header is screenshot from Ghostwire: Tokyo
Folk Futures
Cian Maher

A pervasive fog skulks through the streets of Tokyo, clinging to corners like a bad smell. Yokai like the twin-tailed nekomata set up shop between sunken storefronts, while the ghosts of the departed hang suspended in the air, enduring their own private purgatories. A couple of blocks down, a black hole swallows everything in its path—but you’d never be able to tell any of this from inside the exceedingly ordinary phone box by the subway station, where the soft pattering of rain sings a sweet tune living far away from other noise.

The titular city of Ghostwire: Tokyo posits that the mundane and the absurd are one and the same, resulting in a setting that serves as the epicenter of the modern urban Weird. 

This is articulated right from the beginning of the game when an invisible spirit named KK lunges toward Shibuya Crossing and plunges itself into the body of Akito, an ordinary man on the edge of the extraordinary. From here, the cityscape becomes immediately and inextricably intertwined with the paranormal, as the streets of Tokyo are quickly emptied and imbued with an awesome supernatural presence. Structurally and architecturally, the city is modern; although the fact it is unpeopled is inescapable. The tension this dynamic elicits is instantly visible in Akito's realisation that half of his face is obfuscated by weird, ethereal smoke—which is also of note. Instead of witnessing his reflection in a mirror or body of water, he sees himself in a camcorder screen, deliberately setting up the juxtaposition of modernity and folklore that largely defines the entire game that follows. 

In a similar fashion to the Strugatsky Brothers' Roadside PicnicGhostwire's Tokyo is littered with the inalienable remnants of a society that has up and vanished. Except, instead of that novel's spark plugs and old filters, burnt-out bulbs and monkey wrenches, Ghostwire's setting is strewn with loose clothes and tins of non-perishable food. There are automobiles, traffic cones, and various types of trash. The detritus strewn across sidestreets wants to tell you why it has been abandoned, but you can already smell the lie. You know that Tokyo was never deserted—or at least not for very long. It was repopulated. 

What does that mean? Well, there are no other people here, save the lost souls who have yet to find their way out of the maelstrom. This, as it turns out, is a perfect canvas for folklore of the modern urban Weird, because it allows the city’s urban legends to rear their heads and howl. Because what are urban legends at their core if not MacGyvered explanations for contemporary anxieties, nonsense bogeyman invented for the sole purpose of didacticism? Watch out for kuchisake-onna, lest you earn yourself a Glasgow smile. Stay away from the river’s edge or a kappa might stick its finger up your bum. These myths may be ostensibly silly, but they have a curious way of enduring, having reappropriated themselves to be relevant time and time again for centuries.

Ghostwire’s folklore is acutely aware of this. Take the aforementioned kuchisake-onna, for example. While the origins of many yokai can be traced back to ancient texts, Japan’s “Slit-Mouthed Woman” was actually only invented during the Edo period, with some scholars attributing her creation to revered ukiyo-e artist Toriyama Sekien. 

Beyond that, kuchisake-onna wasn’t widely considered an official yokai until manga artist Shigeru Mizuki popularised her in GeGeGe no Kitarō in the 1970s. While kappa and tengu are certainly from much older traditions, yokai all exist alongside one another. The relationships between them are murky by design, with their whole existence being one of ambiguity and imprecision. It’s no wonder that every katashiro you send to your fellow investigator, Ed, in Ghostwire is little more than a drop in the ocean of spirits lingering across Tokyo—the city is so oversaturated with yokai and ghosts (yurei) that to call it deserted would be like proclaiming water dry. 

All of this is normal not just for Ghostwire or Japanese myths, but folklore in general. The reason yokai from ‘70s pop culture can be at home next to kappa and tengu has to do with the fact that folklore is an innately metamorphic art. It continuously evolves over the years so that it can be adapted for any given situation at any given time, which is what makes it unique. It is also inherently shared, meaning that it is globally ubiquitous, regardless of where individual facets of a specific folk tradition have their origins. Purely by virtue of its continued existence, folklore automatically begets new folklore, which is why in the 21st century it can feel as at home in post-urban Tokyo as it does in more obviously fantastical settings. 

It is worth noting, however, that Tokyo is a particularly apt setting for Ghostwire—I am fortunate enough to have been there and borne witness to the random shrines which jut out from between bars, evidence of the past wedged between modern buildings. Ghostwire’s core thematic juxtaposition is baked into the very makeup of Tokyo, to the extent that anyone who has walked its streets in person or on pages will recognize its unique aptitude for folklore and magical realism in the modern age—it’s no wonder that stories like Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle have become so inimitable. 

Speaking of which, there’s a specific element of magical realism that Ghostwire revels in, which massively accentuates the tenacity of its folklore. Like in parts of Murakami’s novel, many areas of Ghostwire are deeply liminal. Scenes take place in strange offices, empty industrial estates, derelict train stations, and practical urban settings that are emphatically not homely. Even KK’s makeshift apartment base is technically a safehouse—it is designed to be temporary, and therefore can never be permanent. Occupying a space in Ghostwire is not unlike venturing to Tarkovsky’s Room or VanderMeer’s Zone. It is a vague, dangerously liminal sphere that is both unpredictable and intractable, and the lack of geographical precision in spite of having a highly gamified map at your disposal is neatly aligned with an absence of specificity for the game’s wider naming practices. 

“Visitor,” which is the term used to denote the game’s standard enemies, is deliberately nebulous for a variety of reasons. On one hand, it is brilliantly innocuous. They’re not called “killers” or “demons,” which muddles their intent and pronounces their unpredictability. This makes the very concept of Visitors unnerving, which is further compounded by their alignment with Hannya’s cultish “Faceless,” eliciting visions of uncanny simulacra that transcend time and resist categorization. But “Visitor” is also a very apt term in that it refers to the same liminality that isolates you. These monsters have no intention of conquering Tokyo or even staying there—they are at home in the unhomely, revelling in the transitive and transformative spaces that prove so precarious for KK and Akito. It makes sense that you, too, are a visitor, albeit one who has not yet earned the proper form of that noun.

While these are granular observations, they are critical because of how obviously calculated they are. Ghostwire’s folklore is significantly more nuanced than, “Oh look, a tengu!” which is why it is worth writing about at all. Some of the more identifiable elements of it are still very impressive — the game’s use of Torii gates, which traditionally mark the point of transition from the ordinary to the sacred, is especially intriguing, particularly when you consider that their notation on the game’s map mirrors their place on real-world roadmaps. It is strange to see how often they are perched atop buildings in industrial complexes, requiring elevators or yokai to reach—but then again, the places in which Ghostwire's Underworld resonate most strongly with reality are often spaces defined by upside-down, inside-out level design. Ultimately, this leads to yet another worthwhile instance of seamlessly blending urbanism with folklore. It works—particularly when you remember that many yokai are famous for their shape-shifting, making shape-shifting folklore in a shape-shifting world all the more effective. We’re looking at you, Ghostwire Tom Nook.

But then you have even more subtle efforts to the same effect. For example, the semantics of combat pay allegiance to both folklore and modernity. Sure, your martial prowess is largely tied to the nebulously named ethereal weaving, but to go sicko mode you need to “wire in," powering up Akito by making said weaving significantly more devastating. There is a degree of tension in Ghostwire: Tokyo that is so widespread across the entire experience that its continued coherence eventually begins to rely on it. As French philosopher Jacques Lacan once wrote, “There is no such thing as a pre-discursive reality. Every reality is founded and defined by a discourse.” Ghostwire arms itself with its own unique vernacular and, by fully committing to it, establishes its own unreal version of reality that brings folklore to roaring life.

In turn, Ghostwire’s folklore is in no way confined by the screen that depicts it. Folk tales in the modern era still function as they always have—they provide creative explanations for the unknowable, the unseeable, and the unconquerable. They contextualise the phantom itches and invasive hunches that intuit dread, fear, and uncertainty from around corners and beneath the ground. It is for this reason that, although the Japanese folklore of Ghostwire is obviously aesthetically attuned to the subjects it textures, the basic premise of the game could work in any setting, with any folk underbelly. You may not believe in wyverns or werewolves, but ghost stories are as powerful and prominent as they ever were. 

Ghostwire, for all its indulgence in folklore and fantasy, serves as a deep and meaningful commentary on modern life. Like folk traditions are often concerned with reflecting reality in distorted but discernible ways, Ghostwire critiques capitalism via the spirits of those it shackled, greed via its gamey obsession with collectibles, and fanaticism via Hannya's self-ordained eschatological solution for spiritual freedom—hell, the game even references French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s “All property is theft” adage an hour into its runtime. It’s not necessarily surprising—one only needs to look at a popular fairy tale like Animal Farm to see how folklore and children’s stories can be manipulated as propaganda or transgression. But it is a case of unequivocal proof of the place that folklore still has in today’s urban Weird.

The future of folklore, then, is to allow it to continue perpetuating itself. As evidenced by Ghostwire’s highly specific folk influences, these stories will outlive us like they did our ancestors before us and our descendants after us. And in a world where the very existence of humanity is at risk, folklore, malleable as molten metal, will never cease to be relevant or important, shape-shifting into new forms and frenzies like the yokai it concerns itself with. The future of folklore is drenched in neon.


Cian Maher is a freelance writer from Dublin, Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter