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  • Dancer, Nun, Ghost, Goddess: The Legend of Giō and Hotoke in Japanese Literature, Theater, Visual Arts, and Cultural Heritage by Roberta Strippoli
  • Janet R. Goodwin (bio)
Dancer, Nun, Ghost, Goddess: The Legend of Giō and Hotoke in Japanese Literature, Theater, Visual Arts, and Cultural Heritage. By Roberta Strippoli. Brill, Leiden, 2018. xvi, 226 pages. €99.00.

The poignant tale of the shirabyōshi Giō and Hotoke, and their treatment by military strongman Taira no Kiyomori, is one of the best-known episodes in the medieval Heike monogatari (Tale of the Heike). To summarize briefly, Giō, an entertainer of marginal social status, becomes Kiyomori's lover, and his patronage results in prosperity for her and her mother and sister. When one day another shirabyōshi named Hotoke (Buddha) offers to perform for Kiyomori, he at first turns her down, but Giō persuades him to grant her an audience. Unfortunately for Giō, Hotoke's performance and her appearance are so mesmerizing that Kiyomori demands she replace Giō and expels his former lover from his mansion. Later Kiyomori, perhaps in an excess of sadism, summons Giō back to perform for him and Hotoke, humiliating her further by making her occupy a lower seat than she had before. In despair, Giō returns home to her mother and sister, and the three of them take Buddhist orders, secluding themselves in a mountain hermitage. Later that year they hear a knock on the door. It is Hotoke, remorseful for the pain she has caused Giō; she has shaved her head to become a nun. The four of them live out the rest of their lives in the hermitage, praying and making offerings to the Buddha, until one by one they are reborn in the Pure Land.

One purpose of this tale, as Roberta Strippoli points out, is to show Kiyomori as a villain and thus to justify the fall of his family in the Genpei War. A broader purpose, perhaps, is to demonstrate the spiritual value of abandoning the world and devoting oneself to the Buddha. While no doubt too modern a view, one might also see the tale as a medieval #MeToo success story, in which Kiyomori's female victims attained a reward, rebirth in paradise, that was doubtless denied their persecutor. [End Page 145]

Strippoli has skillfully guided us through versions of the episode as they developed over time. Sometimes fairly faithful to the original, sometimes recognizable only by the names of the main characters, the versions attest to the continued appeal of this story of male exploitation, female suffering and humiliation, and, in a sense, female revenge—not by any pain the women caused Kiyomori, but by their final fortune in achieving rebirth in Amida's paradise. The glory of this rebirth, in some versions accompanied by the requisite purple clouds and heavenly music, contrasts powerfully with Kiyomori's miserable death—which the Heike audience knows well from another portion of the tale.

Strippoli explores the development of a "large, complicated, and inevitably self-contradicting tradition" (p. 4), formed through multiple texts. A brief discussion of reception theory, which holds that no one version of a tale can be determined the authoritative one, prepares us to approach versions that bear little resemblance to the Heike tale with open, accepting minds. In Strippoli's treatment, those who constructed later versions are as authentic "authors" of the tradition as the original composers of the tale.

Chapter 1 answers these questions: who were Giō and Hotoke and what part did women like them play in the society of the powerful in late twelfthcentury Japan? Strippoli wisely uses a variety of sources—documents, diaries, essays, poems, and tales—to explore these issues. While Giō and Ho toke may have been fictional, numerous medieval sources describe the group to which they belonged, shirabyōshi, as professional entertainers who sometimes offered sexual services along with song and dance. This does not mean that shirabyōshi were prostitutes, a category that simply did not exist in Japan of that time; nor, in a society with loose and shifting evaluations of proper sexual behavior, does it mean that they were commonly considered moral reprobates. In fact, I take issue...


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pp. 145-149
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