys a story scenario without a hint of guile. I don’t know who the narrator was for the series but he was a perfect fit, gently leading the audience to the point they entertain the possibility of the impossible.

There’s also the matter of factness of the various ghost types that have no English equivalent: “地縛霊” (spirit tied to a certain location), 浮遊霊 (spirit who travels around, unaware they are dead), 先祖霊/守護霊 (ancestor or guardian spirit), and scariest of all 生き霊 (spirit of living person who, unconsciously though jealousy or hate, becomes attached to another person). Any suggested course of action is equally matter of fact, usually getting a Harai (Shinto) or Kito (Shinto or Buddhist).

The coarse English vocab often used for either is the extremely negative ‘exorcism’ which completely misses the mark. Harai is a ritual for removing any unlucky thing or misfortune is in your life, while Kito is a blessing ritual that simply purifies a person or an object, like standing under a cleansing waterfall. People who have seen ghosts, the ones I know anyway, say it’s like seeing and talking to a real person, in other words…boring.