Thursday, August 16, 2012

Review: Ancient Izumo

Izumo is the original name of what is now the eastern part of Shimane Prefecture.  It has the distinction of being the location of one of the earlier settlements in Japan, and had the tallest Shinto shrine in the country - Izumo Taisha.  There's no known record for when Taisha was first constructed, and occasional renovations over the years have altered its appearance so that it really doesn't look like it originally had, but images baked into Yayoi era pottery indicate that the shrine used to have a very long staircase, and was probably on wooden pillars at least 2-3 stories tall.  Because there is little written record from that time, most of the details of life from both the Jomon and Yayoi eras comes from archeological finds.  Interestingly, one of the most contested areas has yet to be dug, from what I understand, because of the fear by the religious owners of the lands that researchers may not find anything, destroying the tourist trade built on the legends based there.

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

Kodai Izumo, (Ancient Izumo) by Shigeru Mizuki, Grade A
Which brings us to this book by Shigeru. Mizuki is a very prolific writer, and his stories have as much to do with history and literature as they do with monsters and war.  Ancient Izumo starts out with Shigeru himself reading a newspaper and getting excited over a recent archeological find of a series of intact metal artifacts in Shimane.  He rushes to the museum to see the find, which is close to his native home prefecture of Tottori (he currently lives in Chofu, near Tokyo), and is overwhelmed by the quality of the artifacts.  This then leads us into a retelling of standard Japanese folklore.  I've never researched these stories myself, but it looks like they may be based on those of the Kojiki Chronicles, rather than the Nihongi (actually, Shigeru is shown reading the Kojiki throughout the book).  We get the creation of the universe, the first couple of generations of the gods, the creation of the heavens, earth and underworld, and Izanagi's decent into the underworld to rescue his wife Izamami (which fails, and gives rise to the presence of death in this universe).  On returning to the surface, Izanagi blocks off the entrance to hell with a boulder (supposedly located somewhere in Shimane) and washes himself off in the ocean to cleanse himself.  He thus gives birth to the next set of gods, including Amaterasu (the sun) from his left eye, Tsukuyomi (the moon) from his right eye, and Susanoo (the sea and storms) from his nose.  Susanoo throws a tantrum at not being able to see his mother again, causing Amaterasu to run and hide in a cave, casting the planet into darkness.  The other gods hold a festival to lure her back out, and Amaterasu is captured and forced to return to the heavens again.

(Shigeru, on seeing the new artifacts)

Shigeru comments on the cultural side of this creation myth, then the scene changes to describe one of Susanoo's adventures, and the rise of the Jomon/Yayoi people in Izumo.  From a small collection of farm houses, a village forms, a shamanistic form of nature worship develops, and Susanoo takes a wife and has several children, known as the 80 gods.  One of the 80 is Ookuninushi, and fully half of the book revolves around his exploits leading up to his being the first ruler of the Izumo.  The first was when he used a massive rope to drag several islands together to enlarge the Izumo region.  Several of the stories are given in the wiki entry, including the White Rabbit, so I won't repeat them here.  However, the wiki states that the creatures tricked by the rabbit are crocodiles influenced by descriptions of sharks, while Shigeru draws them as actual sharks.  Finally, the humans living in Izumo are confronted by the tribes from Yamato (the people living further northeast and who eventually became the dominant group in Japan) and a conflict breaks out.

(Shigeru and Susanoo watching the final battle with the Yamato)

Shigeru takes a break from Ookuninushi to revisit Amaterasu in heaven and her failed attempts to send messengers to Earth.  Shigeru then places himself back in the story in our present, saying that his daughter one day brought him a book that refers to him as part of the Izumo literature, so he flies to the Izumo history museum to confront the author, who is the curator there.  During their discussion, a lightning bolt strikes an ancient tree associated with Ookuninushi, which is taken to be a sign from Susanoo (the Storm God). Later, Mizuki reports being visited by Susanoo in his dreams, driving him to draw this manga.  Eventually, Susanoo takes Mizuki to the final battle between the Izumo and the Yamato, where the fight turns against the Izumo.  Mizuki suggests that the recently discovered archeological artifacts support various parts of the Kojiki chronicles, and that the tales imply the shifting of power from the old Shinto gods of the Izumo to the newer ones worshiped in the more modern era.  At the end, he visits Daisha, and compares the current structure to the images found on the ancient pottery.

(Amaterasu, at being thwarted in her attempts to contact her messengers to Ookuninushi.)

Summary: Shigeru uses artifacts found during a recent dig to explore and reinforce the folktales given in one of the oldest written records of Japan currently known, the Kojiki.  If you're interested in reading the original stories yourself, check out the Encyclopedia of Shinto.  If you want an illustrated guide, I recommend Shigeru's Kodai Izumo.

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