The Importance of Being Oni
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.