The Pen and the Samurai Sword
Author: F.M. Longo
Fantasy writer of story Naoki no Yōkai (“Naoki’s Yōkai”) talks to me about Japanese mythology.
F. M. Longo’s lovable samurai warrior, “Saga Naoki” stars in his latest story, which is part of an ever-growing collection of samurai tales. Mr. Longo is an author, chef, and de facto cultural scholar on everything Japanese. I had the pleasure of interviewing him for a week, discussing topics ranging from anime to clowning. His story appears alongside my story, “Jilted River,” in the fantasy anthology, “The Toll of Another Bell.” However, I was delighted to find what I did not know about him.
In our talk, I uncovered layer upon layer of new creatures. I found that Japanese fairies are a much more fluid set of beings than the Eurocentric forest spirits of my own youth. Ordinary things, such as places, geological formations, or animals all seem to have their own animus. The spirits are so fluid, in fact, that household objects themselves may come back to interact with the living. It is fair to say that after I talked with Mr. Longo, I began to understand every anime film I have ever seen.
You may have read his stories, but if you think you have read all that F. M. Longo (or, “Frank”) has to say, please keep reading. He is full of pleasant surprises.
[Question]: Can you describe your latest work? Give us a quick summary?
F. M. Longo:
Naoki no Yōkai (“Naoki’s Yōkai”) is set in a fictionalized Japan on the cusp between the Sengoku and Tokugawa Periods, roughly 1598. My protagonist, Saga Naoki, a junior clerk in the Ministry of the Treasury, accidently gains the notice of the emperor’s spymaster, and receives the assignment to help determine why yōkai, Japanese supernatural monsters, are infesting a remote village, with the answer posing a threat to the entire empire. The story borrows numerous tropes from Anime, an industry in which many of my friends work, but has a straightforward plot familiar to mystery and suspense readers.
This is my first story set in this particular place and time. It’s an interesting, and often overlooked, backdrop. The mythology of Japan is a large part of the culture, and it seemed like the right locale for a fantasy story. After all, if I wrote about werewolves on the moors of England, it becomes apparent that it’s a fantasy story. With the strong belief in the supernatural in Japan—even today—the line between reality and fantasy blurs. In the case of the werewolf story, half the plot is the protagonist trying to convince everyone else that there’s a monster loose. In my story, the characters accept the existence of yōkai without question, even though we may not.
Ginger: Fascinating cultural comparison. I admit that, although I admire the Anime films and art that I have seen, I do not know much about Japanese culture per se.
[Question]: It seems that “yōkai” are a broad category of phantoms in Japanese folklore. It is not such a stretch to imagine them surviving to present day, though. I note that almost every culture uses folklore to codify the unexplained. You mentioned werewolves, which Europeans no longer take seriously. However, in the present day, I know many people in my own country (America) who invent their own yōkai. For example, how many times have I heard a person claim — with certainty — that a departed pet was haunting their place of residence? It is so close to the yōkai archetype that it is almost startling.
F. M. Longo:
Yōkai come in all different types. We’ve already met a Kitsune, a fox spirit, and indirectly, a Tanuki, a raccoon dog spirit that likes sake, and a Seto-taishō, a kitchen spirit made from broken crockery and unused utensils, in Naoki no Yōkai. Other animal spirits include cats, dogs, snakes, and spiders. They’re mostly shape-shifters, like werewolves, but have control over where and when they can change. There’s a whole class of yōkai known as oni—these are the evil demons and ogres, usually depicted as giants with horns on their heads. Related to them are the tengu, man-shaped and sized winged creatures with bird heads, who are experts in martial arts, and are usually evil. Tsukumogami are household items that come to life after one-hundred years. The most frightening to me are the human yōkai who are able to transform themselves when under severe stress, like Futakuchi-onna, who has an extra mouth on the back of her head, covered with long hair, and the Rokuro-kubi, who can stretch out his neck.
The claim that a deceased pet became a yōkai is close, but not quite right. What we, in the West, call ghosts, the Japanese call yūrei, coming from the Kanji for “dim” or “faint,” and “spirit” or “soul.” Like their western counterparts, they can haunt either a specific location or person, either for revenge or because they were devoted to them in life. While my research has not turned up any Japanese animal yūrei, it doesn’t mean that they couldn’t exist.
[Question]: In Japanese culture, how do you see fantasy mixing with reality today?
F. M. Longo:
I would prefer to call it a faith in their traditional mythology, which is where the concept of yōkai originated, rather than fantasy. A strong religious overtone in the Japanese’s belief in the extra-normal is a cultural bias for us, and that’s why we consider it fantasy. I’m sure that with a population of less than 1% with Judeo-Christian beliefs, a majority of the Japanese probably look at American’s beliefs with the same prejudice.
There’s still a strong acceptance of yōkai in Japan today, but unfortunately, it’s mostly through media, rather than through their oral traditions. Part of this is because Japan has become more urbanized, and many yōkai are creatures of nature. Also, because we’ve become a disposable society, most household object don’t exist long enough to become Tsukumogami.
Where you’ll most often see Yōkai and Yūrei today are in Manga and Anime, Jidaigeki (literal: period piece – historical movies), and in video games. Japanese horror movies are often populated by yōkai and yūrei. Two recent Japanese yōkai films that come to mind are Sakuya: Yôkaiden (Sakuya: Slayer of Demons), a period piece set in the early 1700’s, placing samurai against yōkai; and Yôkai Daisensô (The Great Yōkai War), in which a young boy, chosen by his village to defend it, leads an army of good yōkai, against the forces of evil. Two of the most famous yūrei films to American audiences are Ring, and Ju-on: The Grudge, both remade by American producers, and neither of which I should need to summarize.
Ginger: No, no need to summarize The Ring or The Grudge for me. I’ve seen both. I watched The Grudge as a Japanese film, also, and in my opinion, that was a lot creepier than its American counterpart. You surprised me by mentioning dead household objects. (Now I might have nightmares about an old rocking chair that my toddler broke.)
F. M. Longo:
You don’t have to worry about your broken rocking chair coming to life. At least, not immediately. Unless it happens to be an antique.
Ginger: Well, that does it! I will prepare myself for a haunting by a broken toddler’s antique rocking chair. Or, maybe I’ll just fix it, and sleep better at night. Until then, it looks like all furniture in my nightmares will be speaking Japanese.
[Question]: On the subject of movies, I have noticed yōkai in the Japanese anime films. Until now, I had only a dim understanding of them. I am fond of the Studio Ghibli films, but if you had to recommend a good anime film to introduce Americans to the concept of yōkai, what would it be?
F. M. Longo:
There are several good anime series involving yōkai. One of the more popular ones, and a long one besides, is Inuyasha. It has time travel, quests, and a romantic storyline as well as yōkai. I would also suggest Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, which is set in modern times. You’ll see a more diverse group of yōkai in this series. The teen-aged protagonist is the next leader of the yōkai, but spends most of his time in human guise, going to school, making friends, and occasionally, having to fight against the forces of evil. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Natsume’s Book of Friends, where a boy inherits a book of contracts with yōkai from his grandmother, and spends his time helping each one, dissolving the agreement when the problem is solved.
[Question]: It looks as if you have written much about Samurai warriors, and their surrounding culture. Why does this interest you so much?
F. M. Longo:
My interest goes back to when I was a kid, watching Japanese movies on TV. I didn’t know it then, but they were mostly the cream of cinematic world, mostly classics by Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki. Okay, there were a lot of Godzilla films, too.
They fascinated me because, while they were set in a strange place with people who looked different from me, I could identify with the characters on a baser level. The underlying themes in the films, good against evil, man against the universe, were common with American movies. In fact, when I saw A Fistful of Dollars for the first time, I immediately thought of Yojimbo, later learning that Sergio Leone based it on the Kurosawa film. As I got older, I looked for more meaning in the films, and researched the periods depicted, learning a lot about the history and culture of Japan, which put the nuances of the movies into context.
Ginger: I agree. There is something about Japan that is both primal and mystical. I admire their passion and determination the most. I think back to the kamikaze pilots of the Japanese Zero planes in WW2 with sneaking admiration, even.
F. M. Longo:
To understand the Kamikazi (formally, Tokubetsu Kōgeki Tai, or “special attack unit”) you need to understand the warrior code, the Bushido, which teaches loyalty and honor until death. While official Kamikazi attacks didn’t start until 1944, previously, some pilots would deliberately crash their planes into their bombing targets rather than risk capture, which would be a failure on their part as a warrior. The first example of this was during the attack on Pearl Harbor when a pilot with a badly damaged plane intentionally targeted the Kaneohe Naval Air Station. There were other examples, but it wasn’t until the Japanese suffered several major defeats that the Kamikazi unit was assembled with volunteers, and sent off to attack American warships. To die in battle, while making the enemy suffer losses, was the ultimate honor. This wasn’t the most effective program, as less than 20% of the nearly four-thousand pilots managed to hit a target.
The Germans also proposed a similar program, the Leonidas Staffel, in which volunteers would fly a piloted version of the V-1 missile into enemy targets. This program never got off the ground, so to speak, because the German High Command thought it a waste of men and material that could be put to better use elsewhere. Suicide bombings also went against the German character. A variation of this strategy, using Leonidas Staffel pilots in whatever aircraft were available, were used against the advancing Russians; a desperate time. While the Luffwaffe claimed seventeen bridges over the Oder River in Poland were destroyed, only one bridge, at Kostrzyn nad Odrą, was confirmed to be demolished. The program was halted after three days.
[Question]: Which Japanese film star is closest to Saga Naoki, and why did you choose him?
F. M. Longo:
Actually, the inspiration for Naoki came from a Korean actor, Ryu Dam. I have watched him perform in a couple of sageuk (historical K-Dramas), and his character is always the chubby, not-so-bright friend of the protagonist, always on the hunt for his next meal. However, when it comes time to fight, he’s constantly in the front, leading the charge, albeit, somewhat reluctantly. I thought it would be interesting to make a character like this the protagonist of the story—a slacker who pretty much just wants to do his job, but has to deal with ascending challenges, until the point where he needs to decide whether to stand and fight, or run away.
Ginger: An unlikely hero is always a compelling one. Everyone loves an underdog.
[Question]: Where can we read more about Saga Nokai? And will he have any more adventures?
F. M. Longo:
There are two more completed Naoki stories, one underway, with a fifth already plotted. Each one gets slightly darker and brings out a new facet of Naoki’s personality. From the third on, it seems that he has less control over situations than he thought, and in retrospect, it turns out that he’s been manipulated from the start by deities. He’s really heading into fantasy/paranormal territory, all within the framework of Japanese mythology, and how he deals with his role as a pawn for the gods.
Eventually, there will be a Naoki novel. How much of the direct supernatural elements remain is undecided, but he still must deal with manipulation, both political and deistical, in varying degrees. How he does it, and how he applies what he learns will be the heart of the story.
When they come to light is another matter; they aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. While there were fantasy elements in Naoki no Yōkai, they weren’t as explicit as many fantasy readers would like. Many of the Anime/Manga tropes were lost on readers unfamiliar with them, and some found them distracting. I take the comments seriously, and I’ll work on those elements to please a broader fantasy audience. Underneath, I try to plot them like a mystery, which also opens them up to a wider readership. You can’t satisfy everyone, and in the end, the only person I need to placate is myself.
[Question]: Who is F. M. Longo, apart from a short story writer?
This is a real tough one. I’d had so many different experiences, that I guess I’m the sum of the parts; I go where the muse takes me. In the arts, I have credits as a composer and musician, actor, photographer, stand-up comic, and, strangely, a clown. I worked in the technical end of the finance industry for over a quarter of a century, and as a chef for a decade. Now, I have a small PR company that works mainly with non-profit groups, but I do have a few commercial clients.
On a more personal note, I have four children, eight grandchildren (with a ninth due in April), and have been a widower for thirty years. I am very involved with community service as a member of Lions Clubs International, being president of the local club, a member of the district cabinet, and serving on a statewide committee for pediatric vision screening awareness. I am also a founding member of the local Writer’s Workshop, and a member of the town’s historic society.
Ginger: Frank, it sounds like you and I have a lot in common. (Except the clowning. Sorry, never could bring myself to do that.)
[Question]: You are speaking to a software integrator who is a composer, performer, writer, mom, amateur photographer, and community service volunteer. So here’s a question just between us insiders: What else would you like to learn how to do, if you had all the time in the world?
F. M. Longo:
I would probably try to regain my fluency in other languages. Besides English, I spoke Italian and Hungarian as a child, courtesy of my great-grandmothers; Spanish and German, thanks to middle and high schools; French, due to a long-term relationship; and Norwegian, in order to communicate with my kids’ au pair. Plus I know a smattering of several other languages from business trips and contacts. I used to joke about being able to ask where the bathroom is anywhere in the world. Unfortunately, because I haven’t used any of them in years, they’re completely lost to me, except for a couple of words and phrases.
I’m currently attempting to learn Japanese and Korean, mostly because when I have time to sit and watch television, it’s usually a J- or K-Drama. The philosophy behind their television is a set number of episodes, usually sixteen, with an overall story arc, with each installment a self-contained story. The hardest part for me is acquiring an ear for the cadence of the language in normal conversation, and being able to mimic it. The structures of the languages are similar to each other, but much different from English, which it why it’s harder for me to learn them compared to Romance language. I also have a native Cantonese speaker as a neighbor who has been helping me learn his language as he improves his English.
Ginger: I would love to know even half of those languages. Best of luck with your practice, especially your voyage into the Asian languages.
[Question]: So, what’s your next big project?
F. M. Longo:
Let’s see … I lose April through the middle of June with my community work, so my writing drops down to a trickle. Whatever time I have will probably be used revising stories that haven’t sold yet and resubmitting them to new markets. I have five hard science fiction stories in a series that are in serious need of a reworking, a “Sam Spade … in SPACE!” series that could use some polish, and I’m looking at the other five manuscripts in the Morningside series for revisions, the first story of which appeared in Xchyler’s mystery anthology A Dash of Madness.
Surprisingly, I have two completed novels sitting in my drawer, both written before I knew anything about how to write a novel. I pull them out occasionally and tinker with them, but I need a good six months straight on each to pull them into shape for submission. There are also two partially written novels. One, a contemporary murder mystery, and the other, a young adult adventure novel set at the turn of the 20th Century with a lot of social commentary applicable to today. I keep plugging along on them, and eventually I’ll have something to shop around.
F.M. Longo spent most of his career as a software designer and consultant. An accomplished musician, he played professionally with several jazz greats, and he has won awards for his photography. He now has his own boutique publicity agency, and spends most of his time writing press releases, designing print ads, and producing radio spots. He is also the co-editor of the regional newsletter for a large non-profit organization. Longo lives in a small rural town in Western Connecticut.