“That must be the demon!” And what a demon it is! Oozing pustules covering bodies, blood excreting from tiny pores, sharpened horns decorating bony skulls . . . The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales is an expounding collection brimming with translated historical and cultural Japanese anecdotes, focusing specifically on traditionally oral Japanese narratives, known as setsuwa. The combined efforts of translator and editor Burton Watson and Hauro Shirane, respectively, elicit tales for the ignorant reader as well as for those more knowledgeable about the Japanese culture.
A book vaguely reminiscent of the Western morality tales Aesop’s Fables, The Demon at Agi Bridge truly reflects the Japanese oral tradition. The stories themselves often end with a lesson—life lessons such as promoting kindness and friendship (as in the tale “How a Man Received a Bounty After a Period of Prayer at the Hase Temple” where a poor samurai, in possession of no goods or money, profits solely from the kindness he gives others along his travels) while dissuading such actions as envy and dishonesty.
The tales also have a wide range of themes, such as Karma, Buddhism (readers well-versed in Buddhist teachings will have the advantage of understanding the reasoning behind various religious undertakings), filial piety, music and dance, Shintoism, animals and insects, the female body, poetry, gambling, and the exploration of the supernatural—in relation to the existence of wild demons, living in the middle of forests or on the sides of mountains, as well as in the transformations of humans into animals after the performance of an unforgivable sin. The settings of each story are often intertwined with court culture, aristocratic society, and political unrest within the Japanese warrior class. Similarly themed and moral-bound, the stories reflect a society striving towards a religious and moral obligatory lifestyle, such as following the way of the Buddha.
While most of the tales end in a moral lesson of sorts, the narratives are often laced with snarky comments and an underlying dark humor. One tale mentions the effects of “mushrooms” and the story’s character’s uninhibited usage of them: “We came on some mushrooms . . . [and] after we’d eaten them, we found that . . . we just couldn’t help dancing.” Another describes a mad, elderly woman removing the hair from her young, dead mistresses in order to preserve the luscious locks and make a wig.
In the short story “How a Court Lady of Royal Birth Demonstrated the Foulness of her Bodily Form,” a beautiful court woman captivates the heart of a Buddhist monk. Falling in love with her, the monk wishes to meet her in private. However, though his advances delight her, she admits that the meeting is to speak about a grave matter. Touching on one of the anthology’s most prevalent thematic occurrences is the mention of feminism, or the antithesis, incorporated seamlessly into the idea of Buddha nature and religious practices. A woman’s body is considered to be tarnished—with her lack of purity, her shameless lascivious seductions of men, and her monthly menstruation. Despite a woman’s inability to control the perceptions of her body, it is made clear she is still considered to be inferior in comparison with a man. “This body of mine is a thing putrid and rotten beyond description. My head is overflowing with brain matter and other fluids; my skin is stuffed with flesh and bones. Blood flows from my body; pus oozes out . . .” The description is of the pure nature of the woman body, seen in Buddhist ideals as foul and uncomely.
In the narrative, “How Ki no Tosuke of Mino Province Met Female Spirits and Died,” a man’s wife, envious of a box a female spirit presented to him, opened it, only to find “several human eyes that had been gorged out and a number of penises with a little of the hair attached.” Though morbidity rather than sarcastic humor is often the most prevalent aspect within these tales, the “humor, word play, and comic twists” of each story present the reader with an enjoyable tale, a quick read, and an unforgettable experience.
This compilation of short stories comes highly recommended for both those interested in Japanese culture as well as those who desire to experience a new society of people and their history.
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