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  • Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present
Reider, Noriko . Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present. Logan: Utah State University Press, 2010. Pp. 241. ISBN 978-0874217933.

Noriko Reider's study is an ambitious work that traces the multiple meanings of oni—one of the most famous Japanese demon figures—from the premodern era through the contemporary era. The texts she examines range from the famous medieval tale of Shuten Dôji to the anime of Nagai Gô (Devilman) and Takahashi Rumiko (Inu Yasha, Urusei Yatsura), not to mention some famous modern literary works by Edogawa Ranpô, Inoue Yasushi, and Nakagami Kenji. The nine chapters are mostly organized chronologically and are tied together by the overall claim that the oni represent "marginalized others" silenced by hegemonic authority. Reider clearly states in the introduction that her aim is to investigate "the evolution of their multifaceted roles and significance in Japanese culture and society" (xx). Her framework, in this manner, is similar to Susan Napier's The Fantastic in Modern Japanese Literature: The Subversion of Modernity (Routledge, 1996), where Napier produced a comprehensive study of Japanese fantastic fiction by examining images of alien otherness in modern fiction. In fact, one of the theorists that Reider shares with Napier is Rosemary Jackson, whom Reider quotes to say that "the fantastic traces the unsaid and the unseen of culture: that which has been silenced, made invisible, covered over and made 'absent'" (xix). From the outset then, it becomes clear that Reider aims to complete a wide-ranging, encyclopedic guide to oni and to introduce a multitude of Japanese works for the English-speaking audience. [End Page 167]

Reider then proceeds to draw a linear, evolutionary literary history of oni. In the first chapter, she lists the multiple definitions of oni and the concept's four possible origins: Japanese, Chinese, Buddhist, and onmyôdô (an eclectic premodern practice rooted in the theory of yin and yang). In the first category, oni are normally associated with natural disasters and are often depicted with lightning and earthquakes. There was no distinction between an oni and the Shinto deity kami in the premodern era, and Reider goes as far as to compare oni to the famous ethnologist Orikuchi Shinobu's concept of marebito, a foreign traveler who visits villages. In the Chinese imagination, the character used for oni signified an "invisible soul/spirit of the dead, both ancestral and evil" (4). Here, she lists the typical characteristics of an oni, who are customarily depicted with horns on their head, wearing tiger-skin loincloth, and their skin color can be black, blue, red, or yellow. Citing Kosugi Kazuo, Reider states that this popular image came from the indigenously Chinese gui-shen (ghosts and spirits), introduced to Japan around the seventh century. For the Buddhist tradition, Reider focuses on the figure of the originally Indian yasha (yaksa in Sanskrit), who were said to be extremely violent and to feast on human flesh and energy. In the section on onmyôdô, Reider describes this fascinating field, whose practitioners (the most famous being Abe no Seimei) were often believed to be able to create oni with magic. Legend goes that these diviners used this magic against the political enemies of the powerful Fujiwara clan (their patrons). Reider later returns to this topic in her popular culture chapters to discuss the recent onmyôdô boom spearheaded by the writer Yumemakura Baku. Reider concludes this "origins" chapter with other common characteristics of oni, such as cannibalism, bodily transformation, prosperity (sometimes oni are not evil but bring fortune to humans), and of course, otherness (oni are often described as going against the emperors and the Fujiwara Regency). Reider thus shows how the figure of oni is composed of the complex intertwining of these various possible origins.

The most fascinating analytical chapter in the book is the sixth chapter, which explores the image of oni in wartime Japan. The Japanese referred to the United States as an oni, and children's stories like Momotarô (Peach boy) functioned as an allegory of imperial Japan, where the good imperialist Momotarô befriended other animals (the colonies) to beat the evil oni. Reider begins by carefully citing Gerald Figal's Civilization and Monsters: Spirits and Monsters in Meiji Japan (Duke University Press, 1999) and his claim that the supernatural did not simply disappear in the modern period, but instead became inscribed onto the body of the Meiji emperor, who claimed to be a deity. Her main argument [End Page 168] of seeing the oni as an other comes through here strongly, and it supports her conclusion about how the oni's own status as a deity in the premodern era gradually fell with the rise of the warrior class in the premodern era and the imperial authority in the modern era. Readers may also want to consult Robert Tierney's recent work on Japanese colonial discourse, Tropics of Savagery: The Culture of Japanese Empire in Comparative Frame (University of California Press, 2010), which offers a detailed analysis of colonial allegory in Momotarô. Together with his work, Reider's chapter is an important contribution to the study of imperial discourse in wartime Japanese literature. Reider also returns to the issue of war and oni in a later chapter on Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), in which the hibakusha—victims of the atomic bomb—are depicted as oni. Although Reider never mentions Kaneto Shindô's allegory of Hiroshima, Onibaba (1964), it would have been interesting to compare some of these depictions to further examine the alignment of wartime and postwar Japanese identity with the metaphor of the oni. This chapter is extremely thought provoking, and it leaves the reader wanting to hear more of Reider's insight.

The book does have some issues that become evident in the other literary analysis chapters. First, although Reider does a wonderful job of introducing some of the key Japanese scholarship on the topic, her own voice becomes lost among them. Komatsu Kazuhiko's name appears throughout the book, especially in the first half, as does the name of Baba Akiko. Reider rarely veers away from their viewpoints, and because she does not cite many primary sources, her analyses are often not nuanced. Readers must wait until page 52 for the first primary source citation, from Helen McCullough's translation of The Tale of Heike, and then about twenty pages later, on page 71, is Reider's own translation from Kintoki Entering the Capital. In the first two analytical chapters—on Shuten Dôji and Woman at Uji Bridge, respectively—this lack of citations becomes highlighted, especially when she states, "Let us look at the opening passages of the Uji no hashihime episode and the texts of Shuten Dôji. They are remarkably similar, using comparable language. First, both episodes begin with the disappearance of people. In both cases, numerous people strangely begin to disappear, using the same word, fushigi (strange)" (56). Since her claim in this chapter is that Woman at Uji Bridge is possibly the literary source for Shuten Dôji, it seems imperative that she offer a careful comparison of these two texts. As in the passage above, however, she quickly summarizes the similarities of the two texts without offering any substantial evidence. This lack of textual evidence continues to be a problem in the later chapters as well, especially when Reider tackles the visual medium of anime and film, for her main approach to [End Page 169] the oni figures in contemporary fiction is that these figures are simply "variants" or derivatives of their premodern counterparts (e.g., Onigumo in Inu Yasha is based on the Tsuchigumo myth; the figure of Yubaba in Spirited Away is derived from the Yamauba legends). Instead of citing the possible "origins," it would have been more fruitful if she had really tackled the primary sources head on and focused on the contemporary significations of these oni. Rather, she just claims that these were "more humane" versions of the violent premodern demons, or that popular fiction oni stand out in that they have "pure entertainment value."

The book would also have benefited from a discussion of more recent English scholarship on Japanese monsters. The most obvious work that should have been included here is Michelle Li's Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales (Stanford University Press, 2009). The exclusion may have been due to the timing of the book's publication, but since Reider makes some of the same points, especially when she applies Bakhtin's notion of the carnivalesque and the grotesque in her reading of oni tales like Shuten Dôji, it was surprising to see that this work was not even listed in the index. Both Reider and Li treat the figure of demons as a site of social subversion, and they often discuss the same medieval short stories (setsuwa) surrounding the oni. Another work that should have been explored more in depth here is Michael Foster's Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yôkai (University of California Press, 2009). Reider simply footnotes his work in Chapter 5; however, his work would have helped Reider rethink her framework and some of her assumptions. For example, through his reading of Edo period encyclopedias, Foster astutely points out in his work that the binary of the supernatural and the natural simply did not exist in the premodern Japanese imagination. Rather, things were classified together by their physicality and form (large bodies, humanlike bodies, etc.), and there existed no discursive paradigm for separating the natural from the nonnatural. Hence an idea like the Todorovian fantastic, which presumes the separation of the natural from the supernatural, cannot be applied to premodern Japan. Throughout the book, however, Reider insists that Japanese before the Meiji period (1868-1912) believed in the supernatural: "For people living in Edo-period Japan, the perceived potency of supernatural beings was widely held and the supernatural was seen as a plausible extension of day-to-day reality" (73); "The Edo period is an interesting time and space in Japanese culture in which individuals from all walks of life, on some level or other, seem to unite in their belief in the supernatural" (90). These assumptions simply group the complex figures of oni into [End Page 170] an ahistorical "supernatural" category, which takes away from her attempt to draw out the multiple significations.

Overall, Reider's book may have benefited from a rewriting. She seems torn between an encyclopedic, comprehensive guide and a more nuanced, developed analysis of specific works. The premodern chapters focus on some of the seminal works, and she even offers a translation of Shibukawa's version of Shuten Dôji. She also begins to state her concluding thesis about the disappearance of deity-like oni due to the rise of the warrior class but never develops the idea. The later chapters are less nuanced and are somewhat disorganized, as the works are introduced quite rapidly. I wonder why a modern work like Edogawa Ranpô's Oni of a Solitary Island was included in the Edo chapter, and why she chose to look at "Oni variants" instead of actual oni characters in anime and manga (there were some notable absences, like King Yama in Dragon Ball). It would have been a stronger work had she given time to fully develop her original thesis, which does not resurface until the war chapter and the conclusion.

The book will, however, introduce the reader to an array of oni in Japanese culture and literature, and offer a starting point for conducting further research. It should be of interest to Japanologists, folklorists, and students studying Japan. [End Page 171]

Miri Nakamura
Wesleyan University

Additional Information

ISSN
2161-2188
Print ISSN
2161-2196
Pages
167-171
Launched on MUSE
2012-04-02
Open Access
No
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