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: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[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. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[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: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg

 

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.  http://www.theartofjapan.com/art-detail/?inv=11124034

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.

Pollution

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.

Rebellion

Class…

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.

Otherworldliness

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.  https://monstrousindustry.files.wordpress.com/2014/09/c9712-oiwa2bhokusai.jpg

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 http://www.kabuki21.com/nanboku4.php.

[iv] http://www.kabuki21.com/nakamuraza.php#jul1825

[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 http://yokai.com/onryou/, where you can also find an article about Michizane. For a story about Taira-clan onryō, see https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/10/07/heike-ichizoku-no-onryo-the-vengeful-ghosts-of-the-heike-clan/

[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 http://yokai.com/yuurei/. 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.

Musings III: On the Use of Premodern Japanese in Anime

Hard but hardly useful?

As a master student of Japanese Studies, I am obliged to concern myself not only with modern popular culture and anime but also with the subject of Premodern Japanese. To be precise, I’m learning to read texts from the Edo period and older which use bungo, or premodern grammar. I’m also doing  ‘Kanbun’, which is basically a Japanese trick of reading ancient Chinese using said grammar. It’s quite cool to think about all the yōkai legends I’ll be able to read once I’ve mastered bungo, and to realize I have just understood a story written in China in 200 BC (!) – but the practical, everyday applicability of Premodern Japanese does seem rather limited. However, I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t found

A back door.

Pop-cultural products – anime, manga, and video games – do actually use premodern Japanese, here and now. In many cases, admittedly, the use only barely qualifies as ‘premodern’, and it is mostly done to give the show a bit of an “ancient” feel. In this way, it is similar to the drawing style of historical anime which sometimes evokes murals, picture scrolls, or woodblock prints. An interesting example, in both aspects, is the 2010 anime Katanagatari, which is set in a parallel universe’s version of feudal Japan. In the opening narration, a text appears in wild brushstrokes, which uses the premodern negation auxiliary ‘nu’ instead of modern ‘nai’. Katanagatari 1 opYet the sentence ends with the modern ‘atta’ (‘there was’) instead of a proper premodern form (such as ‘ari-keri’)… and even ‘nu’ is still used in modern Japanese, albeit rarely. So producers can assume that everyone will understand it, whereas ‘ari-keri’ would probably confuse people. This reminds me of the way ‘samurai’ in anime sometimes use ‘de gozaru’ for ‘to be’, to showcase the period the story is set in. It can be assumed that even viewers unfamiliar with the word will understand its meaning quickly, as it is used in exactly the same way the modern alternative is.  So far, so unsatisfying.

Gods and Monsters and the Prayer of Purification

Then I watched another episode of Noragami Aragoto (2015), the second season of the Noragami anime which continues the story of a hardly known Japanese deity, Yato, his sword-which-is-actually-a-dead-soul Yukine, and their friend Hiyori. They vanquish monsters and try to evade the battle goddess Bishamon-ten, who holds a grudge against Yato. Yato 1

Now, as Yato was making the little speech he always delivers before slaying a monster, to my infinite delight, I made out the premodern auxiliary ‘mu’, one of the functions of which is to signify intention.[i] 

Both the language style and the repetition of the speech before every showdown give these monster extermination sequences an aura of ritual. And premodern language patterns tend to survive in the formulaic speech of rituals, as Western Christians may have experiences themselves – think of  the Catholic Lord’s Prayer, which still uses the second person singular pronoun ‘thou’ and corresponding verb inflection.

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if Noragami isn’t referencing norito prayers here. Norito are the ancient prayers of Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, and one of the oldest forms of Japanese preserved.[ii] Since the main characters of Noragami are Shinto gods and their regalia, it wouldn’t be surprising if the makers had taken some inspiration from the actual Shinto prayer of purification when they devised the little speech Yato makes before purifying (i.e. slaying) monsters. A strong hint for this is the word Yato uses for Japan, Toyoashihara-no-nakatsu-kuni (something along the lines of “The Country Amidst the Plains of Plentiful Reeds”). The term is based on Shinto legend; it is one of the names given to Japan in the Shinto creation myth, if I am not mistaken. (This should be verifiable in the English translation of the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Things), Japan’s oldest chronicle, but I am still unable to get my hands on a copy.) The term used for Heaven in the series, Takamagahara, originates from the same mythology. Finally, Yato also uses the same words for spiritual pollution (kegare) and cleansing (harau) as the prayers do. There are even a number of Kanji visible in the background during the sequence, but never long or clear enough to actually recognize them. I wonder if they are taken from a religious text?

In addition, Yato himself has definitely seen the Edo era (based on the clothes and buildings seen in his flashbacks), and would be able, perhaps even likely, to fall back to premodern speech patterns when under stress or in a repetitive situation – no matter how contemporary (and jerk-like) he usually acts.

The common suspects and the odd one out

I asked around for suggestions of other anime with potential use of bungo, and among those recommended were a few I had actually seen already, just without realizing – Ayakashi and Mononoke (2006/2007), Mushishi (2005-6), and Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014), for instance. The first three can all be placed the context of historical (horror) fiction and/or monster-fighting fantasy; thus I assume the use of bungo can be attributed to the feel of magical/religious ritual and historical flavour I described above. I have also looked at two series I hadn’t come across before, Shōnen Onmyōji (2006-7, about the grandson of the famous Feng Shui magician Abe no Seimei) and Otogi Zōshi (2004-5, another dark historic fantasy which also features Seimei), and these also fit the bill. The aforementioned Hōzuki no Reitetsu is a bit of a special case, though. Set in present day, it portrays an unlikely oni (demon) named Hōzuki and his calm in the face of the daily struggles which come with his post as chief secretary of Enma Daiō – the King of (Buddhist) Hell.[iii]

Hōzuki is a very episodic and intensively intertextual comedy series which playfully joins Eastern (and a bit of Western) religion and folklore with a parody of modern trends and pop culture. Many of the jokes will go over your head if you don’t have some basic knowledge of Buddhism, Japanese folktales and literary classics. And modern Japanese pop culture. And koalas.

Well and sometimes, in the middle of all that, you’ll get some bit of bungo. For example, in episode 3, during a big sports tournament between the Chinese and the Japanese afterlives, the legendary beauty and poet Ono no Komachi pens a short waka poem for the title character. So basically, Hōzuki no Reitetsu opens up a third dimension of the use of bungo in anime: as an ironic citation in a postmodern (con/inter)text. And at this point, I’ll close my musings on the use of premodern Japanese in anime, at least for the time being.

Notes and References:

[i] See the beginning of this clip from episode 5 of the original series for reference.

[ii] For the following, I have mostly used this website  and outgoing links.

[iii] The opening introduces the 272 Hells of Buddhism, but the only version on YT is in pretty bad quality, see here. For those interested in the matter, Matthew Meyer’s yōkai anthology The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits includes a very interesting and intensely readable description of Hell (Jigoku).

The Sokushinbutsu, Japan’s Mummy Monks

sokusinbut

How far would you go for your beliefs?  If your faith called for it, would you give up your life?  What if, to get to heaven, you were called upon to take your OWN life?

Sound bizarre? To a sect of Buddhists called Shugendo it wasn’t.  These monks and nuns are known now as the Sokushinbutsu, and are considered “living” buddhas (seems odd to call them living, but whatever).  They went through a long, painful process in order to preserve their bodies and achieve Buddhahood and the state of Nirvana.  To put it in Western terms, they mummified themselves alive in order to go to Heaven.

You might be thinking right now about the Egyptian mummification process, and wondering how in the heck someone could do something like that to themselves (the why might be understandable…after all, eternal peace and happiness is a pretty powerful motivator, although I should add that the Buddhist idea of ‘heaven’ is a lot different than what we think of here in America.)

The mummification process in this instance is a lot different than that practiced by the Egyptians.  Fundamentally different, in fact, because the Sokushinbutsu literally attempted to mummify themselves alive, while the Egyptians did their process post-mortem and, obviously, to another person.

So how was this self-mummification achieved?  The first step of the process lasted 1000 days.  During this time, the aspiring Sokushinbutsu would eat a special diet of nuts and seeds while participating in a rigorous exercise routine in order to strip fat from their body.  In the second step of the process, the monk would only eat bark and roots for 1000 days.  Also during this time, they would consume a poisonous tea made from the sap of the Urushi tree, a sap normally used to make lacquer for bowls.  This tea caused vomiting and diarrhea, which resulted in rapid weight loss. Most importantly though, compounds in the sap made the body poisonous to maggots, which is obviously a good thing if you’re trying to keep the little critters from eating your corpse.

Leaves of the lacquer tree, whose sap was used to make the tea that poisoned the monk's bodies. Image credit: Aomorikuma

Leaves of the lacquer tree, whose sap was used to make the tea that poisoned the monk’s bodies.
Image credit: Aomorikuma

Once the second phase was done, the emaciated and sickly monk would enter a tomb crafted to be barely bigger than his body.  He would assume the lotus posture, which he would not move from for the rest of his life.  He would be sealed into the tomb, his only contact with the outside world a small air tube and a bell.  Every day for the rest of his life, he would ring the bell to let those outside know he was still alive.

When the bell stopped ringing, those attending the monk through his self mummification process would seal up the tomb completely and leave it sealed for another 1000 days.  Once the 1000 days were past, they would open up the tomb and see if the would be Sokushinbutsu had achieved his aim of self mummification.  Most times, they would open the tomb and find a rotted corpse.  A few times though, the process worked and the corpse was fairly well preserved (although not quite as well as Egyptian mummies and not near as well as bog mummies.)

Those who tried and failed this bizarre and painful process were respected for their devotion, but those who became Sokushinbutsu were immediately venerated as a ‘living’ Buddha and put on display for all to see.

Thankfully, this bizarre practice has not survived the test of time.  The process was outlawed in 1879 in Japan, and for good measure now any kind of assisted suicide, including suicides for religious reasons, are now illegal.

I feel obligated to point out the obvious here.  This was NOT what the Buddha intended, and I seriously doubt he would approve had he lived long enough to see this process take place.  The Buddha tried the whole “extreme self denial to achieve Enlightenment” thing and it didn’t work out too well for him.  Luckily he stopped it before he died of starvation or sickness.

No, what the Shugendo sect did was not in keeping with the Buddhist philosophy as it was meant to be practiced. It was one of those extreme sects – every religion/philosophy has them – and they don’t really reflect the views of the wider community well at all.

That being said, right or wrong, this is a part of history.  The Sokushinbutsu show just how far people will go in pursuit of a belief, misguided or otherwise.


Kesagake the Man Eater

A statue of Kesagake, the brown bear responsible for the worst bear attacks in Japanese history.

A statue of Kesagake, the brown bear responsible for the worst bear attacks in Japanese history.

Sometimes humans get a bit cocky. After all, our big brains and ability to produce advanced technology put us head and shoulders above other animals, especially when it comes to killing power. Nobody can contest the fact that humans are the apex predator on planet Earth, but now and then nature reminds us that, when you strip away all our technology, we are nothing more than week, naked apes.

One such event occurred in Sankebetsu, Japan, between December 9 and 14, 1915, when a brown bear awoke early from hibernation and proceeded to terrorize the local population for five days.

The incident began when Kesagake, a huge Ussuri brown bear, appeared near the Ikeda homestead, in mid November, and spooked the family horse. When the bear reappeared, the Ikeda men went after it and managed to wound it with gunfire. Thinking the bear would now fear humans, they decided not to track it further.

However, as it turned out they were terribly mistaken. Kesagake returned to the area on December 9, where he entered the Ota family home. The woman of the house, Abe Mayu, was caring for a neighbor’s child, Hasumi Mikio, when the bear attacked. Kesagake first bit Mikio in the head, killing him, and then proceeded to attack Mayu, dragging her off into the forest. Rescuers later described the inside of the house as looking like a “slaughterhouse.”

The next day, 30 men attempted to track the bear. It wasn’t long before they came upon Kesagake. One man managed to hit the animal, forcing it to retreat. They found Mayu’s remains, her head and parts of her legs, cached in a snow bank, not far from where the attack occurred.

An Alaskan Brown Bear, a relative of the Ussuri Brown Bears of Japan.

An Alaskan Brown Bear, a relative of the Ussuri Brown Bears of Japan.

The no doubt shaken search party realized they had a man eater on their hands. They hatched a plan to kill the beast, by setting a trap for it at the Ota house, assuming it would return again in search of food. A group of 50 guardsmen were stationed at the Miyoke house, 300 meters away.

Sure enough, that night the man eater returned. Another villager managed to score a hit, and the bear withdrew. The villagers took off after their quarry, and the guardsmen stationed at the Miyoke house joined them.

Kesegake showed the cunning seemingly inherent to a man eater, eluding his hunters and circling back to the Miyoke house. The bear crashed through the front window and proceeded to maul everyone inside, including a pregnant woman who reportedly begged for her life. Yayo, the homeowner’s wife, managed to escape and tell the returning guardsmen what had occurred. The guards surrounded the house, but in the fear and confusion of the moment they missed their shots and Kesagake managed to escape again. After the attack, only veterans of the Russo-Japanese War remained at their posts; the rest fled.

A sniper team was assembled by regional authorities after the attack on the Miyoki homestead, but the marksmen could not find the beast. Finally, locals turned to a famed bear hunter named Yamamoto Heikigachi to kill the man eater. They had approached him after the initial attacks, but he refused. He had traded his gun for the bottle, in true washed-up-hero fashion, but after the Miyoke house attack he agreed to hunt down Kesagake.

With a local guide, Yamamoto managed to track the bear and killed it with two shots, one to the heart and one to the head. The bear weighed in at 340 kg (749lbs) and measured 2.7 meters (almost 9 feet) in length. A necropsy performed later found human remains in the bear’s stomach, confirming that this was indeed the infamous Kesagake.

All told, Kesagake was responsible for seven deaths, six during the attacks and one victim who died later. It remains to this day the worst bear attack in Japanese history. In the wake of the attacks, villagers abandoned the area, leaving it to the bears and the ghosts of the past.

Kamaitachi–The Sickle Weasel

Kamaitachi, by Toriyama Sekien.

Kamaitachi, by Toriyama Sekien.

Night has fallen. You’ve had a hard day at work, and you’re walking home, cutting across a grassy field to save time. All of a sudden, a huge gust of wind knocks you to the ground. When you stand, you happen to look down and notice that your pants have been sliced open at the calf, and a closer look shows an inch long slit in your skin. There is no blood, and no pain. Yet, anyway. The pain will set in later, and you’ll suffer for days as the wound will take a long time to heal.

So what in the world just happened? Well my friend, you have just run afoul of the kamaitachi, or the sickle weasel. The critters are yokai that hang around the Koshin’etsu region for the most part. They are said to resemble weasels, with sharp, sickle like claws. Accounts of their attacks vary; some claim that they attack in trios, while others claim the monsters work alone.

What they can agree on is that the sickle weasel first attacks with a strong gust of wind, or a whirlwind, knocking their victim to the ground (they only attack men, by the way). The second phase of the attack is using their sickle-like claws to cut a deep gash into the skin, and the final phrase is to apply a medicine that numbs pain and stops bleeding. The attacks happen instantaneously, with the weasel moving faster than the eye can see (which begs the question of how anyone knows what the thing looks like, but that’s another matter).

The kamaitachi appear in anime, manga, and novels. So far there don’t seem to be any modern accounts of attacks by these elusive creatures. Like most things folkloric, it seems the sickle weasel exists exclusively in the minds of those who believe in them.