Troubled Adults and the Modernist Experiments of Transformation Keiko Sei

Tropical Malady by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a critically-acclaimed Thai film. It received the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2004, an extremely rare honor for any Thai film. The critics that praise the movie mostly talk about the second segment of the film, in which the main character goes into a dark forest where the transformation of a tiger and a human being occurs.

The film’s first segment is devoted to a lyrical love story of two men, a soldier, and a village man. The film critics point out that the mixture of an indie-style, almost documentary-like love story and the folktale element proves refreshing. The audience can enjoy a “what is a dream and what is reality?” experience for two hours, they note.

The critical success of this small-budget Thai movie in world cinema prompted me to think of one fact: people and other things transformed themselves much more easily in the past than today.

Forests and mountains were still intact, and spirits had plenty of greens, meadows, and shadows to hide in, waiting for the right moment to possess a person or an animal in order for them to turn into some form of visible reality. Folktales were full of such colorful spirits, ghosts, and supernatural beings. Recently I read a news article about a professional Cambodian ghost buster whose work chasing ghosts away from possessed people or houses at the Thai-Cambodian border is dramatically decreasing these days as the forests and rivers disappear. “There was so much demand [in the past], I gave up most of my other work and decided to focus more on chasing ghosts … I have driven away 300 or 400 spirits … As more development came, there were fewer and fewer ghosts,” the man says about his job.1 When ghosts and spirits were a fact of life these professionals were doing a normal job like any other, skills and trainings mostly given by family members was handed down generation to generation. Back then, people did not question the existence of ghosts and spirits; they just accepted the phenomena as such and lived side by side with them. People’s fear, anxiety, and respect toward them are evidence that they regard them as part of their communal existence.

Now, modernity made these supernatural things in nature more and more rare. And it was modernism, if not religious authority like in Europe, that made people question, in the name of progress, why these “strange” transformations occur. And then it even made people stop questioning this question to promote a method of establishing “self” within a system, which was called “absurdité.” As those ghosts and spirits have disappeared from our daily environment, literature nevertheless has evolved with these dynamics of questioning and not questioning transformation.

In Japanese literature, for example, much of which is derived from China, stories of ghosts, spirits, transformation, and metamorphoses of one being to another were one of the pillars of literature from its early days until quite recently. Taketori monogatari (“Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”), a story from the 10th century that is widely considered as the first written story in Japan, is the story of the metamorphosis of a woman (from something else to a human, and then she goes back to the same something for reasons that are not questioned within the story). The 18th‑century collection of short stories Ugetsu monogatari (“Tales of Moonlight and Rain”) by Akinari Ueda is known to have elaborated ghost stories presented in a highly sophisticated and mysterious style of literature. One of its nine tales is a story of a Buddhist monk who turned into a carp and then back to a human being again.

“There was a monk who painted nature very skillfully. He often bought fish that were caught by fishermen, released them back into a lake, and liked to paint them swimming with a new life. He became well known among people as a good-hearted painter-monk.

Then one day he died suddenly. As people mourned and prepared his funeral, they noticed he was still alive. They waited—then he woke up and asked people to call one of the supporters of his temple. As the man came in, the monk described the party that this man was preparing in his house in detail. As people and the man were surprised why he knew such details of the event he had not been part of, the monk went on to explain what had happened in his dream: he had become so sick that he went to a lake to swim; here a fish approached and helped him become a carp. He did not wonder why and how he had became a carp, and swam freely for a while until became so hungry that he bit at the bait and was and captured by a fisherman. He was taken to the man’s house, a cook was about to chop him up, he screamed but nobody heard him. Then he woke up from his dream.

People were so impressed by his story that they released all the captured fish. The monk went on to live a happy long life.”

Other stories in the Ugetsu talk about ghosts that are masterfully described, demonstrating the skill of this author. Jyun Ishikawa, a modernist writer who translated the Ugetsu, describes Ueda’s skill as follows: “The sentences were amazingly naturally written. It is beyond if the author is skillful or not. It is not because these sentences are so well written a that ghost appears. It is because a ghost appears that there are such extremely precise expressions of necessity. A ghost means an expression; this had to come together spontaneously.”2 Ishikawa’s words describe the complex relationship between supernatural phenomena and natural expression, spirits in atmosphere and spirits in words, and in natural and the technical world. Ishikawa himself examined and practiced the technique of mastering natural description of supernatural phenomena “out of necessity” to carry out a flawless narrative of a modern novel, and succeeded in number of his works.

In the Japanese language these spirits and ghosts are also called “mono no ke.” “ke” is mystery or something that will possess, and “mono” refers to on object, a thing, a material, a quality, a substance, or in other uses, anything that affects people with its unknown power. Some anthropologists compare the word to the Melanesian word of “mana,” which refers to supernatural power. A well-known Melanesian expert, Robert Henry Codrington, explained that “there is a belief in a force altogether distinct from physical power, which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil, and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess or control. This is Mana.” Japan and these Pacific islands share some folk tales, and the link of these indigenous tales and languages has been researched.

How have these premodern “mono no ke” spirits and ghosts stories evolved in modern times? One good example can be seen in “Sangetsuki,” by Atsushi Nakajima, which is said to have been written around 1940 and is based on a Chinese story.

“Ricyo was an elite and intelligent young man who had passed the bureaucrat’s test earlier than the others. Having too much self-esteem, he did not want to work as a boring bureaucrat and had the ambition to become a successful poet. Failing in his ambition he went back to doing bureaucratic work again because of the need to feed his family, only to find out that his former colleagues had become higher-ranking officers than he. He lived with this humiliation for a while until, one day, he disappeared.

“Some time passed and one day Ricyo’s former close friend Ensan, who had also become a high ranking officer, was traveling on official business. On his way, he was nearly attacked by a tiger on a country road. Noticing that the tiger, which had hidden away, had a familiar voice, he found out that the tiger was Ricyo. Ricyo explained to him that his ‘cowardly pride and arrogant sense of shame’ had turned him into a tiger. After that he asked Ensan to write down his unpublished poems and to take care of his wife and children. He showed Ensan the last glimpse of himself as a tiger, and ran away.”

As a modern tale, this story of transformation is the story of a man’s self-consciousness. This story has been chosen as textbook material for high school students to educate them in the meaning of transformation in modern times. For students to be guided, the high school textbooks pose questions like:

– What kind of man was Ricyo before he became a tiger?

– In the novel Ricyo says to Ensan “It is the fate of us living things to receive anything that is imposed on us without questioning or protesting against its reasons, and to go on living with no chance of finding out why we must live that way?” Try to think of Ricyo’s feeling when he said this.

– Describe how the “human heart” is changed inside Ricyo after he becomes a tiger and think of the significance of this change.

– What does “cowardly pride and arrogant sense of shame” mean?

– Considering why Ricyo became a tiger, summarize this story’s theme.

– Describe the effect of the moon in the story.

– Try to read other works on transformation such as The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka and Stick by Kobo Abe.

From these questions and tasks we can see how Japanese high school students learn about the modern concept of transformation. Inspired students then go on to study E.T.A. Hoffman and Kafka in universities.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film director who created the man-tiger transformation sequence in his film, himself mentions that after a Japanese friend read the script of Tropical Malady, he talked about its similarity with “Sangetsuki”—apparently, the Thai director had not been aware of either the Chinese or the Japanese story when he wrote the script. The man-tiger in the jungle in his film is seen by the main character Keng as his love interest, Tong. This segment thus can be explained as a sexual dream if the audience wants to rationalize the part. In fact, many stories of transformation have erotic connotations, perhaps because for all of us the most dramatic physical transformation in us in reality occurs during puberty and that is in our memory. The idea of transformation also brings with it some kind of uneasiness and shyness, and that can be seen as erotic for many. One of the most widely read folk tales in Japan is the story of a transformation by a crane that is saved by a man and then turns itself into a human woman to become his wife out of gratitude. She even weaves beautiful kimonos to bring income to the home. Yet while she weaves she prohibits her husband from seeing her—because in fact the crane is using her own feathers for the weaving. In the end he sees her and finds out the true nature of his wife. This is a sad story but in it there is the peculiar eroticism of a woman not showing everything. Also, the feeling of uncertainty about not knowing whether one is in a dream or in reality can be a source of erotic inspiration.

And now I would like to examine transformation as a modern literary technique in the fiction of Jun Ishikawa. Shion monogatati (“The Archer,” 1956) is a story of a highly talented child poet who turned himself into an archer as a show of rebellion against his own poet father. After he becomes a provincial official, he starts to kill people who are in his way, most of them innocent, exchanging literature for militarism, and is feared. One day, however, he meets a man who lives in a mountain and has been making Buddhist art all his life. The archer sees him as an unconquerable rival and tries to shoot the artwork only to see himself falling off of the mountain. The head of the artwork falls off too, and whenever people try to place the head back in its original place, it always falls off. The short story deals with enormously complex subjects—from literature to art and culture, militarism, politics, dictatorship, and leadership. Shifuku Sennen (“The Millennium,” 1967) is a novel about a battle between different sects of secret Christians in Japan in the Edo period, with the background of Japan opening up to Western countries. The novel involves an attempt to create Armageddon, a cult leader, myths, and miracles. A similar battle is created in the novel Kyoufouki (“A Story of Mad Wind,” 1970–1980), but in this long story the battle is waged by ghosts against the powers that be in modern times. In all these novels people easily metamorphose into other beings and phenomena, and vice versa. In The Archer, a fox that the archer is hunting metamorphoses into a woman that becomes his wife and waits for the moment of successful revenge. In The Millennium, a cult member even transforms himself into a fire in a prison to let a jailed fellow secret Christian escape. How do these unbelievable, almost crazy situations avoid falling into the category of popular entertainment, and are rather considered fine art or even the greatest masterpieces of modern Japanese literature by many critics and readers? Firstly, this technique, just like other literary techniques, makes the literature autonomous as literature, linking complex plots to create a universe of imagination. Secondly, these novels guarantee the continuation of the tradition of Japanese literature while at the same time conducting radical experiments. And thirdly, each unbelievable transformation is an allegorical representation of far-fetched narratives that various authorities have created throughout history to maintain power, such as the Japanese imperial myths and the stories of miracles in different religions.

These modern experiments which challenge the minds of people living in modern times are practiced today in cultures in which children are protagonists. The enormous support for Hayao Miyazaki’s animated films and the recent hit movie Pan’s Labyrinth by the Mexican film director Guillermo del Toro are prime examples. In these films, mostly girl protagonists wander into a world of transformations and metamorphoses, meeting strange creatures and beings, accept them in full, and even lead them in the end. Such films are always based on an Alice, but these recent girl movies try to touch the nostalgic heart of viewers that may or may not be mourning for the disappearing culture of animism and transformation. Modern adults are too rational and only the girls accept these phenomena without question. Grown-ups are indeed in trouble.


1 / Thanaporn Promyamyai, “A Semiretired Ghostbuster,” The Bangkok Post, February 27, 2007.

2 / Jun Ishikawa, “Akinari Shiron,” Bungaku no. 27 (8–1959).