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Kwaidan

Cover of a paperback edition of Kwaidan.

Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things is a collection of Japanese supernatural tales by the Irish-Greek writer Lafcadio Hearn. It was first published in 1904. The title Kwaidan (pronounced Kaidan in modern Japanese) means "strange tales." Hearn, who married a Japanese woman and became a Japanese citizen in 1896, presents the stories as mostly translations of old Japanese texts. The book also includes essays on Japanese and Chinese folklore and superstitions concerning insects.

The internationally acclaimed Japanese anthology film Kwaidan (1965) features two segments based on tales from Hearn's collection; "The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi" (Hoichi the Earless) and "Yuki-Onna" (Snow Woman).

Contents of the anthology

  • "Butterflies"
  • "Mosquitoes"
  • "Ants"

Selected tales

The Story of Mimi-Nashi-Hoichi

A blind minstrel named Hoichi lives in a room on the grounds of a Buddhist temple. The temple was built to appease the uneasy spirits of the Heike, an imperial clan who perished centuries ago in a famous naval battle off the nearby coast. Hoichi is known for his skill on the Japanese lute and for his moving recitations, especially of the tragic tale of the Heike.

One hot summer night, while the priest and his assistant are away, Hoichi sits on the veranda outside his bedroom to practice his lute. Shortly past midnight, Hoichi hears someone approach through the garden. A deep voice of a samurai commands Hoichi to come with him to perform for his master, a noble lord who is staying in the area. The samurai leads Hoichi to a palatial house. In front of the lord and many attending noblemen and noblewomen, Hoichi plays his lute and recites the tale of the Heike. The assembly is so moved by his soulful performance that they offer him a large reward to return every night while the noble lord is in town. They make him promise, however, not to tell anyone about the engagement because the noble lord is traveling incognito.

During the second night of performance, Hoichi's absence is noticed at the temple. On the third night, the concerned priest sends out two servants to follow Hoichi. The servants are shocked to find Hoichi performing in the cemetery surrounded by ghostly fires in front of the memorial tomb of the infant Heike emperor Antoku who was killed at the naval battle. The servants drag the protesting Hoichi back to the temple. The priest realizes Hoichi is in great danger of being destroyed by the spirits of the dead Heike. He cannot stay to protect Hoichi the following night, however, because he and his assistant have been called away. Before they leave, the priest and his assistant write the text of a holy sutra all over Hoichi's body including his face, limbs, hands, and feet. The priest instructs Hoichi to sit quietly and not speak or move no matter what happens.

The ghostly samurai returns after midnight. He calls Hoichi's name and looks all around, but he cannot see Hoichi because of the holy text. Then the samurai notices two disembodied ears where Hoichi's head should have been. He reasons that Hoichi is unable to reply because he has no mouth left to speak with. In order to prove he tried to fetch the minstrel, the samurai decides to take Hoichi's ears back to his noble lord. In the early morning, Hoichi is found sitting on the veranda with blood still oozing from the sides of his head where his ears used to be. The priest realizes that his assistant missed the ears when they wrote the holy text on Hoichi's body.

The story of "Hoichi the Earless" spreads, and wealthy men from all over the country bring gifts to hear him recite the tale of Heike. Hoichi becomes a very rich man.

The Story of O-Tei

A young medical student named Nagao lives in the town of Niigata. Nagao has been betrothed to O-Tei since childhood, and they are to wed as soon as Nagao has finished his studies. With less than a year left to go, however, O-Tei becomes very ill. She sends for Nagao and tells him that, although she is about to die, they will meet again if he wishes. She promises to be reborn as a girl and, if he is willing to wait fifteen or sixteen years, to be with him again. After her death, Nagao sets up a small shrine in his house for O-Tei. He writes a note promising to marry O-Tei if she returns to him. He then places the note in the shrine.

Being the only son of the house, Nagao is eventually obliged to marry a woman chosen by his father. Nagao suffers many misfortunes in the following years. His parents, his wife, and their only child all die, leaving Nagao all alone. He leaves his home and begins to travel.

One day, he comes to a small mountain village and stops at an inn. A young girl waits on him, and he is struck by her remarkable resemblance to O-Tei. Even her manners and her voice remind him of his lost love. He asks her for her name and home town. The girl responds without hesitation that she is O-Tei who died seventeen years ago in Niigata, and that she has come back to Nagao because he promised in his note to marry her. Having spoken those words, the girl falls unconscious.

Nagao marries the girl and they have a happy marriage. She remembers nothing, however, of what she said to him on the day they met, and she has no memories of her previous life.

Diplomacy

A condemned man is brought into the garden of the home of a samurai to be beheaded. The man pleads for mercy and explains that he committed the crime unwittingly out of stupidity. He says it is wrong to kill a man for being stupid and therefore, if he is wrongfully beheaded, he will come back as a ghost out of resentment to take revenge on the samurai.

The samurai asks the man to give them some sign to prove he really means to come back to haunt them. Drawing his sword, he tells the man to bite the stepping stone in front of him after his head is cut off. The samurai promises that they will then believe his curse and be frightened. The condemned man angrily cries out "I will bite it!" as his head is cut off. The head rolls toward the stepping stone then suddenly bounces up to bite the edge of the stone. After holding on for a moment, the head drops to rest on the ground. Everyone present stares in horror at the samurai, but the samurai appears unconcerned.

The samurai's servants, afraid of the vengeful ghost, begin to hear and see things that do not exist. They grow so paranoid in the following months that they finally decide to speak to their master. The samurai assures them that there is nothing to fear. He explains that, while a dying man's desire for vengeance is dangerous, it is only the very last intention that can be carried out. In this case, the man died with one purpose – to bite the stone – and that was the only thing he could accomplish after his death.

The samurai is proved right, and no vengeful ghost ever appears to haunt his household.

Jikininki

A Zen priest named Muso Kokushi finds himself hopelessly lost while traveling through a mountainous district. As the sun sets, he spots a small hermitage on top of a hill. The hermitage is inhabited by an old priest. The old man refuses to give Muso shelter for the night and instead directs him to a village in the valley.

Muso finds the village and is welcomed warmly into the headman's house. He is taken to a room and given food and bedding. Muso retires early but is awakened shortly before midnight by the sound of someone weeping. A young man enters and introduces himself as the eldest son of the house. He then informs Muso that his father has passed away and the villagers have assembled to pay their respects. They are now all preparing to travel to a neighboring village which is their custom after a death, as strange things are said to take place in the house where a corpse is left. The young man invites Muso to come with them. Muso tells the young man that he is not afraid of ghosts and offers to stay behind to perform the proper services for his father. The man and other family members thank Muso then take their leave.

Muso enters the room where the body is laid out and performs the funeral service. Then he sits beside the deceased and meditates for several hours. In the middle of the night, a dim, vaguely-defined Shape noiselessly enters the room. Muso is unable to move. He witnesses the monstrous Shape devour the whole corpse and the offerings that the villagers left beside the body. Having finished eating, the Shape disappears.

The villagers return in the morning and are relieved to find Muso alive and well. They are not surprised to find the corpse and the offerings gone. When Muso tells them what happened during the night, the young master of the house says it agrees with what has been said from ancient times. Muso asks if the old priest on the hill ever performs funeral services, but he is told that there are no priests in the area and no hermitage on the hill.

Muso leaves the village and goes back to the hermitage on the hill. The old priest invites him in and tells him that he is very much ashamed. He confesses that he was the thing that ate the corpse. He tells Muso that he was once a priest in the region. He performed funeral services but only for profit, and the greed caused him to be reborn as a ghoul condemned to feed on corpses. He begs Muso to perform the Buddhist service to free him. The old priest and the hermitage then vanish, and Muso is left alone next to an ancient tomb.

Mujina

Wakan Sansai Zue - Mujina

Mujuna the shape-shifting badger from the Wakan Sansai Zue (1712)

There is a lonesome slope along the Akasaka Road in Tokyo called the Slope of the Province of Kii. The slope, which runs along a deep moat of the palace, is infamous for Mujina, the mischievous shape-shifting badger.[1]

One night, a merchant going up the slope sees a young woman weeping by the moat. Fearing she may be planning to commit suicide, the merchant approaches the woman and offers his assistance. The woman continues to cry, hiding her face with her long sleeve. The merchant implores her to listen to him, and the girl turns around to face him. She drops her sleeve then wipes her face with her hand to reveal a smooth, completely featureless face – no eyes, nose, or mouth.[2] The merchant screams and runs away.

He keeps running along the dark deserted slope until he sees a lantern in the distance. He finds it is a soba-noodle stand on the side of the road. He cries out to the soba-seller, and the man asks what the matter is. The merchant tells the soba-seller that he saw a woman by the moat who showed him something unspeakable. The soba-seller asks "Was it anything like THIS that she showed you?" and reveals an egg-like face. The light goes out.

Rokuro-Kubi

A distinguished samurai decides to give up the world and become a traveling priest after his master's house comes to ruin. He takes the Buddhist name of Kwairyo. Being a brave man, Kwairyo goes to preach in places deemed too dangerous by other priests. One night while traveling in a lonesome mountain district, Kwairyo decides to sleep by the roadside. A woodcutter passes by and, surprised to find a man lying down on the grass along a dangerous road, offers the use of his humble hut. The man speaks so earnestly that Kwairyo accepts the offer.

The small cottage is at the top of a hill some distance from the main road. Kwairyo is welcomed in a most respectful manner by four others inside. Kwairyo realizes that his host must have once belonged to the upper class. The woodcutter admits that he used to be a distinguished man. He tells Kwairyo that he led a sinful life and ruined himself as well as his house. He says he now prays and tries to atone for his sins by helping others. Kwairyo, touched by the man's repentance, promises to pray for his salvation.

Kwairyo is shown to a small side room. Others go to sleep but Kwairyo stays up to read the sutras and to pray. It is quite late when he leaves his room to get some water. Entering the main part of the house, he is shocked to see five bodies lying on the floor without heads. There is no blood, and the necks do not appear to have been cut off. Kwairyo realizes that his hosts are Rokuro-Kubi,[3] dangerous goblins whose heads detach from their bodies. He has read that the heads will not be able to rejoin their bodies and die if the bodies are moved while they are away. He pushes the body of the house master over the window. He then goes out to the garden and into the adjoining grove. Hiding behind a tree, he watches the five heads flitting about eating insects. He listens to them chatting and hears the house master say they cannot eat the priest while he is praying. The master Rokuro-Kubi orders a female head to go see if Kwairyo has fallen asleep. The female head returns shortly and reports that the priest is gone with the master's body.

The master Rokuro-Kubi, in a rage, swears to devour the priest before he dies. He spots Kwairyo behind the tree. All the goblin heads begin to attack Kwairyo, but Kwairyo is prepared. Using a small tree he has pulled out, he strikes the attacking heads. Four of the heads flee, but the master Rokuro-Kubi keeps attacking. He bites on to Kwairyo's sleeve and will not let go. Kwairyo beats the head repeatedly until it finally dies. He then goes back into the house and finds the four battered heads reattached to their bodies. The goblins see him and flee in terror.

Kwairyo, with the mater's head still hanging from his sleeve, gathers his belongings and continues on his journey. He is eventually arrested by police who suspect him of murdering the man whose head is attached to his sleeve. Kwairyo is brought before the magistrates. He laughs at the charges and explains that it is the head of a goblin which he killed in self-defense. Most of the magistrates do not believe him, but the eldest one asks to see the head. The old man examines the head and points out that it was not cut off. He alsoo notes that the nape of the neck has some red characters on it which are said to be characteristic of a Rokuro-Kubi. Kwairyo is released and departs with the head still on the sleeve of his robe.

Shortly afterwards, a robber stops Kwairyo. When he sees the head, the robber assumes Kwairyo is a fellow criminal. Instead of robbing him, he offers Kwairyo money for the head so he can frighten people with it. Kwairyo tells him it is a goblin's head, but the robber does not believe him and buys the head. Later the robber learns the truth and becomes afraid of the head. He takes it back to the mountain to bury it then has a Buddhist service performed for the Rokuro-Kubi.

Yuki-Onna

Suuhi Yuki-onna

Illustration for Yuki-onna from the Hyakkai-Zukan, c.1737

One very cold evening, an old woodcutter named Mosaku and his young apprentice Minokichi are caught in a snow storm and stranded on the other side of the river from their village. They take shelter in the ferryman's small hut which has only one door and no windows.

During the night, Minokichi wakes and finds the door open. In the snow light, he sees a woman in white bending over Mosaku. The woman blows her cold breath on Mosaku then turns to Minokichi. He is paralyzed as the woman bends down to look at him. Although he is frightened by her eyes, he finds the woman beautiful. The woman smiles and tells Minokichi that she will not hurt him because he is so young and pretty. She threatens to kill him, however, if he ever tells anyone about her. The woman then goes out the door and disappears. Minokichi is rescued in the morning, but Mosaku is found frozen to death.

A year later, Minokichi is returning home from a day's work when he sees a beautiful girl traveling by herself. He greets her and they begin to walk together. The girl, O-Yuki, says she has lost her parents and is going to see some relatives. By the time they reach the village, they have become quite smitten with each other. Minokichi invites O-Yuki to rest at his house, and she ends up staying permanently as his wife. They have ten beautiful children, but O-Yuki does not seem to age at all.

One night, Minokichi watches O-Yuki sewing. She looks beautiful and very white in the lamp light and reminds him of the snow woman. He tells her about the night when Mosaku died, and says he is not sure if it was a dream or if he really saw the Woman of the Snow. O-Yuki throws down her sewing and screams at Minokichi for speaking about it. She says she was the snow woman and that she would kill him as she said if it were not for the children. She tells him to take very good care of them. She then melts into a white mist and disappears.

The Story of Aoyagi

A young samurai named Tomotada, on a mission for his master, is riding through a sparsely-populated mountain district when he is caught in a snow storm. Fortunately, he spots a cottage on top of a hill. He is welcomed in by an old woman. He finds an old man and a young girl inside by the fire. They offer him food and rice wine and invite him to spend the night. The girl, who is called Aoyagi, is beautiful and graceful. Although she was brought up in the mountains, she is also quite cultured. Tomotada is pleased to note that Aoyagi seems to return his admiration. Before the end of the evening, he becomes so enchanted by Aoyagi that he asks her parents for their consent for him to marry her.

In the morning, Tomotada leaves with Aoyagi. Since a samurai is required to obtain his lord's permission before marrying, Tomotada must first complete his mission. He takes Aoyagi with him to Kyoto to see the great daimyo Lord Hosokawa. While there, the beautiful Aoyagi attracts attention and she is taken to Lord Hosokawa.

Tomotada is powerless against the great lord. His only hope is to get a message to Aoyagi and ask her to flee with him. If caught, they will surely be executed, but he decides to take the risk. He sends his message in the form of an eloquent love poem to Aoyagi. The message is intercepted and Tomotada is summoned to the palace. To Tomotada's great surprise, Lord Hosokawa says that he is so moved by Tomotada's and Aoyagi's love for each other that he has authorized their marriage. A splendid wedding ceremony follows.

Tomotada and Aoyahi live happily together for five years. Then one day, Aoyagi suddenly takes ill. She cries out in pain and tells Tomotada that she is about to die. She confesses that she is not a human being but a spirit of the willow tree.[4] She says someone is cutting down her tree and that is why she must die. She collapses, and when Tomotada springs to her aid, he finds nothing but her empty robes on the floor.

Tomotada becomes a Buddhist priest. During his pilgrimage, he stops at the hill where Aoyagi's parents used to live. He finds no trace of the cottage. He finds instead three stumps – of two old willows and one young willow tree. Tomotada erects a memorial tomb and performs services for the spirits of the willow trees.

Footnotes

  1. In Japanese folklore, some animals are able to take humanoid form.
  2. A faceless monster (called noppera-bō) is one of the legendary Japanese monsters.
  3. Rokuro-Kubi, like noppera-bō, is a classic Japanese monster.
  4. The name Aoyagi means "green willow".

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