The Test

A new installment in my occasional and hopefully ongoing series of active heroines: lesser-known fairy tales featuring women who do more than wait around to get rescued. This one is from Lafcadio Hearn, and was told to him by his gardener Kinjuro. I give it here, verbatim. The story features the “marriage test” motif, where a hero must pass a test in order to win the fair maiden. In most cases, the fair maiden’s father imposes the test. In some cases — like this one — the fair maiden herself sets the conditions.

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A long time ago, in the days when Fox-women and goblins haunted this land, there came to the capital with her parents a samurai girl, so beautiful that all men who saw her fell enamoured of her. And hundreds of young samurai desired and hoped to marry her, and made their desire known to her parents. For it has ever been the custom in Japan that marriages should be arranged by parents. But there are exceptions to all customs, and the case of this maiden was such an exception. Her parents declared that they intended to allow their daughter to choose her own husband, and that all who wished to win her would be free to woo her.

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Reading Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost

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I’ve long been a fan of Zack Davisson’s Japanese folklore blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai (named after the game of 100 Weird Tales), so I was eager to read his new book, Yūrei: The Japanese Ghost. It did not disappoint.

Davisson traces the origins of the yurei from their basis in Japan’s belief systems and traditions about the dead, starting with early animistic beliefs and their mixture with beliefs from Shintoism and Buddhism. The worlds of the living and the dead are perhaps nearer to each other in the Japanese conception than they are in Western belief systems. Your obligations to your ancestors continue past their deaths — and perhaps their interest in your life outlives their deaths, too. Becoming a ghost might be as simple as dying with something pressing on your mind — and moving on as easy as fulfilling the goal that keeps your ghost here.

The book also presents the literary history of the Japanese ghost story or weird tale (kaidan), beginning with the story behind Maruyama Ōkyo’s famous 18th century painting The Ghost of Oyuki. Oyuki is the prototype of the modern image of the yurei: pale, dressed in white, with no feet; she also graces the cover of the book. From there, we follow the weird tale through Japanese art, Japanese literature (and Chinese contributions to Japanese literature), Noh and Kabuki theater, and film. We learn about the three great yurei of Japan: the lovelorn Otsuya, the vengeful Oiwa, and the earth-bound (or maybe well-bound) Okiku. As with the Latino legends of La Llorona, there are many versions of the stories of Otsuya, Oiwa, and Okiku, and Davisson introduces us to several variations. He also shares other classic ghost tales and legends from Japanese and Buddhist mythology.

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Friday Video: Ghosty Tap-dancing Double Feature!

I found today’s video via Zack Davisson (@zackdavisson on Twitter), and I love it, love it, love it! A charming (and possibly a bit bored) Japanese ghost finds some dancing shoes to play with, to the tune of “Moses Supposes” from the movie Singing in the Rain.

Length: 2 minutes, 36 seconds.

I’d love to credit the video, so if anyone can tell me who the animators were, please drop a comment below.

If you’re curious about the outfit that the yurei is wearing, you can read about her white kimono and her white triangle headband in Zack’s always informative posts, on his blog Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai.

Still in a dancey mood? Here’s the original film version, with Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor. Amazing!

Length: 3 minutes, 12 seconds.

The song “Moses Supposes” was composed by Roger Edens, lyrics by Betty Comden and Adolph Green. I believe that Gene Kelly choreographed the number.

Happy Dancing Friday!

Ghostly Lover: from the Sioux and from Japan

While flipping through my copy of American Indian Myths and Legends yesterday morning, I stumbled upon this gem, collected in 1970 from a Brulé Sioux informant at Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota. It’s a terrific ghost story all on its own, but it caught my eye for another reason as well. Before I give you the reason, though — the story:

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Grief, Spirits, and Storytelling

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Detail from Nissaka man receiving a child from a ghost, Utagawa Kuniyoshi
Image: Wikipaintings

I read an interesting essay from the London Review of Books not too long ago: “Ghosts of the Tsunami,” by Richard Lloyd Parry. The essay tells of spirit visitations — and spirit possessions — reported by many people in the northern parts of Japan, the region struck by the earthquake and tsunami of 2011.

Haltingly, apologetically, then with increasing fluency, the survivors spoke of the terror of the wave, the pain of bereavement and their fears for the future. They also talked about encounters with the supernatural. They described sightings of ghostly strangers, friends and neighbours, and dead loved ones. They reported hauntings at home, at work, in offices and public places, on the beaches and in the ruined towns. The experiences ranged from eerie dreams and feelings of vague unease to cases, like that of Takeshi Ono, of outright possession. […]

Priests – Christian and Shinto, as well as Buddhist – found themselves called on repeatedly to quell unhappy spirits. A Buddhist monk wrote an article in a learned journal about ‘the ghost problem’, and academics at Tohoku University began to catalogue the stories. ‘So many people are having these experiences,’ Kaneda told me. ‘It’s impossible to identify who and where they all are. But there are countless such people, and I think that their number is going to increase. And all we do is treat the symptoms.’

Parry links this phenomenon to Japanese beliefs and customs around ancestor veneration, and to the idea of muenbotoke: wandering souls, those who die without family or kin to pray for them and help them move on. If a tsunami wipes out your entire town, all your family, all your friends — who is left to pray for you? Anyone you can haunt or possess, apparently.

One of the people featured in the article is Masashi Hijikata, a publisher living in Tohoku (a region rich in supernatural folklore). In the aftermath of the disaster, Mr. Hijikata revived the tradition of kaidankai, or gatherings for the tellings of ghost stories. These kaidankai were organized to provide support to survivors of the disaster, those who were not finding their necessary emotional and mental support from traditional counseling or religion. They were places for people to share their disaster-related supernatural experiences with fellow survivors.

Interestingly, Mr. Hijikata doesn’t believe in spirits. But he did believe — because of where he is, because of who the people of his community are — that people would begin to see them, in great numbers. And he was right.

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La Yurei de Atoyac (The Japanese Ghost of Atoyac)

This is a story from the days of the Manila-Acapulco trade route — a story of a beautiful Japanese urn brought by a Manila trade galleon from Japan to Mexico by way of the Philippines.

NewImageBlue and White Covered Urn, James Whistler
Image: Wikipaintings

No one knows how the urn ended up on the galleon. Perhaps it was stolen from a temple or cemetery and sold to a Spanish sailor as a souvenir. All we know is that when the galleon arrived in Acapulco, one of its crewmen, short of funds, sold the urn to a local shopkeeper.

The urn was lovely, white with painted cherry blossoms. The shopkeeper showed it to a friend of his, a sailor on shore leave.

“It’s heavy,” the sailor said. “Let’s open it and see what’s inside.”

And so they opened it and discovered that it was full of ashes, and bits of human bone. It was a funerary urn.

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The Demon Lady of Uji Bridge

In the time of Minamoto no Yorimitsu, known as Raikō, strange things happened throughout the land. One of the strangest was the unexplained disappearance of many people from their own homes, in full view of friends and family. They didn’t leave the room, they didn’t fall down and die; they simply vanished, as if blotted out. No one could find out where they had gone, or how it had happened. Nor did they know how to stop it — all the land was in a great panic.

Yorimitsu called his advisors and diviners to investigate. They learned that in the days of the Emperor Saga Tennō, (about one hundred and fifty years earlier), there was a lady of the court, the daughter of a high official, who feared that she was losing her lover to another woman. This lady became so jealous that she secluded herself in the shrine of Kibune for seven days, and prayed to the kami of the shrine:

“Grant that I may be changed into an oni (demon), so that I can kill the woman who is stealing my lover.”

The kami pitied the woman, and granted her wish.

“If you wish to become an oni, you must change your appearance and bathe in the Uji River for three times seven days.”

Overjoyed, the lady returned home and hid herself away. The divided her long hair into five tresses, which she shaped into five horns. She reddened her face and body with vermilion, and on her head she placed a tripod with a torch attached to each leg. In her mouth she held another torch, flaming at both ends. In this attire she rushed south down the Yamato highway after dark. The poor people who saw her thought for sure that she was a demon — some of them were so terrified that they died from their fear.

NewImageHashihime, From The Illustrated One Hundred Demons from the Present and the Past, Toriyama Sekien, 1779
Image: Wikipedia

The lady reached the Uji river and bathed there for three times seven days, and as the kami had promised, transformed living into an oni. She became known as Uji-no-Hashihime, or the Lady of Uji Bridge. As an oni, she killed not only her rival, but her lover as well, along with all of their relatives, rich and poor. When she wanted to kill a man, she would show herself as a woman, and when her intended victim was a woman, she would show herself as a man. All the people of the city were so terrified that they would shut themselves in their homes after the Hour of the Monkey (4 pm), neither going out nor allowing anyone in.

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The Lady Aoi

A friend turned my husband and me on to Mishima’s Five Modern Noh Plays; I’ve read a couple of them now. I wasn’t familiar with Noh plays, other than the fact the Kurosawa borrowed some Noh stylings for Throne of Blood (the stylized, dance-like movements, and makeup made to look like Noh masks). Mishima’s adaptations have given me a place to start.

The two plays that I’ve read are both ghost stories (all five plays are supernatural). Sotoba Komachi is a karma fable about a beautiful woman who was cruel to her lover, and is now, as an old and homeless woman, being tormented by his spirit. Mishima’s retelling is fairly faithful to the original: the stupa that the old woman sits on is updated to a park bench; the priests, to a poet.

Sotoba Komachi was pretty good, but I liked the second play that I read even better: The Lady Aoi. The original play, Aoi No Uye, is itself taken from The Tale of Genji. The Lady Aoi of the title is Lord Genji’s wife; though her marriage to Genji hasn’t been all that great, the two have reconciled, and Lady Aoi has only recently won a little roadside battle with one of Genji’s former lovers, an older woman and former Crown Princess named Lady Rokujo (Aoi had Rokujo’s carriage driven off the road when it was in the way of her own carriage). Rokujo’s jealous spirit has already left her body once before, to kill Yugao, the woman who replaced her as Genji’s lover. Now, her spirit is tormenting Aoi.

Neither Aoi or Genji are in the play; it begins in Aoi’s sick room, with a folded red kimono placed onstage to represent Aoi. Aoi’s attendants have called in a witch to summon whatever evil spirit is tormenting Aoi. The witch succeeds in summoning Rokujo’s spirit, which pours out Rokujo’s jealousy and bile. She becomes so angry that she transforms herself into a demon and attacks Aoi.

NewImageA demon-mask. From The Nō Plays of Japan, by Arthur Waley, 1921.

Aoi’s attendants rush to fetch a priest, who confronts the Rokujo-demon. The priest’s prayers cause Rokujo to repent her ways. Aoi dies anyway.

Here’s a snippet from a traditional Noh performance of Aoi No Uye (the first 1:20 or so of the video). This is the scene where the Lady Rokujo turns into a demon, and then is exorcised by the priest. I think the foot stamp the priest makes at the end of the scene is the traditional signal that the ghost has disappeared.


The comedy play in the second half of the video (about two servants who have been tied up to keep them from drinking all the sake) looks fun, too.

Mishima’s adaptation starts with the original play, and takes it somewhere familiar, and yet so different.

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Life From Death: Dema Deities

This is the story that started my current mini-obsession with food origin myths: the story of Ogetsuhime, as mentioned in volume 13 of the horror manga The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Note that the panels read right to left (and so do the voice balloons).

Ogetsuhime

Ogetsuhime is a Shinto goddess of food and grain, and is also associated with Inari (or Oinari), the goddess of rice. The story above is similar to the story of Dewi Sri, the Javanese rice goddess, that I posted a few days ago. Though the vomiting and defecating of the banquet food in the Japanese tale is… different.

There is an Indonesian tale (from the Molucca Islands) with the same motif: Hainuwele, the coconut girl.

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Something You Can’t Do With an Ebook

Browsing the Mai-Do stationery store at the Japantown Mall today, and I found these:

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They are little plastic bookmarks with a bit of sticky-tape at the end, so you can mark your pages, PostIt-style. How could I resist?

Here are two of them in action:

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And a couple more close-ups:

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Five sheets, six different bookmarks. Maybe I’ll make some headway on that inexorably growing stack of books by my bed….