All posts by Jasmin Boehm

A student of Japanese (Pop) Culture premodern and contemporary. Also a former student of English literature, especially of the late 19th century, and everything gender. And a fan of manga/anime and monsters.

Influenced By… Judaism and Christianity

Saviours, Angels, Robots, Nuns and Vampires!

After my look at the ties of Dao, Onmyōji and Twin Star Exorcists, in this installment of my ‘influenced by’-series I’ll engage with an exotic topic – for Japan, that is. Let’s have a look at Christianity in Japan and its appearances in Anime!

Saint Young Men

Saint Young Men Seinto oniisan Jesus buddha manga anime

Mind the T-Shirts: Buddha’s says “Nirvana”, but I doubt he means the band.

A special favourite of mine, often overlooked, is the manga (by Nakamura Hikaru, 2006-now) and anime film Saint Young Men (Seinto Oniisan, 2013), which humourusly portrays the day-to-day experiences of best buddies Buddha and Jesus on their vacation in Japan. This usually entails accidental miracles and the trouble the two of them have to (a) maintain their incognito and (b) cope with modern life.

Jesus divides pool Saint Young Men

This is not diving, this is Moses-ing.

In one instance, Buddha takes Jesus to a swimming pool and Jesus has to admit he is somewhat afraid of water, hence his preference to walk across. Buddha persuades him to try and dive. When he eventually does, well… Let’s just say the Egyptians have seen it before.

However, anime with religious allusions or symbolism don’t usually feature a religious figure as a character. Instead, there tends to be a mashup of names, symbols, and stories, or just playing on “cool” exotic themes. The stories, it seems are not as popular as the images.

So, how did Christian lore arrive in Japan in the first place?

The introduction of Christianity to Japan

Francis Xavier Kobe Museum Japan Jesuit missionary

Francis Xavier, as depicted in a painting exhibited at Kobe Museum.

The Portuguese “discovered” the Japanese archipelago in 1542. (From a European point of view. The Chinese, Koreans, and of cause the Japanese themselves had known for centuries that it existed.) Seven years later, Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier and his subordinates landed in what is now Nagasaki prefecture, on the island of Kyūshū, and introduced the Japanese to Christianity.[i] Initially, the new religion received a warm welcome.

Early Success

At first, Japanese audiences took Christianity for just another sect of Buddhism. Early translations of Christian scripture into Japanese rendered “God” as “Dainichi Nyōrai”, thereby equating him with the Great Sun-Buddha, a central deity of esoteric Buddhism. (In Japan, Dainichi Nyōrai is also associated with Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and ruler of the heavens in Shintō.) This translation intensified general similarities in Christian and Buddhist ethics. It also catered to the Japanese syncretistic worldview, which easily blends different religions according to individual spiritual needs. Therefore, the new religion was not met with resistance. It was seen as an addition, not a replacement, of the old ones. Statistics also play a role here: If a regional ruler converted, his subjects would follow, thus one conversion could bring a significant rise in the number of “believers”.

But most important was the current political landscape. Christianity arrived in Japan at a time of internal struggle. It was end of the Warring States Period (Sengoku Jidai) and military leader Oda Nobunaga was trying to unify Japan. Among other things, he fought the political influence of Buddhist monasteries and eventually burnt down most of Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei, from where the monks had brought their demands to the imperial capital of Kyōto. In this context, Oda encouraged the spread of Christianity as a rival to Buddhism.[ii]


fumi-e fumie test christian Japan kakure kirishitan hidden stepping picture

“To test a suspected Christian, order him to step on this fumi-e. Believers will refuse.”

The official view of Christianity turned, however, due to several developments. Firstly, the Christian idea of superiority over all other beliefs conflicted with the aforementioned syncretistic approach of Japanese Buddhism and Shintō. Secondly, the newly established military government was concerned about Catholics’ loyalty to the pope. Thirdly, news of the confessional wars between Catholics and Protestants in Europe sparked concern of similar things happening between converts of the two sects in Japan.

As a result, missionary action and the performance of Christian belief in Japan was increasingly persecuted, culminating in the violent suppression of the Christian peasant uprisings of Amakusa and Shimabara in 1637. [iii]  Three years later, Japan entered its over 200-year isolation (sakoku), until the ships of American commodore Perry forced the opening of trading ports in the mid-19th century. Christian belief only survived in secret among the so-called “hidden Christians” (kakure kirishitan). Buddhist images served as disguises for the forbidden worship; for example, the bodhisattva Kannon is often depicted as female, in some cases even with a child, and can therefore double as Virgin Mary.[iv]


Chapel of Dôshisha University, Kyôtô.

After the Meiji Restoration (1868) Japan denounced its isolation and rapidly imported European philosophy and science. The new imperial government encouraged everything which seemed to further the modernization of the country. In this context, they eventually lifted the ban on Christianity, but soon grew hostile again. Like Buddhism, the religion of Christianity stood against the proposed doctrine of State Shintō and seemed in conflict with the new, modern, scientific worldview.[v]  However, the establishment of Christian universities such as Kyōto’s Protestant Dōshisha University (1875) and Tōkyō’s Catholic Sophia University (1911) demonstrates the influence of Christianity on Japanese higher education. In this way, Christianity was an important factor in the political developments leading to modern Japan.[vi]

Since the American occupation after WWII, the Japanese have also adopted many aspects of Western Christian culture, such as Christmas and Christian wedding ceremonies. However, only 1-3% of the Japanese population count themselves as Christian.[vii] Thus these rituals are decontextualized and secularized, perhaps a part of global consumer culture. (Which, arguably, is also what they have become in “Christian” countries.) As a part of this global consumer culture, popular culture emerges as a space of cultural interaction and engagement with myth.

Neon Genesis Evangelion

Neon gegensis evangelion poster

The poster doesn’t really tell you what you’re in for.

Ten years ago, Neon Genesis Evangelion (Shinseiki Evangerion) would not have needed an introduction among anime fans. The anime series (produced by studio Gainax and directed by Anno Hideaki) ran in 1995-6 on TV Tokyo and reached international audiences from 2000 onward.[viii] Anime scholar Susan Napier lauds it as a landmark series, both as a representative of its genres – science fiction and, more specifically mecha anime – and because of its enormous popularity and impact on popular culture.[ix] For more information on NGE’s outstanding contributions to anime storytelling from this site’s main author, see this post. The effect lingers; you could still see some Evangelion cosplay at German Anime-Conventions in 2012 (which is when I stopped going) and we found figurines of its characters in UFO-Catchers in Kyōto only last year. So I’ll keep the summary brief.

What happens?

In a dystopian mechanized future, the world (i.e. mostly Japan, i.e. mainly Tokyo) is threatened by aliens, the ‘angels’. The only ones who can defeat them are certain 14-year-olds, when they become pilots of giant robots called Evangelions (EVA for short). The main protagonist is one of these pilots, Ikari Shinji, a sulky boy in conflict with his estranged father, who happens to run the operations against the aliens. One would expect a generic “boy hero overcomes obstacles and saves world with his friends” story, as the opening theme[x] suggests, but this is what NGE refuses to do.

Instead, it depicts the psychological issues of its main character(s) and embellishes the “humans fight aliens” plot with so many references to Judeo-Christian lore that researchers have interpreted the work as a) a postmodern deconstruction of reality and identity b) criticism of consumer culture and America-centered political history and c) a contemplation of the meaning of life – and that’s just the three articles I found in my university library.[xi]

What’s Christian?

Much of the stories NGE draws on are not Christian as much as based on Hebrew Kabbala and the Gnostics.[xii] The title ‘Evangelion’ itself refers to the gospel, of course. Because the antagonistic aliens are called angels, on can already assume that humanity has, in some way, angered God and brought these events upon itself? Well, what exactly the root cause of everything is, the series never reveals, but it becomes clear that at least the cataclysmic events around the first angel, Adam, were caused by human arrogance and ‘it attempting to play God’.

Old and New Testament, and far beyond that

Rebuild Evangelion Neon Genesis angel cross explosion

Explosion of the 7th angel, as shown in the Evangelion movie versions (Rebuild of Evangelion)

In addition, with the first angel named Adam, it surely comes as no surprise that the robots called EVAs have a certain connection to it (i.e. they are partially constructed after his model), or that another angel by the name of Lilith appears.[xiii] Speaking of angels: the Japanese dub uses shito, which would be more closely translated as ‘apostle’, although both refer to a divine/religious messenger.[xiv] For more of the Old-testament-based references, I refer you to Ortega’s elaborate analysis (see Notes section below).
Concerning the New Testament, we have firstly the three computer brains of the NERV Corporation, which take their names from the three wise men of the nativity story: Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.[xv] Secondly, the ultimate weapon against angels is the Lance of Longinus (traditionally, the weapon thrust into the body of Christ on the cross to check if he was dead).  The series queers this artifact’s story, however, because the crucified form we first see the lance stuck in is the angel Lilith. Thirdly, since Shinji is expected to save the world, we might see him as a Christ figure suffering for humanity’s sake. Fittingly, hints of his mother associate the Madonna.[xvi] Fourthly, the cross features repeatedly, not just as a pendant Misato wears – the explosion of a dying angel is cross-shaped. Finally, the secret organization which controls all events is called SEELE, German for ‘soul’.


Instant Confusion, Just Add Myth

Lilith lance longinus NGE angel

Angel Lilith, impaled with Lance of Longinus

I’d like to emphasize an aspect Ortega overlooks: the intense blending of stories and images. Traditionally, angels are beings of a different order than humans: stronger, more beautiful, servants of God, but without free will. While NGE retains the power aspect, it also strongly implies that humans and angels are very closely related (i.e. humans, angels, and EVAs are all in some way decedents of Adam and/or Lilith).


In a similar vein, the ‘original’ Lance of Longinus has nothing to do with angels, Adam, or Lilith. NGE plays on the association that it is a God-killer weapon, but then again, angels are not God, are they? This anime is so confusing… Anyways, this “take what you need and apply it to your problem/story”-approach resembles the syncretistic view of religion I discussed earlier.

Another aspect I find interesting is the interlacing of religious myth and science fiction, or the myth of technology. You know, giant robots, clones and bioengineering, supercomputers, and the like. A similar connection between religion and science marks the second work I’d like to discuss here.

Trinity Blood

Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques. trinity blood poster

Left to right: Esther Blancett, Abel Nightroad, Tres Iques.

One story migrating and evolving from one medium to the next is typical for Japanese popular culture, as I mentioned before. Trinity Blood began in 1999 as a light novel series by Yoshida Sunao, spawned a shōjo manga (2004) and an anime adaptation (2005). This leads to a noticeable shift in art styles; it also produces conflicting information, differing plot lines and character developments, and so on. The anime is probably best known, but the novels provide most background information… and I’ve mainly read the manga 😉 But the interesting parts are common to all versions.

What happens?

1000 years after devastating war, two intelligent species live an Earth: humans (Terrans), and vampires (Methuselah). Human military and political power is concentrated at the Vatican, whereas Byzantium has become the vampire capital.  Both powers are in a Cold War-type of setting, and “lost technologies” from before Armageddon greatly impact the balance of power.

For secret missions, usually concerning vampires, the Vatican sends out special agents. One of those is the main protagonist, Abel Nightroad. In Istvan (Bulgaria), Abel and his partner Tres cross paths with Sister Esther Blanchett, and political complications ensue. Despite his ditzy appearance, Abel is an immensely powerful fighter thanks to the “Crusnik” nanomachines in his body: As vampires prey on humans, Crusnik prey on vampires.  Later the story reveals the origin of both vampires and Crusnik: Vampires are humans infected with the Kudlak Bacillus, which in turn served as food for the Crusnik nanomachines, both of which were discovered in a crashed alien spaceship when humanity tried to colonize Mars.[xvii]

What’s Christian?

Cardinal Jacopino del Conte

Compare: 16th century Cardinal, by Jacopino del Conte.

Cardinal Caterina Sforza, Trinity Blood

Cardinal Caterina Sforza

Whereas NGE intensely appropriates stories and symbols, Trinity Blood makes pronounced use of Christian institutions, that is, the hierarchy and insignia of the Catholic Church. Abel is introduced as a priest, Esther as a (novice) nun, and higher positions are occupied by bishops such as Esther’s mother figure Laura and cardinals such as Abel’s supervisor Catharina Sforza. The character’s clothing is visibly inspired by actual nun’s habits, priests’ and cardinal’s clothing, though the artist(s) also take considerable liberties. Esther’s blue-trimmed white habit evokes that of Mother Teresa, though I couldn’t find any habit design with a short, folded back part of the veil like the one Esther’s wearing. Dressing priests in black and cardinals in red also fits the Church hierarchy. Take this image of Caterina as an example. There’s a lot of detail added, such as cuffs, armour, embroidery etc., but the basic shape is still there – notice the short cloak-like part around the shoulders. I don’t know where the hat came from, through… perhaps the artist just likes big hats 😉. And of course, crosses and rosaries and the like abound as decorative elements.

Political involvement

Christian belief plays a role as well, though mostly as a tool of political power, not a feature of the main character’s personality. Thus, Esther is declared a Saint in a context of political intrigue, in order to affect the pious population. Christian charity features briefly in the beginning as part of the description of the convent in Istvan. However, there is no special promotion of Christian values by main characters, although most of them are members of the Church. Similarly, while the series features numerous terrorists or vigilantes of human or vampire origin, their motivation is usually personal, nationalist or racist, not religious. The series carefully subverts black-and-white morality judgements and shows its characters’ motivations to be diverse, personal, and (Terran or Methuselah) very human.


Lilith Hologram Catharge Trinity Blood

Hologram of Lilith as a Saint

The characters refer to the Earth-encompassing war which led to the present state of affairs as Armageddon, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the Book of Revelation or just popular culture, where both “Armageddon” and “apocalypse” are used to describe large-scale catastrophes capable of exterminating humanity.

Like NGE, Trinity Blood references Genesis and the first humans, but goes one generation further. The first Crusnik is Cain, followed by Abel (the main Character) and their sister Seth. In the Bible, Seth was the third son of Adam and Eve, born after Cain had slain Abel. The fourth Crusnik bears the name Lilith. She is the eldest of these four – all genetically engineered for a Mars colonization project. Interestingly, Lilith becomes a Crusnik last, and only to protect humanity from the other three. This is a weird echo of the NGE moment when humanity is collectively, as “Lilim” or Lilith’s offspring, indicated to be the final, the 18th angel. In both cases, Lilith is associated with humanity, whereas in the source material, Lilith is punished by God for insubordination and becomes a mother of demons. Trinity Blood, by contrast, shows her as a saint-like figure.

Concluding remarks

When it comes to the use of Christian content in anime, the primary appeal probably lies in its exoticism. Whereas with Twin Star Exorcists the animators could assume at least a vague familiarity with the religious associations among their audience, Christianity is both relatively new and relatively rare in Japan. Its visual cues (churches and clothing, like the bride’s white dress) are probably more familiar to the audience then any narratives. Except of course prior adaptations of the same source material. Thus interaction with Christianity might be more external, as in Trinity Blood, adapting the institutions and clothes to contribute to the work’s exotic European flavor. Or it may delve into complex, multilayered and contradictory myth-building, as NGE does. One reviewer of the latter points out that the mere inclusion of religious imagery can both add a cool factor and give a work a feeling of depth and gravitas.[xviii]

Trinity Blood vatican airship

Screenshot from episode 1 of the Trinity Blood anime: A Vatican Airship.

The creative blending of diverse types of stories may, as I mentioned above, be linked to the syncretistic tradition in Japanese religion. In this vein, the connection of Christian elements and Science Fiction makes me wonder if there is some historic precedent as well. Was European science and ‘modernity’, as imported after the Meiji Restoration, seen as somehow connected to European history of thought?

At least in the beginning, this seems to have been true: “It should be remembered that Christianity was introduced to Japan after it had already been well refined in Western society and was arrayed in the garb of modern religion. At the beginning the Japanese people even thought that modernization, Westernization, and Christianization were one and the same thing.”[xix] Perhaps, some residue of this conflation still remains?

Star Wars Force Luke Skywalker Obi Wan Kenobi

Not that religion and science fiction where unrelated in Western media…

Notes and References:

[i] See for a biographic account of these early missionaries and (on page 2) pictures of Japanese churches.

[ii] Bunce, William. Religions in Japan. Rutland & Tōkyō: Charles E. Tuttle, 1948. 20-21. See also: Covell, Stephen. “Religious Culture”. In: Sugimoto, Yoshino (ed). The Cambridge Companion to Modern Japanese Culture. Cambridge University Press, 2009. 147-8.

[iii] Bunce 1948:21-22, 150; Covell 2009:148-9.


[v] Bunce 1948: 151-3, Covell 2009:149.

[vi] Ellington, Lucien. Asia in Focus: Japan. Santa Barbara & Oxford: ABC Clio, 2009. 165.

[vii] Covell 2009:150.

[viii] Both the American and German versions were apparently first broadcast in 2000; but I have to trust Wikipedia on this since TV-schedules prove quite difficult to research.

[ix] Napier, Susan. “When the Machines Stop: Fantasy, Reality and Terminal Identity in Neon Genesis Evangelion and Serial Experiments Lain”. In: Bolton, Christopher; Csicsery-Ronay, Istvan Jr; & Takayuki Tatsumi (eds). Robot Ghosts and Wired Dreams: Japanese Science Fiction from Origins to Anime. University of Minnesota Press, 2007. 108.

[x], notably the lyrics say „shōnen wa, shinwa ni nare”, “Boy, become a legend”.

[xi] 1) Napier 2007; 2) Redmond, Dennis. „Anime and East Asian Culture: Neon Genesis Evangelion“. In: Allen, Matthew, & Sakamoto, Ruby (eds). Japanese Popular Culture: Critical Concepts in Asian Studies. Volume II: Japanese Popular Culture in the Twenty-First Century. London & New York: Routledge, 2014; 3) Ortega, Mariana. „My Father, He Killed Me; My Mother, She Ate Me: Self, Desire, Engendering, and the Mother in Neon Genesis Evangelion.“In: Mechademia, Vol.2 (Networks of Desire), 2007.

[xii] Ortega 2007.

[xiii] Ortega 2007:218-9.


[xv] Ortega 2007:223.

[xvi] Ortega 2007:224.



[xix] Kishimoto Hideo, „The problem of religion and modernization in Japan“, p.12.

The art of benshi: The voices of silent film

At the end of January, I had the privilege to witness a benshi performance, which impressed me immensely. Finally, it led to me writing this blog post. So, what am I actually talking about?

In Japan, silent films were never truly silent

despair Tokyo March silent film

A still from the 1929 silent film “Tokyo March”

Western audiences may be faintly aware that in the first cinemas, at least a pianist used to accompany silent films, if there wasn’t an entire orchestra at hand. As we still experience today, music is very effective in conveying emotion, atmosphere, and a sense of urgency or suspense regarding the story unfolding on screen.

But in Japan, they went far beyond that. The story of cinema in Japan begins with imports of western movies, showing scenes that were strange and exotic to Japanese viewers. Thus, these scenes needed explaining, and this is where the origin of the benshi lies. Literally, the word means ‘orator’ or ‘speaker’, and benshi started out as ‘film explainers’. Soon, however, they also became commentators, narrators, entertainers and voice actors. Some may pinpoint the development to a single person – “Somei Saburo was the first of these narrators who could be called a benshi. Rejecting the oft-assumed role of playing outside observer, Saburo chose to imitate, voice, and personify the characters depicted on the screen.”[i] – but a parallel development seems more likely.

The artists…

Owing to their origin as explainers of western ‘exotic’ contexts, benshi tended to dress in western attire, commonly tuxedo and top hat.

Sawata Midori benshi

Sawata Midori, allegedly the most famous contemporary benshi.

This trend continues until present day, as the most famous of today’s benshi, Sawato Midori, performs in suit and bow tie – despite the fact that, unusual for a benshi then and now, she is a woman. The benshi I watched, Kataoka Ichirō, is one of her students. At the beginning of the performance, he remarked that at the height of benshi popularity, in the 1920s, there were over a thousand of them active in Japan. The most popular of them earned more than the Prime Minister! In fact, cinema goers didn’t go to see a specific movie for its director or its actors so much as for the benshi performing it.[ii] Now, however, there are only about 10 benshi left, and (as Kataoka assured us) he, at least, earns significantly less than the Prime Minister.

In contrast to the tradition, Kataoka dresses in traditional Japanese garb for his performances. About half of the short films he showed to us that night were period pieces, however, so it fit with the general theme.

…and the medium

In the old days, benshi manipulated the films they showed as they saw fit. To this day, they script their own texts for each movie, including the dialogue, even if the original script is available. Their performance unfolds in addition to, or sometimes at odds with, the intertitles. Often, though, Japanese silent films would not even have intertitles, since the directors knew the benshi would take care of narrative coherence and transition. Now, if the benshi’s dialogue took longer to perform than the scene allowed for, he would just instruct the man at the projector to lower the projection speed a little.[iii] This also led to a tendency in Japanese early film to use long, uninterrupted shots to allow the benshi time for his performance. Of cause, if he found a sequence boring, he might turn it into a comedic interlude and crank up the speed to get it over with.

Silent movie animation Monkey Masamune

A still from the silent animated movie “The Monkeys’ Masamune”

In short, the main attraction was the vocal performance, and the film was only the raw material. Sometimes, the benshi would comment on the action, drawing attention to the fictitiousness of the story, in an almost Brechtian fashion.[iv] The relationship between film and ‘explanation’ was in fact reversed: “the images themselves being the illustration of an independently existing storyline.”[v]

Benshi might also use their position for political propaganda, as was the case with the war films during the Russo-Japanese war of 1904/5[vi]. Korean benshi likewise attempted to instigate rebellion against the Japanese colonial rule.[vii] The benshi‘s immense popularity was a major factor in the comparatively late start of sound film in Japan – but when progress finally took hold, the ‘talkies’ made the benshi obsolete.

Cultural contexts

Japan has a rich history of performance art, and the benshi can be linked to a number of them. The narrators of Kabuki theatre are prominent and visible.

Asou Yata Benshi

Benshi Asou Yata, sporting a very fitting mustache.

So is the chanter of bunraku puppet plays, who also lends his voice to the silent puppet characters, much like the benshi voice the actors on screen.[viii] Furthermore, oral narrative performance art has a long tradition.  In the Middle Ages, you could listen to biwa-hōshi, blind itinerant monks who recited war epics while accompanying themselves on a lute. To this day, there are performances of conversational comedy called rakugo.[ix] (Incidentally, the garments of rakugo performers may be another influence on Kataoka’s costume choice.) Even the master-student training system used by the benshi was adapted from other traditional Japanese arts.[x]

Because of these connections, benshi performing film were not a radically new thing, but rather a development based on older art forms. The links between theatre and film ran so deep that some theatres employed a number of benshi, some of them female, to feature in a single performance of “live dubbing”.[xi] For some time, there were also mixed shows, where part of the action was acted live on stage, part filmed beforehand and dubbed live.[xii]

Narrative: A performance of Kataoka Ichirō

Kataoka Ichiro benshi

Kataoka Ichirô, almost as I have seen him.

It is at the end of January, 2017, in Trier, an ancient but small city in western Germany, close to the borders of Luxembourg and France. The Romans have left some impressive ruins, and Karl Marx was born in one of the strangely diagonal streets south of the market square. Today, the Broadway cinema, in cooperation with the department of Japanese studies of Trier university, presents a short film screening with benshi narration. At that time, I’m struggling to pinpoint the thesis of my Master’s dissertation. I have no clear idea what a benshi is, but it sounds interesting – especially since one of the films on the list is about Jiraiya, the toad mage, for whom I have a soft spot. Upon arriving at the cinema, I buy a bottle of German lemonade with real caffeine and sit down with a book. The performer is here already, and I shyly admire the traditional Japanese clothing he wears. Two other students of Japanese Studies join me at my table and update me on the goings-on in the student council. One of them is very excited because, he says, he is interested in everything about the Taishō period (1912-26). We sit down in the higher part of the screening room; it has a seating capacity of about a hundred and is 2/3 full at least. Someone from cinema management says a few words of greeting and presents Kataoka, not without mispronouncing his name, of course. Then Kataoka introduces himself. He has a pleasant, tough not very remarkable, speaking voice and is quite proficient in English, which is, sadly, quite unusual for a Japanese. At first, the audience is somewhat hesitant to respond to him (German stiffness, probably), but they mellow during the first film.

Lump Theft and Monkeys’ Masamune

Silent movie animation Lump Theft

Tengus’ banquet scene from the silent animated film “Lump Theft”.

“I know this one”, I whisper to my neighbour, the Taishō enthusiast, as the screen flickers to grey and yellowish life. The first film is an animated short, about two old men with lumps and the karmic justice visited on them, quite by accident. “It’s on youtube.”[xiii]

How different it feels now, though! With the onset of the strange music – well, strange to modern Western ears at least, I cannot even discern the instruments – Kataoka’s performance beings. He does so in Japanese, of course, but someone has kindly provided subtitles, tailored to this specific event. As the introductory intertitle appears, the benshi’s voice turns into the solemn, melodious whine of a traditional Japanese narrator. He croaks like friendly raven once he voices the old man, produces the servile chatter of low-rank Tengu mountain goblins, as well as the rumbling laugh and growled anger of the goblin king. This feels just like anime now! If it weren’t for the moments when he, clearly on purpose, speaks even if characters are drawn with their mouths closed, or stays still when they seem to speak.

When that first movie is over, I am sitting on the edge of my seat for the next one, but that’s a fable with a somewhat dubious morale. A hunter trying to shoot an ape is wrong, but cutting a boar in half with a sword seems to be perfectly fine.[xiv] Between films, Kataoka gives us some facts in English about benshi practise and history.

Tarō’s Train

Taro's train live action

Little Tarô, absorbed in his new toy.

Taro's Train animation

Bad mannered hippos!

I am impressed by the third film because it mixes two styles we now mostly see as distinct. In a live-action sequence, a little boy receives a toy train from his father as a present. The dress and movement of the actors give me the feeling that historical knowledge only get you that far. This grainy movie has more life in it than any textbook on the Taishō era. Anyways, the boy finally goes to bed, enamoured with his new toy, and dreams of being a conductor. The dream sequence is animated; and full of anthropomorphic animals.[xv] It’s nice comedy and also instructive, explaining how to behave on a train. Seems to have been effective, since the Japanese are usually very pleasant, and quiet, train passengers. Kataoka takes the comedic tone of the piece to slip in a few jokes of his own, as one of ‘his’ characters metanarratively remarks on this being a black and white movie. In one instance, there was even a self-reflective joke in the subtitles!

Tokyo March

The movie I like best, though, is Tokyo March.[xvi] It’s a complicated, kabuki-esque plot of love found and lost, mistaken identity, rivalry and family secrets, and Kataoka excels in portraying the characters- from young men to an old woman, from the sad heroine to the lecherous and finally gilt-ridden father.

The heroine, foced to become a geisha, is weary of unwanted attention.

Japanese speech patterns, of course, are highly codified by age, gender, class/profession and region. Which intonation, harshness or softness of voice, and what pitch one uses, how one refers to oneself, how questions, commands and states of emotional excitement are marked with specific particles, differs according to these criteria. I guess that makes the benshi’s voice-acting possible, if complicated. As an additional treat, the ending of the movie had some insensely, um, homosocial lines, which made my inner fangirl squee.

bromance silent film classic

“My happiness will never be complete without you, Yoshiki.”


san-sukumi Jiraiya Tsunade Orochimaru

Frog VS Snake VS Slug, the classical threeway tie.

In fact, I keep forgetting the benshi’s presence because I get so absorbed in the characters and their story… I am only jolted out of it when Kataoka’s script diverges from the action. However, here he keeps a superb balance of immersion and alienation. By contrast, in his rendition of the Jiraiya movie, his narration seems to run off course a bit too much. He turns the confusing film into somewhat of a coherent story, but clearly this is only possible by intensively reinterpreting and repurposing the images. Perhaps I am getting tired, too. In any case, if you fancy a pretty young woman transforming into a slug, or warriors beaten back by lawn sprinklers, good entertainment, give it a try.[xvii] It’s the first special effects movie made in Japan, apparently.

The last film is a modern homage to silent film, and in direct contrast with the originals before, the difference is easy to spot. The pictures are too clear, the resolution too high, and the sudden tilts into yellow, blue or red seem exaggerated. There are scratch marks superimposed on the image, but it takes me only a few minutes to notice the repeating pattern. That being said, the story itself, about a jealous samurai and his bloody revenge, is interesting, and Kataoka once again amazes me with the variety of voices at his command.

Quite an experience, that was.


Oshin poster

Poster of the most popular “morning drama”, Oshin. This genre makes extensive use of voice-over narration, especially at the beginning of each episode.

Benshi may have all but disappeared, but they sure have left a mark on the Japanese visual narrative. It’s not just Kataoka’s amazing versatility, which reminded me of some modern-day anime voice actors. Or that anime sometimes employ similar speaking styles in voice-over narration. In general, Japanese film features wide angles and long takes – perhaps in memory of the benshi who once needed the time to perform. And finally, voice-over and concluding narration is relatively common in Japanese live-action TV, which might be a legacy of the benshi.[xviii]

In addition, after the advent of sound film, some benshi who had lost their jobs became kamishibai artists. Kamishibai or paper theatre is a street art combining hand-drawn slides and vocal narration.  It is seen a precursor of modern manga – the Manga Museum in Kyōto has a whole room dedicated to kamishibai, with an actor performing in period clothing. So, here we have another direct link with modern visual narrative.

Long story short, if you get the chance to see Kataoka or one of his colleagues perform, I strongly recommend going.

Notes and References

Website Sawato Midori:

An introduction of Kataoka Ichirō:

Video of a Kataoka Performance:


[ii] Yomota Inuhiko, transl. Uwe Hohmann: Im Reich der Sinne. 100 Jahre japanischer Film. Frankfurt am Main: Stroemfeld, 2007, p 26; see also J.L. Anderson: “Spoken Silents in the Japanese Cinema; or, Talking to Pictures: Essaying the Katsuben, Contextualizing the Texts”. In: Arthur Noletti Jr. & David Desser: Reframing Japanese Cinema. Authorship, Genre, History. Indiana UP, 1992, pp. 359-311, p. 261.

[iii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[iv] A slightly different take on the Brechtian comparision:

[v] Aaron Gerow: Visions of Japanese Modernity. Articulations of Cinema, Nation, and Spectatorship, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London: U of California P, 2010, p. 147.

[vi] An extensive study of the open-endedness of the benshi performance, and the question if benshi closed or opened the interpretation of the filmic text, see Gerow 2010., chapter 4.

[vii] Yomota 2007: 44.

[viii] Anderson 1992: 265.

[ix] Yomota 2007: 45.

[x] Anderson 1992: 279.

[xi] Anderson 1992: 270. He uses the term katsuben, but I prefer beshi since that is the word Kataoka himself uses.

[xii] Anderson 1992: 271.




[xvi] Sadly, this version has no sound at all, whereas this has music but only french intertitles.

[xvii] with subtitles, but no music.

[xviii] Suggestions of this kind are made by Anderson 1992: 293 and Yomota 2007: 27, 45.

Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume:

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children.

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru:


Influenced By – I: Daoism and Onmyōdō

Influenced by: Daoism and Onmyōdō

With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).

The Way of Yin and Yang

…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.

Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang Symbol

In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.

The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery.  Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.

Some Background on Daoism


One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.

Lao^tsu Lao-tzû statue China

Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.

Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉


“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]

Five Elements


five phases elements dao tao relation transform destroy fire water earth wood metal

The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.

Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.


Daoists’ goals and means

So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]

Meditation and Outer Alchemy

Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.

Sexual Alchemy

One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.

Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism

One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.

Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]

The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office

Shikiban divination board onmyoudou

Shikiban divination board

The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.

It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]


Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding.  However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]

The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half.  Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]

Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.

The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.

Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype

Seimei Shrine Jinja Kyôto Abe

Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.

Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.

The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness  of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]

From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond

Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]

From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.

Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists



Sousei no onmyouji poster Benio Rokuro

The main characters.

Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a  seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]



The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.

…and Spells

purification Sae talisman spell sousei no onmyouji

The purification talisman.

When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.

Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.

Heavenly Guardians

The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.

What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.

Miko – Child of Prophecy

In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]

Benio legs kegare Basara

Benio’s kegare-granted legs.

Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.

A Theory

Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.

I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).

Notes, References, and Image Sources

[i] Blofeld, John. Taoism. The Quest for Immortality. London & Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, Mandala series, 1979, available online As an introduction, another of his books on Taoism, such as The Secret and the Sublime (1973), also makes an interesting read. For an introduction to the more philisophical aspects of Daoism, see

[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.

[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉

[iv] cf. Blofeld 1979.

[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.

[vi] Blofeld 1983:80.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Concerning this, see also Hayashi Makoto & Mathhias Hayek, „Editor’s Introduction: Onmyōdō in japanese History“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013, 1-18. 5-6.

[ix] For an in-depth description of the reception of Daoism in Japan, see Masuo Shin‘ichirō, „Daoism in Japan“, in Kohn, Livia (ed). Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 821-42.

[x] See Masuo Shin’ichirō, „Chinese Religion and the Formation of Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013. 19-43.

[xi] Masuo 2013.

[xii] Masuo 2000:824.

[xiii] Masuo 2013:35.

[xiv] Pang 2013:100.

[xv] Pang 2013:104.

[xvi] An argument made by Pang, Carolyn, „Uncovering Shikigami. The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō“, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 99–129.

[xvii] Pang 2013:110.

[xviii] Pang 2013:117-8.

[xix] Shigeta Shin’ichi. „A Portrait of Abe no Seimei“. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 77-97. 78; 87.

[xx] Shigeta 2013, esp. 84.

[xxi] Shigeta 2013:93.

[xxii] Discussed in detail by Hayashi Makoto, „The Development of Early Modern Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 151-67.

[xxiii] Masuo 2013:22.

[xxiv] Masuo 2013:26.

[xxv] As mentioned in this Japanese-language documentary.

[xxvi] Masuo 2000:824.

[xxvii] Masuo 2013:21.

[xxviii] Pang 2013:109-10.

[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.

[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))

Image sources in order of appearance:


Laotzû Statue:

5 Elements:


Seimei photo: my own archive.

Twin Star Poster:

Purification Spell:

Benio’s legs:



Musings VII: On Monkeys in Japanese Culture.

Story: Three in the Morning, Four in the Evening.

In the times of the Song Dynasty[i] in China lived a man they called Sokō, which means monkey trainer. He loved monkeys and reared a whole horde of them at his house. Sokō understood the monkey’s minds quite well, and likewise the monkeys understood their master. He even reduced the number of inhabitants in his household in order to fulfill the monkeys’ wishes. But nevertheless, soon the food was almost gone.

Sokō was about to ration the food, but he feared the monkeys would not obey him. Thus he deceived them. First he said: “I will feed you chestnuts; three now, in the morning, and four when night comes. That may be enough.” Now the horde rose outraged, so quickly he said: “I will feed you chestnuts, four now, in the morning, and three when night comes. That may be enough.” So all the monkeys threw themselves happily at his feet.[ii]

The baffling monkey

monkeys arashiyama park family

Japanese macaques in Arashiyama Monkey Park, Kyôto. Picture taken by me.

There is one thing which bugs me about monkeys in Japan: the paradoxical way they are portrayed. In some stories, like the Chinese one above, monkeys are stupid and easily led by those smarter than they are. In other contexts, such as the Chinese zodiac, the monkey is characterized as clever. There are tales of lustful ape deities who demand human sacrifice, and at the same time, monkeys are believed to exorcise evil influences. There are even gods whose avatar and messenger is a monkey.  And lastly, monkeys can be funny. So, what does the monkey signify?


Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney postulates: “the monkey has sensitively expressed the changing notion of the self and other in Japanese culture; thus, by tracing the meanings of the monkey, we are able to trace the transformations of the Japanese structure of thought.”[iii] That may seem farfetched, but let’s run with it for the moment, and consider the aspects.

Monkey context: Hanuman and Sun Wukong


Hanuman India ape god

Hanuman. Source

The Japanese word saru (猿), usually translated as ‘monkey’, may be as specific an animal as the Japanese macaque,[iv] or be used as a vague catch-it-all term for monkeys. Being the only monkey indigenous to Japan, Japanese macaques inhabit forested mountains everywhere on the Archipelago except Hokkaido.[v] Half-domesticated monkeys close to human dwellings and wild ones in deeper recesses of the mountains may have behaved quite differently and contributed to the ambiguous image. In addition, tales and images of other monkey and ape species came to Japan via India and China.


In media, “the monkey is portrayed initially as foolish, vain, and mischievous [but he] learns valuable lessons along the way, makes changes, and eventually gains redemption”.[vi]

An early example of this is the Hindu deity Hanuman, who initially was stupid enough to interpret the sun as a fruit he could eat, and vain enough to attempt to grab it. In addition, he liked playing tricks on people. Thus he was punished, made to forget his powers until reminded of them. Only when he redeemed himself through good deeds he was forgiven and his powers restored.[vii]


Likewise, the ancient Chinese epic Journey to the West tells of Sun Wukong (Son Gokū), “a mischievous demigod obsessed with desires”[viii] who even aspires to the throne of heaven. Like Hanuman, he is punished and does good deeds until he reaches redemption. An interesting detail: “Sun Wukong is always clothed and depicted in clearly anthropomorphic poses.”[ix] Why might that be?

The monkey as metaphor

Sun Wukong Son Goku monkey deity rabbit

Sun Wukong as depicted by woodblock artist Yoshitoshi, 1889. Source

Let’s return Japanese macaques for a moment. They live in hordes and thus are social creatures, which makes them “an apt metaphor for humans”[x], especially in the rather group-based society of Japan. If one reads the tale of Sun Wukong in a similar fashion, “each stage of [the m]onkey‘s mythological journey may serve as an elaborate allegory for the evolution of the human mind.”[xi] In this vein, the monkey as a symbol was taken up by Buddhism.

To reach enlightenment, one has to overcome earthly desires. The state of confusion and greed associated with the unenlightened mind is called shin’en 心猿, “monkey mind”.[xii] Thus the stupid, greedy, vain monkey represents a stage humans need to leave behind in their journey to enlightenment. In the stories of ancient China, one encounters “the legendary ape figure characterized by animal instincts and portrayed as an abductor of women and a lustful creature”[xiii] – a sort of ancient Chinese King Kong, perhaps? Sun Wukong also had his lustful moments early in his career, for example allowing a female demon to charm him just out of sexual curiosity.[xiv]

However, the monkey cannot be simply read as a metaphor for human weakness and earthly desires. Remember the ending of the stories about divine monkeys, Hanuman and Sun Wukong? They did not stop being monkeys as their character changed. So, there must be more to this image.

Japan: monkeys as gods and divine messengers

As a result of the various influences on Japanese culture, the image of the monkey in Japan is multi-faceted. Although there are some tales of evil monkey deities who demand virgin girls as human sacrifice, mostly the image is a positive one. Monkeys serve as messengers and intermediaries between Shintō gods and humanity.[xv] The Shintō god of Mt. Hiei, Sanō, for example, has a monkey as both messenger and avatar.

Kyoto imperial palace kimon northeast corner

The non-corner of Kyôto Imperial Palace, sarugatsuji. Source

Moreover, since saru 猿is also a homonym for 去る, which means ‘to expell‘, it came to be believed that monkeys could drive out evil influences. This can be seen in conjunction with Chinese geomancy (Feng Shui) in the layout of the old imperial palace in Kyōto. Like the city itself, the palace is built according to the cardinal directions, which means one of ist corners faces Northeast. Northeast, however, was believed to be kimon 鬼門, the ‚demon gate‘, the direction from where evil influences could enter.[xvi] Thus, the circumference wall of the palace grounds was indented at the northeast corner. (SO there is no actual kimon. In addition, under its eaves was placed a statue of a monkey holding a Shintō staff used for purification rituals, to ward off evil influences. Hence it is called sarugatsuji 猿が辻 (the monkey’s crossing).

The same idea of purification and healing, in addition to their reputation as lustful, probably caused the association of monkeys with fertility, defense against smallpox, and safe childbirth. Also, monkeys are considered protectors of horses, and carved images of monkeys are sometimes found around old stables, the most prominent example being the Three Monkeys (Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak) at Toshōgu Shrine[xvii] in Nikko.[xviii] Later these Three Monkeys came to be associated with the Kōshin belief.

Monkeys as scapegoats: The migawari-zaru of Nara

Scape-apes ;).

Scape-apes ;). Source

According to the Chinese calendar, the 57th day in a 60-day cycle and the same year in a 60-year calendar, Kōshin 庚申, was particularly ominous. In Kōshin nights, three worms living in a person’s body would ascend to heaven while the person slept, and report on their sins. One possible countermeasure was to simply stay awake that night, also known as kōshin machi: the Kōshin wake. Alternatively, the people of Nara identified the god being reported to as Kōshin-san, whose messenger was a monkey. Therefore, if they tied little monkey-shaped charms to the eaves of their houses before Kōshin nights, they were safe: “the monkey (Koushin’s messenger) is punished instead.”[xix] Again the monkey represents humans as fallible, sinful beings, while at the same time playing an angelic role as divine messenger. Paradoxical, isn’t it?

Comic monkeys

Last semester in my early modern Japanese class, we translated a couple of stories from the Seisuishō 醒睡笑, a collection of humourous tales compiled by monk Anrakuan Sakuden in the early 17th century. It was the way the monkey appeared as a symbol in these funny stories which finally gave me the clue to a possible common denominator of the monkey images in Japanese culture. So, I will give you my translation of the two stories I worked on and my idea what may be the baseline of monkey symbolism in Japan.

Story: If monkey faces resemble the lord

Once lived a lord with an unusually emaciated body and dark skin. He called his most trusted retainer to him, told him to sit opposite his lord, and asked: “I have heard that everyone says my face looks like that of a monkey. Say, is this true or a lie?”

The retainer listened attentively and said: “I am honoured by your trust, my lord, to be asked this question. But who would dare say such a thing? No, people only say that the faces of monkeys resemble your own.“

When the lord heard this, he said “Well spoken. Then it must be as you say“, without the slightest indignation. In such cases, when a lord completely misunderstands their brazen words, the common people tend to say “The Lord has big ears [like a monkey]!”: He hears everything, but does nothing.

Interpretation: The monkey as Self and Other

baby monkey glasses face funny

Yes, my lord? Source

As a reason for the negative aspects of the monkey’s image, Ohnuki-Tierney suggests a form of Othering. “[S]eeing a disconcerting likeness between themselves and the monkey, the Japanese also attempt to create distance by projecting their negative side onto the monkey and turning it into a scapegoat, a laughable animal who in vain imitates humans.”[xx] In other words, it is once again human weakness, hubris, and stupidity which the monkey represents. This becomes clear in the story above, where the lord is only ‘aping’ (sarumane 猿真似 in Japanese) a ruler’s style, without understanding the situation. He does not just resemble a monkey outwardly; his stupidity and self-deluding vanity recall the characters of Hanuman and Sun Wukong before their transformation.

Already in the Man’yōshū, an ancient collection of Japanese poetry, monkeys represent ugliness.[xxi] But more than ugly, a stupid leader is dangerous for his subjects as well, as another Chinese fable featuring monkeys, 井中撈月, details. In this story, the chief monkey decides to try and grab the moon reflected in a still pool. Following his orders, the monkeys grab each others tails and form a chain from the tree branch toward the water surface, until the bough breaks under their weight and they all drown.

The stupid, ugly lord failing in his job is a comical character because he is such an average human being. The general populace can recognize such a character as one of themselves, and laugh about the familiarity – despite the hint of danger an incapable lord brings. In contrast, the next story is set in a Buddhist temple, quite removed from the life of common people.

Story: A monkey-like acolyte climbs a tree

One day, the poet Sōchō visited Kasadera temple. As he was strolling on the temple grounds, he saw a chigo, a boy acolyte, dexterously climb into a treetop. He composed the opening verse of a poem:

             The acolyte climbs

            up the tree as skillfully

            as a monkey’s child

The acolyte answered with a closing verse:

            Since a useless monk draws near

            to bark at him in fury.

Interpretation: The boy’s ambiguous monkey mind

As I mentioned above, in order to reach Buddhist enlightenment, it is necessary to overcome the restless, greedy thoughts which characterize the ‘monkey mind‘. It is fitting, then, to compare a young acolyte to a monkey, even more so if he climbs a tree to escape his studies. However, the acolyte’s answer displays the cleverness characteristic of the Taoist zodiac sign of the monkey.[xxii]

dog monkey idiom japanese

“Like Dogs and Monkeys”. Source

In his verse, the acolyte takes up the comparison of himself to a monkey, but turns it around. By casting the pursuing priest as a dog, he alludes to the saying “a relationship like dogs and monkeys” (ken’en no naka, 犬猿の仲), thus portraying himself as the clever monkey who solves a problem with intellect (hiding), whereas the wild dog (the priest) can only resort to violence (shouting at him).

The monkey as trickster

Such a twist in the meaning of an image between the first and the second verse was a typical feature of linked-verse poetry. Therefore, the acolyte shows off not only his wit but his learning. However, here he falls back into the trap of monkey vanity, the flaw of young Hanuman and Sun Wukong. Arrogantly he dares to pitch a verse to an actual poet while he is a mere novice, and looks down on the very monks he learned his skill from, by comparing them to dogs. So, is he clever or is he stupid and vain? Well, both, of course.

The acolyte is overestimating his own ability; he tries to act and appear very clever but fails, as the lord in the previous story did. Firstly, hiding in a tree is not of much use if you engage in clearly audible poetry contests. Secondly, by making up his clever verse, the acolyte accidentally admits to running away from his studies and/or evading punishment. In this way, he fits Ohnuki-Tierneys definition of the monkey “as a trickster, […] who uses his wits in an attempt to outsmart others”, in order “to achieve beyond [his] capacity [or] ascribed status”.[xxiii] But ultimately, as the lord above, this ‘aping’ of his betters has to fail.

Conclusion: the monkey as human

So, back to the categorization of the story as comedy. The acolyte’s reply is funny, but why? It is because the punchline is based on the ambiguity of the monkey image, which the acolyte uses to turn its meaning around. Humor is usually based on either an unexpected, surprising turn, or the recognition of ourselves. The acolyte’s answer is such a surprising turn, and in his attempt to evade an unpleasant situation, as well as in his desire to show off his skill, we can recognize ourselves.

monkey mobile phone bath hot spring

No whatsapping in the bath, please. Source

Thus, the monkey as a symbol is ambiguous because it represents humans. The Indian and Chinese monkey deities first display human weakness, then repent and redeem themselves to a level of greatness or sainthood which is the other end of the spectrum of human ability. The Japanese monkey symbolism has absorbed these stories as well as indigenous myths of monkey gods and divine messengers and created a deeply ambiguous image. This image, in turn, is very appropriate for comic use because of its ambiguity. Be it an ugly, stupid lord unfit for rule, or a self-important acolyte skilled in poetry, what we laugh about in these stories is the humanity of its protagonists. And the monkey is the symbol for this multi-faceted humanity.

Notes and References


[ii] The Chinese story朝三暮四, read in premodern Japanese and translated by me. A different version, with historical commentary, can be found here

[iii]Ohnuki-Tierney, Emiko. The Monkey as Mirror. Symbolic Transformations in Japanese History and Ritual. Princeton UP, 1987, p.74.


[v] „Saru“ in Nihon Hyakka Daijiten日本百科大辞典, Tōkyō, 1919. Vol.3, p.945-6.

[vi] Schumacher, Mark. „Monkey in Japan“, in A to Z Photo Dictionary: Japanese Buddhist Statuary. Gods, Goddesses, Shinto Kami, Creatures and Demons. Available online via, last access 22.08.2016, 13:22; p.2.

[vii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.2.

[viii] Wang, Jing. The Story of Stone. Intertextuality, Ancient Chinese Stone Lore, and the Stone Symbolism in Dream of the Red Chamber, Water Margin, and Journey to the West. Durham & London: Duke UP, 1992, p.224.

[ix] Welch, Patricia Bjaaland. Chinese Art. A Guide to Motifs and Imagery. Tōkyō, Rutland, Singapore: Tuttle, 2008, p.137.

[x] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.24.

[xi] Wang 1992, p.241.

[xii] “Monkey in Japan”, p.2.

[xiii] Wang 1992, p.222.

[xiv] Wang 1992, p.225-7.

[xv] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6

[xvi] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xvii] For tourist info, see

[xviii] „Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xix] Monkey in Japan“, p.3.

[xx] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.6.

[xxi] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.53.

[xxii] Welch 2008, p.137; „The Monkey“., last access 24.08.2016, 11:36.

[xxiii] Ohnuki-Tierney 1987, p.54, 58

Musings VI: On the ghost of O’iwa, and why she’s still scary.

The Season of Horrors

It may seem strange at first that summer is the prime time for ghost stories in Japan. We tend to associate summer with pleasant things… but imagine you’re living in early modern Japan.

You have no iced drinks, no electric fans, no convenient water taps. There’s basically no way to keep cool at night. So you lie awake, too hot to sleep, too hot to breathe, and listen to the buzzing of mosquitoes just outside the net around your futon. The next day you drag yourself to work again, through streets flaring with sunlight. It hurts your eyes and gives you a headache. Things go bad fast, and they smell. The next night brings no cool either, the air remains thick and stale and sticky like old sweat, and the mosquitoes are still buzzing… I wouldn‘t be surprised if I started seeing things after a while.

Also, if someone tells you a good ghost story and you get that shudder down the spine, wouldn’t that be refreshing at a time like this? It would possibly work as “a psychological form of air conditioning“.[i] Finally, in August you have O-Bon, the week-long festival of the Dead. So, a number of summer customs related to the scary and supernatural has arisen. For example, there is hyakumonogatari kaidankai, a meeting to tell one hundred ghost stories in a room with a hundred lighted candles. For every story told, the group extinguishes one candle, and when the last flame dies, it is said, a monster will appear.[ii]  Also, the theatres and later cinemas of Japan traditionally offer horror stories in their summer programme, and that’s where O’iwa enters the picture.

The Birth of O’iwa

In 1755, the man who would later be known as playwright Tsuruya Nanboku IV was born in Edo as son of a dyer. Aged 25, he married the daughter of Tsuruya Nanboku III, but it took him another 20 years to write a successfull play. He then excelled at mixing well-known plots and settings with new elements, creating new types of characters and sharply observing the lives of the lower-class townspeople.[iii] His best-known work only premiered in 1825, four years before his death: Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (The ghost-story of Yotsuya on the Tōkaidō (Eastern Sea Road)). Onoe Kigurorō III and Ichikawa Danjurō VII, two of the most famous actors of the day, played the lead roles.[iv]

Oiwa O'iwa Iemon yotsuya kaidan ukiyoe

O‘iwa (Kikugoro III) and Iemon (Danjurō VII), as painted by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, 1836.

The plot of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan

The play is set in the same sekai (“world“: the historic situation and characters used) as Chūshingura, the story of the 47 rōnin, and was often staged alongside it. Iemon, a good-looking young samurai, has murdered the father of the woman he desired in order to be with her. However, his lord has to commit suicide (this is the Chūshingura plot) and Iemon loses his position.

Forced to eke out a living as a paper umbrella maker, he grows tired of his sickly wife and child. Meanwhile, the daughter of a rich neighbor falls for Iemon. She sends a ‚medicine‘, actually a deadly poison, to O’iwa, so she could marry Iemon. But O’iwa survives, becoming horribly disfigured in the process. This prompts Iemon to leave her, and she dies, vowing revenge.[v] Iemon kills his thieving servant Kohei and nails the two corpses to a door which he throws into the river, to make it appear like a lover’s double suicide.

But O’iwa and Kohei return from their wet grave to haunt the murderer. They appear at Iemon’s wedding night, causing him to slay his bride and new father-in-law. Later, while fishing, he catches the very same door with the two corpses on it. The two ghosts keep appearing and accusing him, eventually driving him mad. In the last act, O’iwa breaks out of a burning paper lantern, an iconic scene often depicted in woodblock prints. Only when Iemon is finally slain, the ghosts are satisfied.

This story has been adapted and cited many times since then, in plays, prints, stories, movies, and anime. Even the ghost of Sadako in Ringu has some features of O’iwa.[vi] What made her scary then and still scary now?

The three horrors of O‘iwa.


The female body itself is threatening to the patriarchal mindset. “Ancient worldviews frequently equated the female with the impure, often with evil itself. Given that her body was the site of

discharges and emissions, of miraculous change and transformations, she has been suspect of harboring all that is dangerous and threatening.“[vii] Childbirth and menstruation were stigmatized as polluting, which made women threatening to male ‘purity‘ – even outside the role of the seductress.

Mother and Monster


Oiwa O'iwa hair blood ukiyoe

O’iwa’s bloody hair loss.Source

O’iwa has given birth shortly before the beginning of the second act and as such is affected by this pollution. The disfiguration of her face by the poison might be a visualisation of the disgust Iemon feels towards her. In addition, her last day is a bloody nightmare.  As an effect of the poison, her hair falls out in bloody clumps. When Iemon tears the mosquito net out of her hands, he ripps off her fingernails. Finally, she dies by the sword. These events not only make her more and more polluted; they are also already part of her transformation into a monstrous ghost.


Remember, O‘iwa has just experienced all the transformations of pregnancy. Now her body transforms again, and in this state of in-between-ness, she dies. That may be one reason for her dangerousness as a ghost: “In most religions, the passage from one stage of life into the following one is seen as dangerous and demands support in the form of rites of passage. If such protective measures are lacking and a person dies during the transformation, this yields an enormous potential of threat for the community of the living.“[viii] O‘iwa dies in transformation. This makes her more powerful as a ghost, and thus scarier.



O’iwa is meek and obedient as long as she is ignorant of Iemon’s deeds. However, his betrayal of her ignites a fury so strong she returns again and again to haunt him. She is now in control, he is her victim: an inversion of the social order. As a kizewamono (‚naturalistic‘ play), Yotsuya Kaidan portrays the social problems and societal fears of its time. One of those is the decline of the feudal caste system and the fear of social unrest, when those who are meant to obey rebel against their „betters“ for being treated badly – as O’iwa does against Iemon.

Fourty years after Yotsuya Kaidan premiered, the samurai of Satsuma and Chōshū would rise against the Tokugawa government. Thus they ignited a civil war which led to the opening of Japan in the Meiji restoration of 1868. Yet, the seeds of this upheavel were already growing at the time of Yotsuya Kaidan. Enough perhaps to transfer the fear of power being turned upside down from a level of gender to a political level.

…and gender

Besides being potential political commentary, O’iwa shows the limits of a woman’s abilities to gain justice.  “One of the chief ways in which women who have been trampled on become empowered is to turn into vengeful spirits after they have died.“[ix] She has to transform to become a monster and vengeful ghost, in order to gain power over Iemon. In life, she was at his mercy, caught within the confines of society and her role as woman and wife. She can only escape them through monstrosity and death.

At the same time, the woman exacting revenge on her deceitful, murderous husband is basically a conservative morality tale. In addition, it is not O’iwa but her sister’s fiancé, a male character, who actually kills Iemon. Thus in the end, societal norms and morals are reinforced, and the fear of social upheaval and female empowerment is banished.


One of the Japanese words for monster/spirit/uncanny being is bakemono or obake, literally „changing thing“. This allows the conclusion that transformation itself is a key element in Japanese concepts of horror, and especially ghost stories. When it comes to female ‚changing creaturues‘, „[i]n almost every instance, the mutation from benign, subservient female, into something ‚else‘/Other is motivated by a violent act of betrayal and murder“.[x] This exactly fits the situation of O’iwa, who transforms from obidient human wife into something terrible and Other. In her haunting of Iemon, she assumes a male position of power, another factor in the fear of rebellion and gender role reversal I discussed above.

An onryō…

But also, O‘iwa is the first woman in a line of revenging ghosts (onryō), who wreak havoc among the living for an injustice suffered before or in the manner of their deaths. As such, she has become so iconic that she overshadows her male predecessors such as Sugawara no Michizane (now deified as Tenman Tenjin, God of Learning) or the Taira warriors.[xi]

Carmen Blacker describes onryō as follows: “Most dangerous of all, however, are those ghosts whose death was violent, lonely or untoward. Men who died in battle or disgrace, who were murdered, or who met their end with rage or resentment in their hearts, will become at once onryô or angry spirits, who require for their appeasement measures a good deal stronger than the ordinary everyday obsequies.“[xii] A sudden or violent death, in contrast to a death of old age or disease, leaves the departed soul with some remaining energy. This is even more volatile if the soul harbours resentment, e.g. for their killer.[xiii] Nanboku cleary alludes to this type of ghost in his construction of O’iwa and her postmortal empowerment. She dies poisoned, betrayed, disfigured and furious – the ‘best‘ conditions to become an onryō.

… or another other scary creature?

However, male onryō usually caused disasters and plagues rather than appearing in human form to the object of their grudge. O’iwa‘s appearance refers to the classical shape of the female yūrei. (Long disshevelled hair, often white burial robes and the triangular headpiece assoicated with them, etc…).[xiv] In addition, she appears as corpse on the door, as a rat (her zodiac sign) or a lantern monster, further adding the category of yōkai/bakemono to her repertoire. The tangible person undergoes a series of painful transformations and turns into an unstable avanging ghost – ethereal in ist substance and mutable in its form. Woman, ghost, rat, lantern; onryō, yūrei, yōkai: O’iwa invokes the fear of all that is intangible and beyond our understanding.

The Burning Lantern

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hokusai ukiyoe

Monster Lantern O’iwa, as depicted by Katsushika Hokusai, early 1830s.

One of the features which brougth Kabuki ist popular appeal are keren, stage tricks which made stunning transformations of scenery and character possible in front of the live audience. Yotsuya Kaidan features a numer of keren, but one of the most iconic is chôchin nuke. In this scene in the drama’s last act, O’iwa appears in, or through, a burning paper lantern. For this, a slightly enlarged lanters is set aflame on stage, and the actor playing O’iwa emerges from it. He “slides through the burned-out aperture from behind the scenes, his timing in perfect accord with the man who does the burning”.[xv] As with other keren, finely tuned teamwork is essential to produce a credible illusion of the incredible and fantastic. In contrast, artists only needed colour and paper for their fantastic image.

Hokusai’s O’iwa

While a number of depictions of the chōchin nuke scene and other kabuki ghost scenes exist, Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760-1849) print is unique in that is is not a portrait of a specific actor. Ukiyo-e of kabuki characters were usually a kind of early modern movie poster, something you hung up on your wall because of the star actor you were a fan of, who was captured at the hight of his art in a striking pose. In contrast, Hokusai does not show an actor and his O’iwa does not emerge from the lantern. Instead, she is the lantern, and this completely changes the direction of the image.[xvi]

To this end, Hokusai merges the character of O’iwa with an only mildly scary yōkai, the chōchin obake or monster lantern. Chōchin obake are a subclass of tsukumogami (monsters born from objects wither discarded thoughtlesslly, or used for more than 100 years), ad are usually depicted with a mouthlike parting in the middle or lower, a rolling tongue and (usually) one eye. As such, they are more funny than threatening, but still good for a jump scare. Chōchin O’iwa, therefore, is an image full of allusions, some more playful, some rather scary.

Oiwa O'iwa lantern ghost monster chochin obake hozuki reitetsu

O’iwa the Monster Lantern, as seen in ‘Hôzuki no Reitetsu’.

Interestingly, O’iwa‘s depiction as monster lantern did not transform the category, as it did with onryō. Monster lanterns stayed the same, and the ‘monster lantern version‘ instead became a subordinate image for O’iwa.

Modern Representations: Ayakashi and beyond

I already mentioned the influce O’iwa has had on modern female ghosts such as Sadako.

Moreover, she appears in the anime Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014) as the monster lantern. Even if she did not introduce herself, she is clearly recognizable by the eye swollen shut, the yūrei-style hair and generally non-comical features which set her apart from the usual chōchin obake. Most striking, however, I found the adaptation of Yotsuya Kaidan in anime form in Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales (2006), which features rats and doppelgangers and of cause the scene where O’iwa emerges from the lantern, and there’s nothing funny about that.

What made, and still makes, O’iwa scary, I think, are the feelings she evokes in us. Against her we are powerless, helpless, on many levels at once. Most of us have at some point done someone a wrong and can imagine Iemon’s guilt. We feel his fear, understand his flights, cover-ups and denials – all that while being aware what a despicable human being he is. In contrast, O’iwa in her onryō state is utterly alien. You can never be sure in what shape or manner she will appear next; it could be anyone, anything, anywhere.  She destabilizes categories, perception and thus reality itself and drives you mad. And you cannot reason with her, reach her, or forcibly stop her. You are completely at her mercy, and she has none for you. What could be more horrifying?

Notes and References:

[i] Anderson & Ritchie, as quoted in Elisabeth Scherer: Spuk der Frauenseele. Weibliche Geister im japanischen Film und ihre kulturhistorischen Ursprünge. Bielefeld: transcript, 2011, 98.

[ii] If you like Japanese monsters as much as I do, check out the amazing website named for this event.

[iii] Shirane Haruo (ed): Early Modern Japanese Literature. An Anthology, 1600-1900. New York: Columbia UP., 2002, 844. See also


[v] The exact circumstances of her death vary between different summaries of the story. Sometimes she commits suicide, cutting her throat. Sometimes Iemon kills her, but in the only version I had access to, Mark Oshima’s translation of acts 2 and 3 for Shirane 2002, while grappling with Iemon over the objects (such as her bedding and mosquito net), he intends to sell in order to make her leave him, she accidentally falls into the Kohei’s sword, which had remained stuck in a pillar from an earlier fight.

[vi] An interesting article on this topic: Valerie Wee: „Patriarcy and the Horror of the Monstrous Feminine. A Comparative Study of Ringu and The Ring“. In: Feminist Media Studies 11 (2), 2011, 151–165.

[vii] Rebecca Copeland: „Mythical Bad Girls: The Corpse, the Crone, and the Snake.“ In: Laura Miller und Jan Bardsley (eds): Bad Girls of Japan. Houndmills, Balsingstoke, Hampshire, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, 14–31, 17-18.

[viii] Scherer 2011:50-51, my translation.

[ix] Samuel L. Leiter, as quoted in Richard J. Hand: „Aesthetics of Cruelty. Traditional Japanese Theatre and the Horror Film“. In: Jay McRoy (ed): Japanese Horror Cinema. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005, S. 18–28, 24.

[x] Wee 2011:154.

[xi] For a definition of onryō, see, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see

[xii] Carmen Blacker: The Catalpa Bow. A Study of Shamanistic Practices in Japan. London: Allen & Unwin, 1975, 48.

[xiii] Scherer 2011:40-41

[xiv] For a first look, see There are whole books on the different types of yūrei… This one, for instance.

[xv] Samuel L. Leiter: „Keren. Spectacle and Trickery in Kabuki Acting“. In: Educational Theatre Journal 28 (2), 1976, S. 173–188, 188.

[xvi] Scherer 2011:112, 114.