Sex Pathos and Grotesquery in Oni.pdf

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Noriko T. Reider
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio
Sex, Pathos, and Grotesquery
in Yumemakura Baku’s Oni
he common representation of oni (goblins, demons) in Japanese folklore is of evil,
monstrous supernatural creatures malevolent to living beings. However, in recent
popular depictions of onmyōji 陰陽師 , and by extension Abe no Seimei 安倍晴明
(921?–1005?), in iction, manga , and ilm oni are presented as lonely and misunder-
stood, if still monstrous, creatures. Author Yumemakura Baku 夢枕 獏 (1951–) situates
his representations of oni in the Heian 平安 period (794–1192). His characteriza-
tions of people and oni are, however, informed by a much more modern pathos, evi-
dently very appealing to contemporary Japanese readers and viewers. At a deeper
level, the current popularity of onmyōji creatures and characters may well reveal latent
Japanese interests in religion and the supernatural that relect in turn people’s exis-
tential anxieties about contemporary life and also their curiosity and interest in some
form of aterlife.
Keywords : onmyōji —Onmyōdō—Abe no Seimei— oni —Yumemakura Baku—
Asian Folklore Studies , Volume 66, 2007: 107–124
I n Yumemakura Baku’s (1951–) series Onmyōji , Abe no Seimei (921?–1005?),
a legendary onmyōji, or a practitioner of Onmyōdō (the way of yin-yang)
known for his skills of divination, magic, and sorcer y, teams up with the aris-
tocrat Minamoto no Hiromasa 源 博雅 (918–?). Together they solve mysteries and
crimes of supernatural origin. he popular series, which irst appeared in 1988,
has been adapted as equally successful manga and a television series of the same
title. Onmyōji has also inspired two feature-length ilms for which Yumemakura
Baku helped write the screenplay. In writing Onmyōji , Yumemakura notes that
he wanted to write stories on the Heian period (794–1192) and oni (goblins,
demons). While Onmyōji ’s backdrop is indeed the Heian period, Yumemakura’s
representations of oni and the development of his human characters are quite
contemporary. Frequently, Yumemakura portrays oni as lonely, misunderstood
beings, and thus touches a chord of empathy with Japanese readers and viewers.
his article examines the very ways in which Yumemakura builds upon and/or
modiies earlier images of oni and historical characters to make his series appeal
to a contemporary audience. he changes he makes, in turn, relect and express
contemporary Japanese attitudes toward the supernatural, and by extension, give
the reader/viewer a glimpse into historical and contemporary Japanese feelings
about religion and demonology. Japanese attitudes toward death and religion do
not seem to have waned ater all in contemporary society.
onmyōdō of the early tenth century and abe no seimei
Yumemakura has remarked that he has always wanted to write stories about the
Heian period, when creatures from the dark side, and particularly oni , resided
among people (Yumemakura 1991, 331). 1 he Heian period, oten considered
the apex of classical Japanese culture and literature, was when the oni ’s inluence
on the Japanese popular imagination was at its peak. During this time, these
ravenous demons struck fear into all walks of Japanese society.
Wi t h i n t h e He i a n p e r i o d , t h e h i s t o r i c a l S e i m e i’s y o u t h f u l y e a r s c o r r e s p o n d t o
the era of Engi-tenryaku 延喜天暦 (901–947), a time when Onmyōdō prospered
and produced excellent practitioners of its tradition. he oicial practitioners of
[ 108 ]
sex, pathos, and onmyōji
Onmyōdō, among them onmyōji , were at the time servants of the imperial court,
whose prime duties were to obser ve and examine astronomy, the almanac, astrol-
ogy, and divination. 2 he Engi-tenryaku era also coincides with a transitional
period in which the oicial practitioners of Onmyōdō tended to become the
aristocrats’ private “cat’s-paws” (Murayama 1961, 378 and 385). More precisely, as
descendants of the northern branch of the Fujiwara clan were establishing their
authority through the regency, the court practitioners of Onmyōdō were consol-
idating their own power by serving the Fujiwara (Murayama 1981, 112, and 172).
One anecdote oten used to prove Seimei’s ability for prescience concerns
Emperor Kasan’s 花山 (968–1008) abdication. According to Ōkagami 大鏡 [he
Great Mirror, ca. eleventh century], in 986 Emperor Kasan is set to renounce
his throne, the result of the political machinations of Fujiwara Kaneie 兼家
(929–990). Kasan’s abdication will allow Kaneie to rule as regent when his six-
year-old grandson, Crown Prince Yasuhito 懐仁 , ascends the throne and will
thus solidify Fujiwara political power through a maternal relative, Kaneie’s
daughter and Yasuhito’s mother, Fujiwara no Senshi 藤原詮子 . When Emperor
Kasan’s entourage reroute to a temple and pass Abe no Seimei’s house, “they
[hear] the diviner [Seimei] clap his hands and exclaim: ‘he heavens foretold
His Majesty’s abdication, and now it seems to have happened’ ” (McCullough
1980, 81). 3 Suwa Haruo, however, writes that it would not have been diicult
for Seimei, who served Kasan closely, to foresee Kasan’s abdication (S u wa 2000,
20). Some, including Shibusawa Tatsuhiko, even hypothesize that Seimei most
likely knew the political situation in court and took part in Fujiwara Kaneie’s
family plot to depose Emperor Kasan (Shibusawa 2001, 175). Be it through psy-
chic powers or political connections, Abe no Seimei became a larger-than-life
igure soon ater his death. 4
Prior to Yumemakura’s Onmyōji , Abe no Seimei was traditionally depicted
either as an old man, as he sporadically appears in classical Japanese literature,
or as a young boy, as portrayed in plays of the early modern period (1600–1868).
In the current Heisei era, Yumemakura’s Seimei is a beautiful, good-looking
adult with thin red lips. He is a cool hero endowed with supernatural powers,
adept at solving the mysterious crimes of the nostalgic Heian period and facing
his demonic adversaries.
about oni
Before examining the oni characters in Onmyōji , the historical concept of oni
could use some brief explanation. 5 Ancient Japanese literature has assigned a
number of diferent written characters, such as , 魑魅 , and 鬼魅 to express
oni (Tsuchihashi 1990, 95). he character used now is , which in Chinese
means invisible soul/spirit of the dead, whether ancestral or evil. According to
noriko t. reider
Wamyō ruijushō 倭名類聚抄 (ca. 930s), the irst Japanese language dictionary,
oni is explained as a corruption of the reading of the character on (hiding),
“hiding behind things, not wishing to appear…. It is a soul/spirit of the dead.”
Apparently the concept of oni in Wamyō ruijushō is based upon the Chinese
concept (Takahashi 1992, 41). Tsuchihashi Yutaka writes that the term oni
came from the pronunciation of on (hiding) plus “i” (1990, 95).
In popular Japanese thought, “ oni conjures up an image of a hideous crea-
ture emerging from hell’s abyss to terrify wicked mortals. An oni is customarily
portrayed with one or more horns protruding from its scalp. It sometimes has
a third eye in the center of its forehead, and its skin most commonly is black,
red, blue, or yellow. It oten has a large mouth with conspicuous canine teeth.
he folkloric origin of this creature is obscure. According to some scholars, the
Japanese oni is a purely Buddhist creation, 6 but the oni did not remain unique
to the Buddhist cosmos. Others note that the term oni was used in Onmyōdō
to describe any evil spirit that harms humans. In early Onmyōdō doctrine, the
word “ oni ” referred speciically to invisible evil spirits that caused human inir-
mity (Komatsu 1999). While the visual image of oni is predominantly male,
there also are examples of female oni in Japanese lore, the prototype Japanese
oni being a female named Yomotsu-shikome (lit., ugly woman of the other
world) (Ishibashi 1998, 4), 7 born from a female deity who felt shamed by her
husband. 8
he shape-shiting powers of all oni make it possible for them to assume
human form, but their typically gruesome appearance oten relects their evil
dispositions. Indeed, oni are known for their appetite for human flesh. Still,
close examination of treatment of oni in diverse contexts reveals less dreadful
monster images. For instance, oni can be harbingers of prosperity to humans. 9
Metaphorically oni can symbolize the anti-establishment vis-à-vis the central
government. Anti-establishment elements are oten depicted as oni by main-
stream society as a way of disparaging those who are diferent. Indeed, there
are many instances in which creatures of diferent customs, or the marginalized
other, are called . As early as Nihongi (ca. 719) non-Japanese have been labeled
by native Japanese as . 10
Contemporary authors oten capture this side of oni —a creature oppressed
by mainstream society rather than an outright evil creature bent on perform-
ing malevolent acts—and take a sympathetic attitude toward oni . Yumemakura
is no exception. His oni may be viciously violent but they are simultaneously
replete with sorrows and human weakness.
he world of Onmyōji is frequently that of Konjaku monogatari shū 今昔
物語集 (Tales of Times Now Past, ca. 1212), Noh plays such as “Kanawa” 鐵輪
(he Iron Tripod), Ugetsu monogatari 雨月物語 (Tales of Moonlight and Rain,
1776), and other classical literature. Yumemakura’s approach to the classical text
sex, pathos, and onmyōji
is simple and direct. Yumemakura ills in the contexts and explanations let out
in the original stories so that the readers do not have to read between the lines.
Filling in the gaps, Yumemakura presents the oni ’s perspective. his important
feature difers from classical literature, in which the oni ’s stance is ignored by the
authors/compilers or readers. Yumemakura oten portrays oni in a sympathetic
light, enabling readers to identify with these marginalized creatures. At the same
time, Yumemakura peppers the plots of these old stories with a mixture of sex,
pathos, and grotesque imagery involving oni and their emotional resonance. As
we will presently see, many of his oni are the marginalized spirits of humans
trapped in the world of the living by the overpowering urgings of unrequited love.
a biwa called genjō is stolen by an oni
One example of how Yumemakura portrays oni in his own way can be seen in
his retelling of “Genjō to iu biwa oni ni toraruru koto” 玄象という琵琶鬼にとらるる
こと (A biwa [pipa] called Genjō is stolen by an oni ). 11 he original story, found
under the same title in Konjaku monogatari shū, 12 is a straightforward narra-
tive: A prized biwa called Genjō disappears from the Imperial Palace. While the
emperor deeply laments its loss, an enchanting melody being played on the biwa
is heard from the direction of Rashō Gate. Minamoto no Hiromasa, an excellent
musician, follows the tune and discovers an oni at the gate playing the missing
biwa . (he reader is never quite sure who this oni is, let alone why the oni steals
Genjō and is playing it at Rashō Gate.) Hiromasa asks the oni to return the biwa,
an imperial treasure, and the oni obeys. Ever ater the biwa acts like a living
being—it plays whenever it feels like it.
Yumemakura’s Onmyōji , in contrast to the original, gives background infor-
mation and lavor to the tale, leshing it out in the process. he narrative is much
more detailed. To begin with, the oni is the spirit of a foreign biwa maker who
created Genjō and died years before—one hundred and twenty-eight years to
be precise. hat the oni is a spirit of the dead follows a Chinese interpretation of
. Further, this oni is identiied as foreign-born, thus reinforcing the view that
the oni is the marginalized other. So, Yumemakura uses a conventional image of
oni in his text, but goes on to tell us that the oni does not rest peacefully because
of his attachment to his homeland (India) and his wife, so he steals the biwa he
made to console himself with music. Yumemakura thus creates a story behind
the story and the oni is no longer so mysterious.
While the oni in Konjaku monogatari shū obeys a request to return the
instrument to the emperor, Onmyōji ’s oni asks for a woman. he oni explains
to Abe no Seimei, who does not appear in the original episode of the Konjaku
monogatari shū , that, while strolling in the imperial palace, he fell in love with
someone who bears a remarkable resemblance to his wife. he oni agrees to
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