Thursday, June 7, 2012

Review: Konjaku Monogatari, vol. 2

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Konjaku Monogatari, vol. 2, by Shigeru Mizuki, Grade A  (590 yen, 276 pages.)
This is the second half of the Konjaku Monogatarishi (今昔物語) (Anthology of Tales from the Past) short story collection of interpretations by Shigeru and published by Chuko Bunko in its Manga Nihon no Koten (Japanese Classics Manga) line.  Whereas the first 11 stories were fairly lighthearted, these next 12 are slightly darker, or more serious.  That's not to say that there's not still a lot of humorous tales.  The character designs change, though, with a number of characters departing from Shigeru's distinct style.  The artwork and backgrounds are just as good as ever.  Some of the tales fall into the "Japanese ghost story" category, which western readers might find bland.  Japanese horror tends to be very atmospheric, with the audience getting freaked out by something weird, rather than being flat-out graphically shocked as in American horror.

Again, I'll only sample 4 of the stories.

Abe no Seimei.  Seimei is an actual historical figure, an onmyouji - a priest that practices ritual chants.  Part of the Konjaku consists of folktales regarding his exploits.  In this chapter, Seimei starts out as a small boy working as an assistant to another priest.  One night, the priest's entourage encounters a group of wandering demons, and the priest uses a chant to protect the group until the oni leave.  The boy asks to learn the secrets of onmyoudou, and grows up to be the most powerful onmyouji in Japan at the time. This is followed by a scene where a strange old man with two assistants tries to ask Seimei to take him as a student. Seimei notices that the assistants are shiki, animal spirits given human shapes, and he uses a barrier spell to dispel the shiki and unmask the old man as an oni trying to get close to him. A few days later, as Seimei is wandering the city, he notices a crow flying above a stranger and letting loose with droppings on the stranger's head. Seimei approaches the stranger and tells him that the crow is another shiki and that he'll die by tomorrow if they don't take action.  Seimei chants a ritual spell that draws out the shiki's master's spirit, then evokes his own spirit to do battle.  The shiki master's spirit is captured and the guy shows up in person to apologize.  Still later, Seimei is talking to a group of men who don't believe in the power of onmyou. So, Seimei takes a leaf from a tree, chants to it, and then blows it towards a pond. The moment the leaf touches a frog in the pond, the frog dies.  Seimei apologizes, saying that while he has the power to take a life, he doesn't yet have the power to restore it. The narrator then concludes that there are other stories about Seimei as well.

Inari Visit. A group of 6 playboys are notorious for visiting Inari shrines for scoping out pretty girls to pick up.  During one specific jaunt, the leader of the group spies a very attractive woman, and tells the rest that this one's his and to leave her to him.  The woman is wearing a large straw hat that hides her face, and she stands behind a tree for additional protection from strangers.  The would-be Don Juan then spends a good fifteen, twenty minutes trying to seduce her.  When she asks about his wife, the group leader answers back with "that old bat, who cares about her?"  The woman then slaps the guy silly and removes her hat, saying "you can't even recognize your own wife!"  She stomps off, and the crowd laughs at his humiliation. That night he slinks back home to apologize, and his wife tells him that she thinks he has the right idea, that she'll start visiting Inari shrines more often herself.  Shamed, her husband stops tomcatting.  Eventually, he dies of old age, and his wife remarries immediately after.

Baketsu. Baketsu translates literally to "a grave in a hole in the ground". Here, though, it's a cave with a shrine in the back.  One night, a beggar out walking on a road in the hills gets caught in the middle of a major thunderstorm.  He seeks shelter in a cave, and imagines all kinds of demons lurking in the darker depths of the Baketsu.  He hears some kind of sound, and steels himself to explore the cave to see what is making it.  Still imagining oni behind every rock, the beggar reaches the back of a small shrine where a merchant is making an offering of mochi cakes (pounded rice cakes) to the shrine's god.  Reassured, the beggar snatches the rice cakes and eats them.  The merchant notices that the cakes disappeared literally in the blink of an eye and runs from the cave, screaming about the oni that are after him.  The beggar picks up the guy's abandoned goods and leaves before the merchant can return with help.  Later, he opens the sack and discovers that it's filled with rolls of expensive silk brocade.  He vows to try staying overnight in another Baketsu the next chance he gets.

Gaijutsu Tsukai (Wizard). A group of traveling melon merchants get tired during the long trek between towns one hot summer day, and decide to take a short break and eat a couple of their wares.  A creepy-looking old man stands nearby, drooling at them, and the merchants tell him to buzz off.  He asks for a piece of melon, but they won't hand over anything for free.  During this, they're spitting seeds all over the ground.  The old man gathers up the seeds and declares that he'll grow his own.  The merchants scoff at him, but suddenly the man is surrounded by a big field of lush, green melon plants.  The merchants realize that he's a magic user, specifically "gaijutsu" (outside magic).  He hands melons out to all the passersby, who remark on how great they taste.  He hands more of the melons to the merchants, keeping one for himself.  After he leaves, the merchants get ready to pack up to hit the road again, only to discover that all of their baskets are empty.  In fact, the wizard had just cast an illusion and had tricked the merchants into eating their entire stock.  Bloated and in shock, the merchants collapse on the ground in the middle of the hot summer sun.

Summary: This second volume of Shigeru's interpretation of 12 of the Konjaku Monogatarishi stories is a little more subdued than the first, but with the same great art.  Recommended to anyone interested in Japanese folk culture.

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