So what we get drunk? So what we smoke weed? We’re just having fun / We don’t care who sees / So what we go out? That’s how it’s supposed to be / Living young and wild and free. – Bruno Mars
I had a person in my life that drank too much, who very much needs/needed to stop drinking. To describe it any further would be a waste of words. I’m going to somewhat unjustifiably use that as a hook to tell a famous tale from Japanese folklore, which, like several stories from my own personal mythology, can also be blamed on alcohol. I know this won’t help said person with their problem – nothing I do ever has – nor are they likely to ever read this post, but maybe I’ll find some catharsis, and maybe you’ll like the story.
The story is called “Shutendōji” after the lead villain, a monstrous ogre-king who abducts young girls and seals them in his mountain fortress, before such misdemeanors are brought to an end by our dynamic hero. What might seem a straightforward tale of good’s triumph over evil is actually something far more complex.
The story is set in the mid-Heian period (about 1000AD), in the reign of Emperor Ichijō (r. 980-1011). Everything was going swimmingly until maidens kept disappearing from the capital. I doubt anyone would have cared except for the fact that they were beautiful (obv.) and perhaps even more significant than that, daughters of the aristocracy. There was widespread and general upset about this until one particular daughter, the beautiful and only child of the Minister Kunitaka, went missing; he was beside himself with despair, and enlisted a fortune-teller to divine the fate of his nearest and dearest. Learning that she has been kidnapped by an ogre-lord and imprisoned on Mt. Ōe (or Mt. Ibukiyama, depending on your source), he relates the whereabouts of the missing girls to the Emperor, who duly agrees to send the legendary demon-slayer Minamoto no Raikō to accomplish the search/destroy/rescue mission.
Raikō agrees and sets off with his loyal band of merry men, including his legendary “Shitennō” (Four Heavenly Kings): four warriors not-so-humbly named for the guardian-deities of the four directions in Buddhism. Setting out on their trip, they decide to disguise themselves as itinerant mountain priests, and head to the demon’s stronghold. The demon king is named Shutendōji 酒呑童子, which means “Drunken acolyte,” a not-insignificant detail that will come back to haunt us later. Meeting three old men on the path who offer to help them, Raikō realizes that they are in fact the deities of the respective shrines the warriors visited in preparation for their mission. Honored by this divine assistance, they gratefully receive advice, holy armor, and poisoned sake with which to vanquish the demon, who is famous for his fondness for alcohol.
Further along the path, the men meet a young girl washing bloodstained robes in the river, a haunting image that was depicted numerous times over the centuries; touching for its depiction of such an ordinary act of laundry made grotesque by her circumstances, and charged with eroticism for her revealed white arm, an unthinkable transgression for an aristocratic girl from the city, who would never perform such a task or expose her body in such a way. With horrifying regularity, the demons would seize one of the captive ladies and take her to a place called the ‘jail,’ where they pressed her body for blood. This they then served, calling it “sake.”A magic potion kept the woman from dying, so that they could press her several times, but eventually they butchered her and served her flesh, calling it “fish.” The girl tells the warriors that she, and many others, are captive in the demon citadel – their bodies are forced into presses and their blood drained to be served as sake, a torture that is inflicted upon them several times whilst keeping them alive, or their limbs may be severed and served up as delicacies in the demon banquets, whilst they wander limbless. The band promise her they will release the girls, and after a scuffle with the doorman, the ogre Shutendōji’s curiosity outweighs his caution and he lets the men inside.
Skeptical of the men’s identity (he even accuses them directly of being the dreaded Raikō and his Shitennō at one point, an accusation that Raikō successfully refutes), he tests them by offering them the unthinkable – cups of blood and severed limbs, sure that their refusal will reveal their heroic identity. Though he can have no doubt about where these can have come from, Raikō waves away the demon sent to prepare them, and chugging back the blood, quickly slices the limbs into strips and literally wolfs it down. Taken aback, Shutendōji reminds the visitors that since there is no deception in the demon world – those of his kind are categorically incapable of lying – he will accept them into his company and take them on their word. He gratefully accepts the sake his visitors have brought and gets down to the business that he likes the best, drinking – not knowing that this “gift”is a divine elixir than will poison a demon such as himself [n.b. this is *exactly* like casting “holy” on an undead enemy in a videogame].
As he starts blacking out, he heads to his chambers, and peeking through the doors the warriors see him in his true form, as a giant red ogre, rather than the human-ish shape he had presented them with before. The three deities appear once more to smash down the magical doors, and Raikō and his men bind Shutendōji with magical chains and cut off his head. The head goes wild and attacks Raikō, and were it not for the magical helmet provided by the deities, that would have been the end of him. Our heroes kill the other demons and rescue the girls, sending them back to the city and their families.
But it’s not a happy ending for everyone. On the way out of the castle, the warriors see stacks of decomposing corpses of the girls they were too late to save, and even more gruesomely, see a girl with a missing arm and a leg – these are the limbs served to the men just hours before, prepared and consumed by Raikō himself. Sure of her imminent death, she sends a lock of hair back to her parents, so they know that she was thinking of them and so that they have something to remember her by. But how will the men know where to send it? In a brilliant twist of irony, she tells them her name, she is the daughter of the Minister Kunitaka, the man who started it all.
Like most people who hear it, I’m fascinated by this story. It’s so morally ambiguous. Of course we know who the goodies and baddies are, those categories are not truly called into question, but even within those parameters there is a great deal of flexibility and moral ambiguity that may make us view the actions of Raikō and his companions, not to mention the fate of Shutendōji, with some measure of uneasiness. Raikō’s readiness to eat human flesh, which turns out to belong to the very girl they were sent to save, is the most obvious example. Is it really necessary for him to do this? It was obviously a very expedient means to gain the demon’s trust, but Shutendōji’s shocked reaction suggests that despite his offer, he wasn’t expecting Raikō to actually accept it. Perhaps marshaling arguments about their (pretended) priestly status and prescriptions on the consumption of any meat might have taken longer, and have been riskier, but it also wouldn’t have required our hero to, you know, EAT SOMEONE. Especially since the eating of human flesh is precisely the is the unthinkable evil that Raikō has been sent (by the Emperor no less) to stop. Of course, the assistance of the deities makes them complicit to some degree, and as readers we are assured that we are cheering for the right side.
I also feel uneasy about the pretending part. Of course they need to access the ogre’s complex somehow, and dressing up as mountain ascetics is a pretty good explanation. I didn’t think anything was questionable about the ol’ Stormtrooper ploy until the parts when Shutendōji reiterates the lack of betrayal in the demon world – demons cannot lie. C’mon, that has to tug on your sympathy strings a little bit. In some versions of the story, we hear more of Shutendōji’s side – how he came to be the monster the world sees him to be. Initially an acolyte in a temple (hence his name), his wild lusts and desires saw him ostracized, and rather than try to guide him on the path to salvation he was repeatedly expelled from religious institutions. Persecuted, he fled the capital and entered the mountains, drawing his kind closer to him that they might live in community with each other. This is not an attempt to exonerate his acts, by any means, but it is still an extraordinary nod in that direction. In some versions of the story, it is revealed that Shutendōji is really an incarnation of the arch-enemy of the Buddha, who throughout his countless lifetimes is destined to repeat an evil fate. Not only does this render his ‘evil’ choices as fatalistic, cosmically out of his control, his existence has repeatedly served, and is possibly even purposed, to bring about the enlightenment of others, through the trials and tribulations they endure at his hand. These variants emphasize that Shutendōji’s behaviour is not by choice, but by design. Some presentations really emphasize his human side, and his name emphasizes nothing so much as a young boy who has gone astray, fallen victim to a poison from which many suffer.
The representation of the Japanese imperial court and the noble warriors fighting on its behalf as the force of all that is ‘good’ becomes a troubled one, because the voice of the doomed ‘evil’ oni resonates throughout the text as the voice of the marginalized other, excluded from their domains of cultural and martial virtue. I can’t help but sympathize with a character that is brought to its ultimate demise through exclusion and deception.
So what is the moral of the story? There doesn’t really have to be one. I just find it reassuring that even in folktales, which usually provide us with paradigms of noble and evil behaviours, sometimes we can find cases that are closer to our own grey-area experiences. Do the ends justify the means? How about when we are confronted with the (very visceral) casualties of our choices, however noble our purpose? And what of exploiting the weakness and abusing the trust of our enemy? And oh yeah, don’t forget that Raikō voluntarily ATE THAT LADY.
Once, I wanted this story to tell me that I could save that person in my life, doing whatever it takes, by any means necessary. I don’t think it does.