Japanese Demon Lore: Oni, from Ancient Times to the Present

By Noriko Reider. 2010. Logan: Utah State University Press. 241 pages. ISBN: 978-0-87421-793-3 (soft cover).


Reviewed by Katharine Schramm, Indiana University

[Review length: 1244 words • Review posted on January 10, 2013]


The way we deal with demons reveals a substantial amount about ourselves. In Japanese Demon Lore: Oni from Ancient Times to the Present, Noriko T. Reider introduces her reader to the many incarnations of the oni in Japan, and the intertwining of culture and creature across centuries.

The oni, often translated into English as demon, ogre, or monster, resists the Western dualism that infuses the term “demon.” Oni may be the terrifying monsters of Buddhist hell, yet also may be harbingers of fortune. They may be shape-changing tricksters eager to lure mortals to be eaten in a single gulp, yet may prove to be great warriors and protectors. They may be supernatural forces that can harm humans, yet humans themselves can become oni. These inherent contradictions derive in part from the oni's various origins. In the first chapter, Reider discusses the complexity surrounding the character 鬼, and through three genealogical lines—Chinese, Buddhist, and Onmyôdô (esoteric practices based upon the concept of yin and yang)—she highlights the conglomerate characteristics that became firmly associated with oni in Japan: cannibalism, the power of transformation, lightning, prosperity, and the status of Other.

The well-known medieval legend of Shuten Dôji (the drunken demon) in chapter 2 exemplifies many of these traits, featuring a fifty-foot, man-eating monster overlord that must be dispatched by warrior hero Minamoto no Raikô and his four lieutenants. While the text can be read as an affirmation of state power, signaling the rise of the warrior class from the court nobility, Reider utilizes elements of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque to illustrate the dynamic at play between well-known, medieval Japanese court practices and the grotesque inversions of Shuten Dôji’s oni court, which succeeds in making the story just as much about the inhuman(e)ly marginalized outsiders as the conquering heroes.

In “Women Spurned, Revenge of Oni Women,” Reider describes the relationship of gender to sociopolitical space during Japan's medieval period. Due to either native androgyny or their shapeshifting gender fluidity (assigning gender to oni is a “metaphysical venture at best”), the link between oni and gender in narrative has to do with public and private space. Masculine oni are public creatures, their attacks orchestrated against people at large and condemned by the court. Feminine oni, in contrast, experience slights in the private sphere that amplify personal resentment and jealousy; they kill out of revenge, spurred on by their uncontrollable passion. Utilizing the examples of Uji no hashihime and the antagonist of the Noh play Kanawa, Reider notes that these deadly feminine oni are not publicly condemned but dealt with quietly by capable individuals.

Reider moves from oni-woman revenge killings to the complex figure of Yamauba, the Mountain Ogress. A solitary, mountain-dwelling female oni that appears to devour children or babies, the yamauba (or yamamba) might also have nurturing or fertile traits. Upon her vanquishment her corpse could produce food, or the number of children she bore annually could be reflected in that year's seasons. While medievals viewed the yamauba as an old hag, by the early modern period the idea of “the oni with a human heart” began to be more common, and the image of the yamauba became almost synonymous with the mother of Kintarô, the super-child who became Sakata no Kintoki, one of Minamoto no Raikô’s legendary lieutenants. According to Reider, this resonated with a common belief during this era that people with certain traits might possess some supernatural tie. Plays popular during this period included yamauba masquerading as wives, with even one wife transforming into a yamauba with a child as the result of her husband’s dying wish. This subservience to men’s concerns reflects the oppressive environment for women during the early Edo period, and many of the yamauba’s maternal concerns appear to reflect this. However, the yamauba also possesses an otherly independence and power that frees her from those same societal constraints.

By 1800, the urban vision of the yamauba with child began to be sexualized and commoditized through ukiyo-e prints—alluring, voluptuous, and easily recognizable from her association with Kintarô (and thus more easily escaping the censors who might take issue with prints of courtesans). Reider expands on the theme of commodification during the Edo period in chapter 5, marking a shift from regarding the oni as a given in folk belief to an urban, commercial entertainment staple, encapsulating the weird.

The sixth chapter, “Oni and Japanese Identity: Enemies of the Japanese Empire in and out of the Imperial Army,” takes up again the issue of oni as the Other, particularly in the context of war. Japanese wartime propaganda revived the cannibalistic, terrifying image of the oni as the enemy soldier. However, by the end of the war, the problem was clear—who was the oni, and from whose viewpoint? Marking a further transformation from mere entertainment staple, the entirely fictitious oni could be used to conceptualize and explore national and individual identities in a rich imaginative context.

Chapters 7, 8, and 9 focus on this commodified and fictional oni and what it means in the contexts of fiction, film, and comics. Reider notes several marked changes. Some of them are linked to the oni’s historical image—oni still make excellent villains and readily supply the sex and violence that popular audiences crave. At the same time, they have become even more human, with lonely, misunderstood oni reflecting the social disconnect of contemporary life. They can now become victims in place of antagonists. As the Other, oni may be aliens or technological monsters, sometimes melding with a Western demonic mythos, sometimes reinterpreting recognizable oni attributes for contemporary audiences. In some cases, the oni may disconnect from its negative imagery entirely, becoming a kind of anti-oni. Reider's samples, drawn from a nearly endless array of possibilities, range widely, including Hamada Hirosuke’s Red Oni Who Cried, Yumemakura Baku’s Onmyôji, Nagai Gô's Devilman, Takahashi Rumiko's Urusei Yatsura and Inuyasha, and Miyazaki Hayao's Spirited Away, among many others.

While Japanese Demon Lore is strong in referencing published media, the book does substantially ignore contemporary customary practice and material culture, a slight that Peter Knecht's foreword does something to ameliorate. Only occasional asides by the author give any indication that oni may yet be found outside animation, literature, and popular culture. While the Shuten Dôji narrative examined in light of contemporary Heian practices proved fascinating, and the images of ukiyo-e prints illustrated the progression of Edo-period attitudes, later chapters lacked such multifaceted exploration. While many present-day oni may struggle in their confines of cultural heritage status and their evolution may be somewhat suspended, customary seasonal and religious rituals, performances, and contemporary craftwork continue to reference and embody many of these eras of Japanese thought and belief that Reider describes, often simultaneously to one another.

To deal with Japan's many rituals, festivals, performances, and material culture that incorporate oni or oni-like figures would require a set of sequels far beyond the scope of this book, yet a few paragraphs that drew this rich and active oni presence—still occurring in tangible and regionally distinctive varieties—into brief consideration would have been welcome.

Japanese Demon Lore is a far-reaching book balanced between encyclopedic overview and fresh interpretation of this staple of Japanese folklore, film, art, and literature. Unlike previous work in both Japanese and English, Noriko Reider takes seriously the ways that contemporary Japanese artists give voice and form to oni. This book will serve as a useful introduction for students of culture, whether they fall into the fold of literature, religion, film, art, or folklore.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.