Japanese Demon Lore: Oni

5.0 out of 5 stars The Importance of Being Oni

Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present

One of the oni’s supernatural powers is shape-changing, and that is entirely  appropriate for a creature that has transformed so completely across the  centuries. From a powerful, invisible entity worshiped as a god, to one of many  of Japan’s assortment of monsters known as yokai, to the sexy and frivolous Lum  from the popular series Urusei  Yatsura, and to an emotional children’s book character in “The Red Oni who  Cried;” the oni has played many roles in Japanese society.

Noriko Reider  (Tales  of the Supernatural in Early Modern Japan) takes us on a tour of the various  masks the oni has worn over the story of Shuten Doji, and an exploration of  female oni and the morphable mountain oni called yamauba, to oni in modern manga
and anime. A few stories are looked into in detail, like the aforementioned  Shuten Doji (of which Reider supplies a full translation as an appendix), and  the legend of Sakata no Kintoki, also known as Kintaro the golden boy, who was  raised by a yamauba. Reider looks at modern anime like Spirited  Away and Inuyasha  for a modern take on oni.

I have read several of these essays before,  from the “Journal of Asian Folklore Studies.” Noriko Reider is a prolific and  interesting writer on Japanese folklore, and her works were a main resource when  I did my own MA in Japanese folklore. For “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni,” Reider has  edited and reworked her essays, adding elements here and there, for an  imminently readable study on this important Japanese figure. Even though I was  familiar with some of the information, there was still much to learn about oni.

There is history here, and interpretation. There is the oni as outsider,  and speculations on the origin of the Shuten Doji legend being a shipwrecked  Spaniard and his crew. Or metal workers in the Oe mountains. There is  sexualizing of the yamauba figure from an old hag to the voluptuous woman of  Utagawa’s prints. There is the oni as metaphor and symbol, such as the use of  oni during WWII to portray the Allies, or as a sympathetic allegory of the  outcast burakumin caste in Nakagami Kenji’s “A Tale of an Oni.” Throughout all  of Japanese history the oni has played the role required of it by Japanese  society.

“Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” is a scholarly book, and Reider  assumes readers will have a functional background in Japanese folklore. She does  not spend a lot of time on definitions of words like kami, marebito and  mononoke. She assumes readers will be familiar with Japanese folklore heroes  like Minamoto no Raiko, Kintaro, and Abe no Semei. I think you could still get  something out of “Japanese Demon Lore: Oni” without this background, but there  is more to be gained if you have a foundation.

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