Thursday, May 31, 2012

Review: Konjaku Monogatari, vol. 1

Shigeru Mizuki is best known for his Gegege no Kitaro series.  However, he's a very prolific writer, and even now, at age 90, he's still turning out new manga.  I recently found myself in possession of a collection he had drawn back in the early 1990's, and I'd like to mention it here.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Konjaku Monogatari, vol. 1, by Shigeru Mizuki, Grade A  (590 yen, 274 pages.)
The Konjaku Monogatarishi (今昔物語) (Anthology of Tales from the Past) was originally a collection of over 1000 short stories collected in the Heian period (794-1185).  According to the wiki entry, the stories came largely from India and China, as well as Japan.  The modern-day publishing company, Chuko Bunko has a line called Manga Nihon no Koten (Japanese Classics Manga), spanning a good 55 volumes.  And part of this line is Shigeru's Konjaku Monogatari, which is a 2-book collection of roughly 23 stories from the original anthology.  In other words, this book is the first half of 23 illustrated stories based on tales written up over 1000 years ago.

In a way, the Konjaku bears a strong resemblance to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.  Both are ribald, risque sets of stories that often feature country bumpkins and the aristocracy getting into strange situations that generally include sex at some point.  The difference being that Chaucer lived 300 years after the Heian period ended.  The backgrounds are incredibly well-detailed, and the settings (mountain temples, remote villages, big cities) look properly exotic and authentic.  The male characters, and most of the older women are typical Shigeru caricatures, while the younger women are portrayed as being very beautiful. If you're familiar with his other monster stories, then you know what to expect here.

There's little point to summarizing all 11 stories, so I'll just recap a select few.

Iretsutta Damashi (The Entered and Bound Spirit). A demon dispatched by Enma, the gatekeeper god of the underworld, has been sent out to collect and bring back the soul of a young peasant woman.  It's a long walk, and the demon collapses in front of the farm house, where the girl's parents have set out offerings of food and drink to the gods as a plea to help their daughter recover from her long illness.  After consuming the offering, the demon harvests the girl's soul, but is willing to repay the family's goodness by taking someone else's soul in her place.  The girl points out a neighbor, who the demon immediately kills, and he lets the girl's soul go to return to her body on its own.  However, back in the underworld, Enma quickly spots the subterfuge and demands that the demon bring back the correct soul.  Unfortunately, there's a problem - the neighbor's parents had cremated their daughter's body the same day as it was found, so the second spirit has no place to return to.  Enma suggests that since the first girl's body is still intact that the neighbor's spirit be put in that.  The first girl's body comes to life, but it has the second girl's memories of what happened in the underworld, and she wants to be with her own parents, while the first set of peasant parents desperately wish for their "daughter" to stay with them.  The result finally is that the girl ends up with 2 sets of parents.  The narrator then warns readers to not cremate their dead family members so quickly.

Reiki (Departed Spirit Demon, actually, I'm guessing at the pronunciation of the kanji. It may be "Tama Oni" or "Tamaki".) A local feudal lord is concerned that his wife, Kisaki, has been behaving strangely lately, and he summons a Shinto priest to visit the keep for help.  The priest performs an exorcism, forcing out a fox spirit that had possessed one of Kisaki's handmaids.  Then, by accident, the priest sees Kisaki herself and attempts to seduce her.  She calls for help and the priest is imprisoned before being exiled to a remote mountain top.  Obsessed, he decides to starve himself to death in order to turn into a demon (oni).  He succeeds, and returns to the feudal lord's keep, but this time, not only doesn't Kisaki cry out, she welcomes the demon into her bed.  But, the demon had announced his intentions on his way into the compound, and the lord summons a whole army of priests to chant prayers for a second exorcism.  Reassured that the ritual worked, the lord finally visits Kisaki after the long absence, and the demon is still there in her room with her.  She decides to have sex with the demon right in front of her husband, and he collapses in shock.  The narrator concludes that Kisaki followed her lover and later turned into a mononoke (vengeful spirit).

-- Caution Sexual Content --

Kabura Otoko (Turnip Man). This is the cover story, and is one of the more questionable ones in terms of western morals.  A bureaucrat riding from the capital (Kyoto, at that time) to the eastern lands gets a little too horny and decides to take the edge off.  As he's passing by a farm, he digs up a turnip, cuts a hole in the space between the two main roots, and does his business with it.  Afterward, he throws the used turnip back into the garden and continues on his way.  Later, the farmer, his wife and daughter go out to the field and start harvesting the vegetables.  The daughter spies the one that's been uprooted, licks it, and decides to eat the entire thing.  At the end of the day, she starts feeling ill and crawls into bed.  Some weeks go by and she still hasn't recovered.  Her parents notice that her belly is starting to bulge and they accuse her of being pregnant, demanding to know who the guy is.  The daughter pleads innocence, and says that all of this started happening after she ate the turnip.  Neither parent is willing to accept that pregnancy is caused by turnips, but no matter who else they talk to, there's no one who has seen the girl in the presence of a man.  Time goes by and she gives birth to a normal-looking baby boy.  Some weeks after, the same bureaucrat rides back towards the capital, this time with a vassal walking in front, leading the horse.  The bureaucrat remembers the farm that he is passing, and tells the vassal what he had done the year before. The farmer's wife and daughter overhear him from the road and they rush out to demand that he verify his story.  He tries to pretend to be joking, but when confronted with the child, has to admit that due to the likeness that maybe he's the father.  He ends up getting married to the daughter, and the narrator warns the readers from eating strange foods left out lying around.

Summary: Konjaku Monogatarishi is one of the oldest collections of Japanese, Chinese and Indian folktales, and as such are a part of Japan's literary culture.  The stories generally fall into three groups: ones about sex, ones about priests, and ones about common peasants.  Mizuki's interpretation of 11 of these stories has been published by a classic literature publisher and been made available much like the Canterbury Tales in the west.  If you're interested in Japanese folktales, this collection is highly recommended.  If you're easily offended by anything relating to sex and body parts, it's better that you give this book a pass.

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