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  • Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales
  • Rajyashree Pandey
Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales. By Michelle Osterfeld Li. Stanford University Press, 2009. 336 pages. Hardcover $60.00.

Ambiguous Bodies is an ambitious work that attempts to decode and make sense of the many comical, grotesque, and supernatural tales about fox-spirits, demons, dismembered bodies, anomalous sexual encounters, and the like that constitute the world of setsuwa. Focusing primarily on stories from Konjaku monogatarishū, Michelle Osterfeld Li commandeers an impressive array of other sources to help unravel what might, at first glance, appear to be frustratingly opaque or bafflingly transparent narratives. She also provides close translations of the stories that are central to her arguments.

Chapter 1 begins with a comprehensive and useful survey of the emergence of setsuwa as a separate genre and of the ways in which an overarching unity was imposed upon a heterogeneous body of tales that had been written for diverse audiences and had roots in a wide range of sources from the Indian, Chinese, and Japanese traditions. The second section of this chapter examines the different theories of the grotesque that emerged in the West and provides a rationale for adopting this term, as used by Mikhail Bakhtin, in the study of Japanese setsuwa literature. I will return to this methodological approach later.

The remainder of the book is devoted to a study of the many forms the grotesque takes in setsuwa narratives and the centrality of the body to its production. Chapter 2 analyzes three tales about "fantastic detached body parts"; chapter 3 focuses on stories about curious sexual encounters in which the female body becomes the site for grotesque representations of copulation, pregnancy, and birth. Chapters 4 and 5 look at the symbolic significance of flesh-eating demons and of the possible connections between social and religious attitudes to women and the discourse on female demons in setsuwa. The final chapter focuses on animal spirits—the foxes, monkeys, and birds, for example, that inhabit setsuwa narratives—to make sense of how and why these forms infiltrate and interact with the world of humans. The book's aim is to analyze tales in which bodies, both human and nonhuman, present themselves in supernatural, exaggerated, dismembered, and terrifying forms, so as to see what they tell us about the dominant power structures that prevailed in the Heian and Kamakura periods. Li's interpretive strategy rests on uncovering a dense corpus of historical and biographical information about characters who appear in setsuwa and bringing this information into conversation with the tales; in the resulting metanarrative, Li attempts to reveal the political and religious struggles at the heart of stories that ostensibly are far removed from these realms, instead belonging to the world of the supernatural and fantastic. Following Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, she argues that these narratives have the potential both to challenge and to reaffirm dominant ideologies, sometimes providing an outlet for the articulation of resistance against those who cannot be overtly challenged because they occupy positions of influence and power.

At their best, Li's readings of setsuwa are thought provoking and innovative. In her discussion of the famous story in Konjaku about the palace guard who goes to the provinces and ends up losing his penis, Li takes us beyond a reading that attempts to [End Page 387] understand the story purely in terms of sexuality and questions of gender relations. Instead, by drawing upon adjacent texts such as Uji shūi monogatari and Buddhist sutras such as Sutra of Meditation on the Correct Teaching, she shows how a tale about disappearing penises is embedded in discourses about the rivalry between the court aristocracy and provincial officials and about the contending claims of different religious practices and traditions.

Nonetheless, I have certain reservations about the methodology that underpins this work. It is in the spirit of generating further debate on the many interesting questions it raises that I proffer the following criticisms.

Li is well aware of the pitfalls of applying Bakhtin uncritically to a study of setsuwa. As she observes, "Some aspects of grotesque theory have no bearing on the premodern Japanese...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1880-1390
Print ISSN
0027-0741
Pages
pp. 387-390
Launched on MUSE
2010-01-16
Open Access
No
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