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  • Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales by Michelle Osterfield Li
  • Thomas E. McAuley (bio)
Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales. by Michelle Osterfield Li. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

Setsuwa are “short Japanese tales that depict extraordinary events, illustrate basic Buddhist principles or … other Asian religious and philosophical teachings, and transmit cultural and historical knowledge” (1). Dating from approximately the ninth through fourteenth centuries and gathered into a number of collections, with the most important being the multivolume Konjaku monogatari shū (A Collection of Tales of Times Now Past, ca. 1120), their sheer number means that they both defy easy categorization and offer an enormously valuable resource of linguistic and cultural material. Equally, their heterogeneous quality has meant that research, in English at least, has tended to focus on the lengthier, discrete texts of the Japanese late Classical to early medieval period, and so as a resource setsuwa remain still largely untapped. Given this, Li’s treatment can be nothing but welcome.

The work consists of six chapters, bookended with an introduction and a conclusion. The first chapter, “Setsuwa and the Grotesque,” provides a discussion of and introduction to both setsuwa and theories of the grotesque, and each of the remaining five chapters provides readings of selections of tales with similar themes or on broadly related topics.

Chapter 2, “Fantastic Detached Body Parts,” considers tales in which body parts act independently after death (a king’s head and that of his enemy biting each other in a cauldron), are ghostly apparitions (a child’s hand beckons to a nobleman from a knothole in a pillar), or are removed and returned by magical means (a provincial governor uses sorcery to remove the penises of men who attempt to sleep with his wife). In each case the tales involve some form of degradation of men at the higher or highest levels of society and so are read by Li as literary reflections of the changing social status of the court aristocracy as the capital lost power to the emerging military clans in the provinces.

Similarly, in the next chapter, “Curious Sexual Encounters,” one tale describes the passion of a monk for the empress; his lust is so great that he [End Page 330] returns from death as a demon to continue the relationship. Another tale involves a ghost interrupting the emperor while he is making love to his consort; the ghost demands the woman for himself. Both of these tales demonstrate the loss of imperial prestige and also connect with another tale Li considers, about a girl who becomes pregnant after eating a turnip that a man has used to masturbate. In each of these three cases, “the female body … functions as the central point for conflict between men” (114). In addition, in Buddhist setsuwa the idea that the sexual desire generated by women could prevent men from reaching enlightenment is represented by the tale of a monk who awakens from an erotic dream of a beautiful woman to discover that he has choked a serpent with his ejaculating penis. The danger of women’s desire for men is illustrated by the tale of another monk who is pursued relentlessly by a woman turned snake and is eventually burned alive while hiding from her in a temple bell.

Both of the next two chapters, “Who Eats Whom? Flesh-Eating Demons and Political Power Struggles” (Chapter 4) and “The Feminization of Demons” (Chapter 5), address the topic of Japanese oni (demons). “Who Eats Whom?” provides an introduction to and discussion of previous approaches to oni before discussing a number of tales in which a woman is consumed by a demon after the oni has tricked its way into her house, or she has been taken to a building revealed to have been an oni’s lair, or she has even walked unwisely on the grounds of the Imperial Palace. Li views these narratives of demonic consumption as embodying the “suppressed discontent” of the lower classes in relation to the higher aristocracy (152). Thus “the undermining of one group of people … suggests the liberation of another,” and setsuwa about oni also depict social conflicts as...


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pp. 330-333
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