For many, summer brings a lot of associations: trips to the beach, ice creams, endless boba, or maybe even a fleeting romance. For me, part of summer always invariably involves ghost stories. There is nothing more chilling than a cold shiver down the spine or more exhilarating than a full spread page from the works of Junji Ito. July is the perfect month for scary stories… and maybe even a chance meeting with ghosts.
The idea that July is the ghost month is tied to Obon (お盆), a Japanese Buddhist tradition to honor one’s ancestors. Held in the seventh month, Obon celebrations include a three-day holiday, festivals, the Bon-Odori, and various traditions. Although Obon today is mostly about family reunion, visiting graves, and festive fun, it has quite an origin story.
Obon originated from the story of Maudgalyayana, a Buddhist monk who saves his mother from the realm of hungry ghosts. His mother had committed many atrocious acts while alive. Thus, to save his mother from her karmic sins, the Buddha told Maudgalyayana to provide food and robes for five hundred bhikkhus, who have just completed their summer retreat on July 15th. After completing this task, the mother was finally reincarnated as a human.
Eventually, consistent with the themes of ancestor worship and family reunion, July 15th became a day when families would get together and deceased ancestors would visit the realm of the living for four days. Cue the carnivals, yukata, offerings, and the Bon Odori. The Bon-Odori is an inseparable part of the Obon tradition. Inspired by the dance Maudgalyayana did out of joy when he rescues his mother, people danced to show their appreciation and love for their ancestors. At the end of four days, people would send the spirits off with floating lanterns or a burning “大”. (These motifs appear quite often in anime, but I cannot seem to remember any particular scene…)*
While this sounds like a lot of benevolent fun, there is yet a deeper layer. The spirits without descendants also enter the living realm from the lower realms. Without homes to go to, these wander the streets looking for food. Sometimes they even cause trouble. Further, other things may also enter from various realms occasionally to cause even more problems and fear.
Over the years, these beliefs and traditions have made summer a ripe time for ghost stories. Certainly, as July approaches, I have been seeing a lot of Japanese yurei movies, Thai films about karmic retribution, or just good old zombie horror.
In anime, this seems to be no different. Two of my most anticipated series this summer season are High School of the Dead and Shiki. Seikimatsu Occult Gakuen also looks quite interesting.
Of course, I am also extremely excited about Strike Witches 2, but that is a different story, one about beaches, swimsuits and bikinis rather than ghosts and horror.
*Edit: I finally remembered the anime I was thinking of when I wrote this post. Endless Eight of The Melancholy of Suzumiya features Obon as well as a daring contest as must-do’s for summer activities.