Transformation of the Oni From the Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy.pdf

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N ORIKO T. R EIDER
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio
Transformation of the Oni
From the Frightening and Diabolical
to the Cute and Sexy
Abstract
Popularized through both oral and written Japanese folklore and religious traditions,
early literary treatments of the oni rendered a hideous, demonic, ogre-like creature
intent on terrorizing humans. While it is true that the shape-shifting powers of the oni
made it possible for them to take on human form, their gruesome appearance would
reµect their evil dispositions. The oni were often depicted with one or more horns atop
their heads, wearing only a loincloth of tiger skin, and a toothy grimace that stretched
from ear to ear. The oni were also feared because of their penchant for human µesh.
Popular modern day literary treatments of the oni reveal several new renderings of this
demon. Today’s oni are much more eclectic in appearance and demeanor than their
ancestral cousins. Some modern renderings even depict the oni as benign and, at times,
benevolent beings. Although they are still shape shifters, today’s oni sometimes assume
the form of an alluring human female, exuding sexuality, sensuality, and a child-like
naughtiness that is altogether absent in older mytho-historical and literary treatments.
There is no doubt this change in the oni has been at least partially brought on by com-
mercial interests imposed on writers and artists in the modern age. Moreover, the oni ’s
transformation is reµective of Japan’s own socio-economic transmutation into one of the
major industrialized nations of the world. This article delineates the oni ’s transforma-
tion.
Keywords: oni —Japanese ogre—demon—animation—commercialism
Asian Folklore Studies , Volume 62, 2003: 133–157
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hideous supernatural creature emerging from hell’s abyss to terrify
wicked mortals. According to Anesaki, Japanese oni “belong to a purely
Buddhist mythology” (A NESAKI and F ERGUSON 1928, 283), but the oni is not
exclusive to the Buddhist cosmic universe. According to Komatsu
Kazuhiko, oni was the term used in Onmyõdõ îŠ (the way of yin and
yang) to describe any evil spirits that harm humans. In early Onmyõdõ doc-
trine, the word “ oni ” referred speci³cally to invisible evil spirits that caused
human in³rmity (K OMATSU 1999, 3).
In Japan’s ancient past, Origuchi Shinobu infers that there may have
been no demarcation between a Japanese oni and a Japanese kami P (deity).
Both were “awesome” beings (O RIGUCHI 1975, 47). Similarly, Tsuchihashi
Yutaka asserts that many types of kami possessing powerful spiritual forces
existed in ancient Japan. Among kami, those harmful to humans were quite
similar to the mono , or evil spirits. Both beings were invisible, however the
kami were the object of awe and respect while the mono were universally
feared, but not respected. Tsuchihashi further notes that the oni were spiri-
tual beings very much like the mono . Despite this, however, there exist no
de³nitive examples of the term oni in the ancient literature (T SUCHIHASHI
1990, 94–95).
Ishibashi Gaha ³nds the origin of the Japanese oni in yomotsushikome
2ª@ƒ Ñ u (lit. fearful creature[s] of the nether land), who appear in the
creation myth of the Kojiki òª z (“Record of Ancient Matters,” 712 CE ;
I SHIBASHI 1998, 4). Yomotsushikome , the precursors of oni, were sent from
the underworld to avenge the shame of Izanami, the divine female creator
of Japan. Izanagi, her brother and male counterpart broke his promise not
to look at her, causing her undying shame. While Japanese can identify with
the primordial form of oni in Yomotsushikome , Ishibashi attributes the appel-
lation oni to Chinese thought (I SHIBASHI 1998, 104).
Ancient Japanese literature has assigned a number of different Chinese
characters to express the term oni. Among them, the character used now is
[ 134 ]
I N POPULAR THOUGHT , the oni immediately conjures up images of a
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TRANSFORMATION OF THE ONI
135
, 1 which in Chinese means invisible soul/spirit, both ancestral and evil, of
the dead. According to the Wamyõ ruijushõ È e { ´¿ (ca. 930s), the ³rst
Japanese language dictionary, an oni is explained as something that is “hid-
ing behind things, not wishing to appear.…It is a soul/spirit of the dead.”
Takahashi writes that the concept of oni in Wamyõ ruijushõ is apparently
based upon the Chinese concept (T AKAHASHI 1992, 41).
During the medieval period, oni gradually entrenched themselves into
popular consciousness. Their extensive representation in paintings and the
performing arts is evidence of this. Oni were customarily portrayed with one
or more horns protruding from their scalps. They sometimes had a third eye
in the center of their foreheads, and varying skin colors, most commonly
black, red, blue, or yellow. More often than not, the oni were scantly clad,
carryed an iron mace, and wore a loincloth of fresh tiger skin. 2 Though oni
were not exclusively male, for there were female oni, the popular image of
oni was predominantly that of a male character.
As the image of oni spread and gained recognition amongst the public,
more and more supernatural characters began to display oni features and oni
attributes, which included the ability to cause natural disasters and to pos-
sess ordinary household objects. Even “people who had different customs or
lived beyond the reach of the emperor’s control” (K OMATSU 1999, 3) were
considered to be some form of oni . Expansive and dynamic, oni thrived in all
corners of ancient and medieval Japanese society. They could appear any-
where and often did. Oni frequented both urban and rural areas, and were
even seen in the capital, disturbing everyday life, causing fears and trouble.
Indeed, the oni were the object of awe and fear, considered a real entity
among the ancient and medieval Japanese. Modern oni, despite of continued
evolution/changes, still exhibit the characteristics of medieval oni, as will be
discussed in the following section.
C ANNIBALISM
It is thought that oni can eat a person in one gulp and they are, in fact, some-
times portrayed feasting on human µesh. Indeed, the phrase “ oni hitokuchi
s S ( oni in one gulp), is highly suggestive of the inclinations of oni s to eat
human µesh. The sixth episode of the Ise monogatari Q ¤] B (“Tales of
Ise,” tenth century CE ) tells of a man who falls hopelessly in love with a lady
well above his social status. The man decides to kidnap her. On a thunder-
ous night during their µight, the lady takes shelter in a ruined storehouse
near Akuta River. Even though the man stands gallantly on guard at the
entrance of the shelter, the lady is still eaten up by an oni in one gulp.
Although she screams, a thunderclap mufµes her outcry to such an extent
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NORIKO T. REIDER
that the man does not realize what has happened until she has been com-
pletely devoured (S AKAKURA 1957, 114). In the story, nobody sees the oni eat-
ing the woman, or even the oni itself. But the gruesome act is attributed to
the oni . “ Oni in one gulp” suggests an instantaneous action, amplifying the
oni ’s atrocious nature and enormous appetite. But the action of eating does
not have to be instantaneous. In the story “Shutendõji” , 7 ‡{, the oni
deliberately enjoy the delicacies of human µesh during a special banquet.
The ghastly nature of oni may well be symbolized by the act of cannibalism.
Another example of an oni ’s cannibalism appears in the Nihon ryõiki
Õû b z (“Miraculous Stories from the Japanese Buddhist Tradition,” ca.
823). The story is entitled “Nyonin no akuki ni kegasarete kurawareshi en”
œ^u 1 r([›m7Vv›^ â (“On a Woman Devoured by an Oni ”).
During the reign of Emperor Shõmu ¸ (724–749) in the province of
Yamato, there was a wealthy family who had a beautiful daughter. Many
suitors came to ask for her hand in marriage. But the daughter never con-
sented to wed any of them. One day, a suitor sends her a number of luxuri-
ous gifts including three carriages full of splendid silks. She is pleased with
his overtures and accepts his proposal of marriage. On the wedding night,
from the bed chamber of her house comes a cry, “Ouch, ouch, ouch!” Her
parents hear the cries but think, “perhaps she feels pain because she is not
used to it.” So they take no action. On the following morning, her mother
goes to her daughter’s bedchamber to wake up the newly-wedded couple,
but there is no reply to her call. Thinking it rather strange, she opens the
door. She ³nds only her daughter’s head and a ³nger; the rest of her body
have been devoured. The parents are obviously horri³ed. People claimed it
was the work of an oni (E NDÕ ,K ASUGA 1967, 274–77). 3 In the story, no one
sees the enemy or its act of cannibalism, but as the title denotes, this abhor-
rent act is again attributed to an oni .
Although the oni ’s appearance is not described in the text, the creature
must have appeared to the woman as a decent-looking human male since
she let him spend the night with her. This also provides proof of the oni ’s
transformative power, as will be discussed below.
P OWER OF T RANSFORMATION
One of the most famous stories of oni ’s transformation can be found in the
story of Watanabe no Tsuna 9Œ , one of Minamoto no Raikõ’s (d. 1021)
four brave warriors. According to the Heike monogatari rB] B (“Tale of
the Heike”), Watanabe no Tsuna encounters a beautiful woman of about
twenty years of age at Modori Bridge on First Avenue in Kyoto. She solicits
Tsuna to take her back to her house. Tsuna agrees and lifts her on his horse,
just as the lady reveals her (or probably his) real identity—that of a mon-
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TRANSFORMATION OF THE ONI
137
strous oni . 4 Tsuna manages to cut off one of the oni ’s arms. The oni µies in
the air— oni can µy—leaving his severed arm behind. Later, the same oni dis-
guises himself as Tsuna’s aunt in attempt to gain entry into Tsuna’s house.
The aunt/ oni asks Tsuna to show her the famous oni ’s arm. Believing that
the woman was his own aunt, Tsuna takes the disguised creature to the chest
where he had placed the oni ’s arm. Seeing his severed arm, the creature
revealed his true identity to Tsuna, grabs his limb, and µies off with it
(Y ASHIRO - BON H EIKE M ONOGATARI 1966, 973–83). In the Genpei seisuiki
èrµ{ z (“The Vicissitudes of the Genji and Heike Clans,” mid-thir-
teenth century) an oni turns into Tsuna’s foster mother rather than his aunt.
The Konjaku monogatarishð Ä Ë] B (“Tales of Times Now Past,” ca. 1212)
contains a similar story, which is probably the origin of the later develop-
ment of a similar theme. In the Konjaku monogatarishð version, a man (not
Tsuna) meets a young woman at a bridge, who asks him for a ride home. She
soon reveals her identity as an oni —red-faced, one-eyed, with dishevelled
hair. The man narrowly escapes with his life. Later, the oni visits the man
disguised as his brother, and then proceeds to devour his head while still in
disguise (Y AMADA et al. 1962, 491–94).
As revealed in these few select stories, oni have the power to freely trans-
form into human males or females at will. An oni often uses this power of
transformation to trick men, and to prevent warriors from accomplishing
their heroic tasks. An example is the Nõ play “Momijigari” } è& (“Maple
Leaf Viewing”), by Kanze Kojirõ Nobumitsu (1435–1516). The warrior
Taira no Koreshige (ca. late tenth century) receives an imperial order to sub-
jugate the oni on Mt. Togakushi. At the mountain Koreshige meets with an
enchanting lady (another oni in disguise) and the two partake in a banquet
under the maple trees. Seduced by the lady, he sleeps alongside her, com-
pletely intoxicated. In his dream, a messenger of the deity of Hachiman
bestows a sword on him and tells Koreshige to use it to kill the oni . Jostled
awake, Koreshige is shocked to ³nd the sword from his dream alongside him
and then, is even more shocked when he realizes what he is lying next to:
Instead of the beautiful lady he thought he had slept with lies a gruesome oni
with horns on its head. As mentioned earlier, oni can be female. Indeed, the oni
in “Maple Leaf Viewing” is a female oni —this can be understood by the audi-
ence because the performer who plays the role of oni wears a hannya ø (she-
demon) mask. Koreshige kills the oni with the sword given by the deity (S ANARI
1982, 3079–3092). Though unsuccessful, the oni of Mt. Togakushi transformed
into a voluptuous woman to preempt Koreshige’s attack. It is not at all uncom-
mon for oni to use female sexuality as a ploy to prevent the warrior from achiev-
ing his task.
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