Hungry Ghosts Left Me Hungry for Context

Hungry Ghosts Feature via Dark Horse

Hungry Ghosts #1

Anthony Bourdain (writer), Joel Rose (writer), Alberto Ponticelli (artist), Vanessa Del Rey (artist), Jose Villarrubia (colorist), Sal Cipriano (letters), Paul Pope (cover art)
Dark Horse
31 January, 2018

I can’t pinpoint exactly when I fell in love with Japanese horror. There’s a solid chance it happened when I stumbled across the anime Higurashi no Naku Koro Ni/When They Cry in high school or maybe while reading a bit of Junji Ito before I really knew who the famous horror artist was. Most likely, I really fell for it when I took a class on J-horror in college. We started with older ghost stories, including chapters The Tale of Genji and tales from Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaidan, and worked our way up to modern films like Pulse and Audition, which left me with a bit of a Takashi Miike obsession. I was intrigued to learn that I share this experience with Anthony Bourdain. In addition to his graphic novel Get Jiro! Bourdain has now written Hungry Ghosts, an ode to Japanese ghost stories, alongside writing partner Joel Rose.

Hungry Ghosts 1 Cover via Dark HorseAfter a brief introduction delivered by a ghostly figure, Hungry Ghosts begins its tale in a luxurious house in New York that overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. A Russian oligarch and several of his friends have just enjoyed an incredible meal cooked by chefs who, from their various accents, appear to be from all over the world. The Russian gathers them at the now-empty dinner table to participate in Kaidan, a game from Japan’s Edo period in which samurai would gather in a candle-filled room, telling stories and blowing out a candle after each one. As the room grows darker and the tales more horrifying, these chefs must test their nerves by risking the appearance of spirits drawn to their stories. Each issue of Hungry Ghosts will feature horror stories told by these chefs, and its inaugural issue opens with a tale of spirits who starved to death and another of rapist pirates getting their due.

This comic promises many things. During their brief introduction, the chefs reveal that they all cook at restaurants that serve vicious despots and criminals–“rich fucks”–who run the world, suggesting that we will get some commentary on these rich fucks. When Mr. Ichi, the Russian’s creepy physical therapist, lays out the rules of Kaidan, he promises that each story will be more terrifying than the next. Finally, in his end note, Rose promises that these tales will engage in kind of cultural exchange. Rose cites Lafcadio Hearn, a reporter and scholar who moved from American to Japan in the late 1800s, married a Japanese woman, and wrote about Japanese culture for Western audiences. Hearn is known best for Kwaidan, a collection of supernatural tales taken from old Japanese texts or, occasionally, from the mouths of people Hearn actually met. Rose invokes Hearn because he wants Hungry Ghosts‘ audience to view the comic as a stage for cultural exchange. SO while inspired by ancient Japanese horror stories, these new tales are set in places “far-abreast and far-reaching.”

It’s unfair to definitively answer the question of if this series lives up to its promises at this point, but the first issue offers a glimpse into whether or not Hungry Ghosts as a whole will actually deliver.

Bourdain and Rose kick off Hungry Ghosts with some basic social commentary. The first two stories focus on horror’s ability to offer consequences to terrible humans who typically get away with their actions. “The Starving Skeleton” punishes a ramen chef who refuses to feed a starving man, and “The Pirates” proffers visceral retribution to pirates who rape women. Neither story attempts to explain why these actions should be punished. They are enjoyable fantasies, but I felt I’d been set up for deeper meaning and was a bit disappointed to get a different kind of story.

Turning to the promise that each tale will increase in terror, “The Pirates” certainly has more emotional impact than “The Starving Skeleton.” Told by a female chef whose dialogue draws from Bourdain’s trademark coarse wit, “The Pirates” walks the line between horror and humor. Its premise is simple–rape is bad and will be punished–the jokes are not at the expense of survivors, and it ends on a delightful punchline. Whether or not it’s more frightening than the preceding story is difficult to answer. “The Starving Skeleton” addresses a more common action and thus could shake up a wider audience; we’ve all declined to give when asked for money or food on the street. However, the construction of the first story leaves something to be desired.

“The Starving Skeleton” contains a sequence in which the story’s ghost pursues a ramen chef. In the middle of this blue-toned action sequence, a panel with a bright red background pops up, disrupting the chef’s attempt at escape. Only after reading this scene several times did I realize that this was supposed to be the moment when the chef first views the monster, but manages to momentarily escape. Overall, the scene has a solid, frightening tone–Sal Cipriano’s letters are quite visceral and cleverly increase in size to indicate that the ghost is growing closer–but the change in background colors is too confusing to be emotionally effective. By the time I sorted out what was supposed to be happening, the ending of the story had arrived, and had little impact.

Panel from The Starving Skeleton, via Dark Horse
The red panel that interrupts “The Starving Skeleton”

Ponticelli, Del Rey and Villarubia do create solidly eerie settings for these stories. Ponticelli’s rock star moment occurs in “The Starving Skeleton,” when the reader first sees the ramen stand from a bird’s eye view. The stand is deliciously claustrophobic, and the starving man’s inky shadow emphasizes how out of place he is in this tiny domain where the ramen chef rules. Del Rey’s consistently heavy inking in “The Pirates” creates a sense of heaviness and entrapment, but also emphasizes that the events occurring between panels are grotesque and painful. Villarubia truly shines in this story, using blue and purple tones to cast an eerie pall over the events that occur in the underbelly of the ship.

Returning the comic’s final promise, Rose and Bourdain’s intentions behind creating a comic that is “far-reaching” feels utterly muddled. While various accents indicate that these chefs are supposed to be from several different countries, the storytellers never directly state their origins. “The Starving Skeleton” feels clearly situated in Japan and the storyteller’s use of the Japanese name for the ghost–hidarugami–suggests that he is Japanese, but there are zero hints as to where the second story takes place, or where the nameless female chef is from. It’s bizarre that, after conducting extensive research into Japanese ghost stories to ensure their work is well contextualized, Rose and Bourdain offer zero context to the non-Japanese chefs. An exciting aspect of horror is that it reflects the traumas and anxieties of the culture from which it comes; taking Japanese ghosts and placing them in vague other locations fails to capture the spirit of sharing unique cultural stories, as Hearn did with Kwaidan.

Hungry Ghosts may prove to be a more interesting read once complete, but this first issue falls flat. Hopefully future issues offer more cultural context and amp up the fright.

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa

Alenka Figa is a queer librarian and intense cat mom. She spends her days reading zines and indie comics, and twittering about D&D podcasts at @alenkafiga.