July, Obon, and Summer Horror

konpaku youmu saigyouji yuyuko touhou yuhka

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.

konpaku youmu neko_works saigyouji yuyuko sayori touhou yuri

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.

WAKIMIKO Hakurei Reimu Touhou

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.

Hakurei Reimu Aya Touhou yuri

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…)*

ibuki_suika touhou tsurusaki_takahiro

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.

kimono konpaku_youmu myon tonpara touhou

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.

High School of the Dead scan

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.

Suzumiya Haruhi Endless Eight Obon

*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.

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56 Responses to July, Obon, and Summer Horror

  1. enri says:

    The HSD looks good, but the Shiki seems even better ^ ^
    Well we’ll see soon

    • Yi says:

      @enri: HSD for sure is the hype of the season. Shiki is something I know very little about. I’ve only read the premise and seen a few images, so I’m less confident in that.

      “Well we’ll see soon”
      Yup yup. ^ ^

  2. Swordwind says:

    Summer has never really been like that for me. Maybe I’d enjoy it more if it was. Instead of the more enchanted, mysterious air, Summer seems, to me, quite mundane. It’s pretty, but I prefer Winter’s beauty. Of course, It’s easier to work out in Summer.

    Touhou images are prevalent. Thankfully, some are even good.

    • Yi says:

      @Swordwind: I’m not sure what season I most prefer. Summer has its charms, but as do the lonesome winter and romantic fall. Spring, however, has never really been that interesting. I think it’s because second semester is always a stressful time.

      “Touhou images are prevalent. Thankfully, some are even good.”
      I tried going for a loose Touhou theme in this post. The good thing about Touhou is that there are so many fanarts, you can find appropriate ones for any situation.

  3. Kairu90 says:

    Very interesting, never thought ghosts and horror for the summer lol. I still have not watched Strike Witches, but I will sit down and watch it now knowing the 2nd season will be out. High School of the Dead looks KINDA interesting, but I am not much on horror.

    • Yi says:

      @Kairu90: I’ve seen a lot of manga and anime mention telling ghost stories as a summer activity. I did that as a kid too on summer camping trips, so for me, this was always part of summer, just like beaches and fireworks.

      HSD seems less on horror and more on fanservice and fun with zombies. I’m not sure if it will actually be scary.

  4. mystlord says:

    Woah that’s a really interesting connection. It’s nice to know some Japanese culture other than what I’m exposed to in anime. It does also explain why we had Bakemonogatari, Umineko, and CANAAN in Summer 09. Good stuff. I’m glad you wrote about it thanks!

    • Yi says:

      @mystlord: It also explains Higurashi as well (I think).
      Anyways, Maudgalyayana’s story is really quite interesting. I read it once and it’s very reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno. It’s essentially a trip through Pureland Buddhism’s version of Hell. So if you’re interested in that, I would highly recommend it.

  5. Yu says:

    I find the isolation of winter much more haunting than comparatively warm, noisy summer nights. There’s always something making noise during a summer night.

    But telling ghost stories to cool down during the summer may as well be a strategy for dealing with the heat.

    I think I recall Sora no Woto containing a scene with floating lanterns.

    • Yi says:

      @Yu: Agreed about summer nights. There seems to be quite a culture, especially in China, Taiwan, and other heavily Buddhist/ Taoist influenced cultures to see summer as a time for spirits and ghosts. I’ve been seeing so many horror films on TV lately here in Taiwan, and there’s been many events by various temples in anticipation for July.

      Still, personally, I think the lonesome cold winter is more scary.

      I really need to watch Sora no Woto.

      • Yu says:

        Oh, I entirely understand the culture, seeing as I am mostly Taiwanese myself 😉 I find Asiatic superstitions about spirits to be more intriguing than Western ones. Still, surely the Taiwanese can be forgiven since “cold” and “snow” don’t really exist there.

        Sora no Woto was decent. People complain about it being too moe and having a cliched ending, but as I am not very critical at all, the ending did’t bother me. I admit, I started watching it for the scenery porn.

        • Yi says:

          @Yu: Actually, after I read your comment, I was also wondering why the lonesome Winter doesn’t seem to be as scary in Taiwan, then I realized that cold does not exist.

          I had heard about the picturesque presentation of Sora no Woto too. I’m excited to get to it soon, right after I finish some other series.

  6. mefloraine says:

    Ha ha, nice twist on a summer preview.

  7. phro says:

    It is also a time when Hanabira-Kun will finish Sono Hanabira 5 :D… High School of the Dead looks pretty good, but what I am really looking forward to is Black Rock Shooter in Blu-Ray! mmm…

  8. Baka-Raptor says:

    Strike Witches 2 does terrify me.

  9. shinra says:

    XD I will def watch HSD cuz its kinda Yuri-poi… LoL

    Never liked Yurei movies…. Hate them, but Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (百物語怪談会) i ok for me…. I love to listen to Hyakumonogatari on Obon day but not watching horror movies in tat day, will shock to death if i do tat….. T_T

    • Yi says:

      @shinra: I didn’t realize that it has yuri. In fact, I know very little about it… But that would be so awesome!

      “百物語怪談会” is indeed awesome. The ghosts appearing in it are so grotesque and even comical. It’s kind of fun.

      Some yurei movies really scare me. The Grudge was one of the scariest things ever.

      • Shinra says:

        XD I mean Yuri-poi (look) not Yuri… well, i’m not sure either, But Kitamura Eri and Sawashiro Miyuki seiyuued tons of Yuri animes, so i’m just guessing XD

        I never Like Yurei movies… the 1 tat i hate most is, same as u, the Grudge. ><

        • Yi says:

          @Shinra: It’s not hard for me to make an anime yuri with my amazing lenses. ^ ^

          As for the Grudge, I hated it the night that I saw it, but I loved the thrill while watching and loved it now that time has diluted the fear.

  10. Omurqi says:

    Ohh interesting, I never knew much about (the origin of) Obon. About the upcoming shows, I’m not yet sold on Shiki. Looking at the trailer, it could very well be a complete failure (it’s giving me ookami kakushi flashbacks). But let’s stay positive, it just might be genuinely creepy and good. High School of the Dead and Occult Academy I am really looking forward to.

    • Yi says:

      @Omurqi: High School of the Dead seems to be the hype of summer season. I’m not too sold on both Shiki and Occult Academy, but I liked what I saw from both. Shiki especially because I love truly creepy stuff.

  11. Smithy says:

    Although I’m not into horror at all “High School of the Dead” is on my watch list, hope the anime retains the excellent atmosphere of the manga.

    Haven’t really been tempted by “Shiki”, maybe I should check it out when it airs.

    Will definitely be watching “Strike Witches 2”. ^^

    • Yi says:

      @Smithy: I haven’t read the manga for HSD, but I’m excited for it. I’m a bit more unsure about Shiki just because there is so much mystery surrounding this series, but I guess that’s the point.
      Strike Witches 2 is probably the highest on my list. Always felt SW was unfinished. Plus, I love the mecha musume character designs.

  12. 2DT says:

    Shiki has a certain allure. Very, very creepy-looking, and I normally don’t seek out stuff that will rob me of sleep. But I suspect I’ll be watching it anyway.

    Zombies, though! I can’t stand them. That’s why I’m going to watch all of High School of the Dead and write about it. 🙂

    • Yi says:

      @2DT: Shiki definitely has that mysterious alluring feel for it, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to watch this.
      While I love horror, I hate it when I can’t sleep because of one. The Grudge was one that scared me that much. Still, the thrill of a creepy anime is worth it.

      Looking forward both to HSD and what you will say about it.

  13. Ningyo says:

    I can’t remember the motif in anime, but the move Fire Blast in Pokemon used to be in the shape of a big ‘大’… ‘Dai’. Lol, nobody back then understood its significance, and the puzzle didn’t really get clarified when I went to Hong Kong, where we could only still read the character. Now, seeing how Pokemon sees its production in Japan, I don’t see any other implication.

    Love an occasional post on tradition and myth. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be occasional – love myself some mythology. Especially after Persona. I’m pretty sure there’s actually a similar Chinese equivalent back then. I remember people burning offerings in the streets.

    Though I’ll have to say HSotD didn’t manage to interest me to the point of further research, especially when the little I heard about it involved something about an orgy bus. I remember opening a manga of it once, and the very page I arrived at had a lot of boobs. I put it down immediately. Strange, that; here I am, resting my tired wrist on an oppai mousepad, and the moment I see promiscuous breasts in anime I’ll go ‘duuude, that’s uncouth’.

    • Swordwind says:

      You made me giggle.

    • Yi says:

      @Ningyo: I was referring more to the motifs surrounding obon in general. Surely you’ve seen floating lanterns, yukata dances, or even just festivals. The 大 thing I’ve never actually seen, except in a manga once. It was a burning 大 on a hill. I can’t remember what the manga is now though.
      As for fire blast, I never thought of it that way, but I agree completely.

      I’ll admit that I didn’t look very closely in HSotD. I saw zombies. I saw some scans featuring girls in tattered clothing. I saw a kendo girl. And I was sold.

      “here I am, resting my tired wrist on an oppai mousepad, and the moment I see promiscuous breasts in anime I’ll go ‘duuude, that’s uncouth’.”
      Haha. ^ ^
      Next time you disagree with me about a fanservicey series like Queen’s Blade, I’ll call you out for having an oppai mousepad.

      • Solaris says:

        Could it be a reference to the big DAI kanji carved on a mountain near Hakone?

        And, sorry Mr/Miss Yi, since i judged your site interesting, i’m sticking around a bit. Some other comments at the end (well i’m going to write them now XD)

  14. softz says:

    I gave up on the manga version of High School of The Dead. Let’s hope that the anime movie will be a good one (of my personal taste).

  15. AS says:

    Ya, I heard that telling ghost stories during the summer cools you down, not exactly sure why. Maybe the chills you get from hearing it makes you break out in a sweat and psychologically you feel a bit colder due to the story, especially if it’s dark, so you get colder. Either that or you get so caught up in the story you forget about the heat lol, who knows.

    • Yi says:

      @AS: I think it’s probably the last thing. It doesn’t work as well as a cold drink or an air conditioner though, but it can be more fun.

  16. Xine says:

    Hello Yi. Thanks for the info. The first image looks lovely, is it from an anime?

    • Yi says:

      @Xine: The characters are Youmu and Yuyuko from Touhou. Touhou is a series of doujin games that feature many lovely characters. The artist is Yuhka. It sure is a lovely picture!

  17. lovelyduckie says:

    I plan on experiencing Junji Ito soon. I’ve bought Uzumaki and I plan on getting Gyo quite soon. I definitely enjoy a good horror story.

    When it comes to ghost stories in the summer I usually just associated it as a way to bring a couple in my anime/manga closer together. Especially those Courage walks where two people pair up and go into a cave (or in woods etc…).

    • Yi says:

      @lovelyduckie: Junji Ito is a mangaka I’ve loved for some time. He has way to many works to track down though and I’m pretty sure there are still many I’m missing.
      Out of the ones I’ve read so far, Uzumaki is the best. Gyo is not bad, but I think he has better works. I would suggest finding the anthologies “The Horror World of Junji Ito.” The 15 volumes feature quite a bunch of his short stories and slightly longer works, such as Tomie.

      Anyways, courage walks always seem really fun to me. I have yet to try that.

  18. Persocom says:

    Really love the pictures you used in this post, can’t stress that enough. It’s also good to learn some more as well. I don’t associate Summer with these things myself, rather I liken them to Autumn. Japanese have a much deeper meaning to their festivities than us boring Americans XD I definitely enjoy the anime that comes out though, not sure about Highschool of the Dead just yet but Shiki sounds interesting.

    • Yi says:

      @Persocom: Autumn huh? That’s interesting. Most people I know associate ghosts and hauntings to either the lonesome winter or the spiritual summer.

      Anyways, America has some nice festivals and events as well. Granted, it does not have the history that Japan has. Still, I like fireworks during July 4th or the festive fun of Christmas.

      Shiki does sound kind of interesting. I’m just afraid it might end up too slow paced and too much back story building, as is the case with many mystery horror anime.

  19. Mira says:

    dat Youmu, dericious
    (Also Tenks and I were arguing over voice chat what gender you are, would you mind resolving this issue via a PM?)

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  21. Reltair says:

    Thanks for the quick and interesting history lesson!

    Now I know why anime always features some of the same summer activities.

    • Yi says:

      @Reltair: Yea no problem. I think I may have stretched some associations a bit too much though, like the one between Obon and courage walks.

  22. Solaris says:

    Always witty posts indeed. With Summer being also the season of holydays, the association between the need for evading one’s routine and the supernatural mood Obon suggest, becomes obvious and the mood is set for a nice spooky story *,..,*_v
    But why during Summer? If i recall correctly Japanese tradition comes from animism. (taoism?) That is to say anything has a soul. Every objesct is alive in that view of the nature and when does Nature lives at its fullest? During Summer! Ghosts are not an exception to this as they’re are souls of deceased people. Animism doesn’t consider death as an end but a return to a certain natural circle of life.
    I’m from Italy and our “Obon”-like matsuri is held the 1st of November. The weather also stars to cool down in November, and by December it’s full winter. When i didn’t consider the great difference in religion, I always judge it weird japanese tradition tends to associate summer with concepts related to the dead, as life its fullest in Summer. I always thought a Month like November is more suited to host such a fastival for the Nature is dying down to be newly reborn next spring. You see our concept of death is something else due to the differences in religion. Death is a key passage toward rebirth in the light of God in Paradise. The seasons here play as symbols of life (summer), ageing (autumn), death (winter) and rebirth(spring). Anyhow life is one and only for the Christian religion and that rebirth is meant as the rebirth of the soul in the grace of God.

    As for the touhou references, i’d have another 10 pages to write about, but it’s better if i stop here now before being a bother.

    • Swordwind says:

      Obon is a Buddhist practice. Animism is the general term for African tribal spirituality. While your analysis is also dependent on the specific christian religion involved, I’m sure everyone appreciates the time you’ve put into your post.

      You’re not alone; many of the posts from members of the western community associate the cooler, less lush winter more readily with death-related festivals as well.

      • Solaris says:

        Thank you for the ready corrections. Forgive the lack precision. I hope those wouldn’t bias the rough attempt i wrote down.

        • Swordwind says:

          Not in the least. I am, and while I hesitate to speak for others, the rest of Yi’s readers probably are, grateful for your opinion.

    • Yi says:

      It’s really interesting that you mention Taoism. Both Buddhism and Taoism observe a “ghost month” in July and both claim its origins. In reality, it could actually originate from simply folk religion/ tradition based on ancestor worship that preceded both. Buddhism only started gaining popularity in East Asia around 500 AD or so, and Taoism (as a religion) later.

      Today, a lot of the traditions and religions have influences and blends of a mixture of these.

      Summer definitely does feel much more lively than the other seasons, and it’s a good point to extend that idea to the afterlife.

      It’s really interesting to see that western culture and Christianity take the afterlife and seasons so differently. In the US, Halloween is a bit similar to the idea behind Obon, and that’s an autumn event. Further, Winter is certainly very dead.

      Thanks for the post. ^ ^

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