I’ve only just discovered a gem of an exhibition, Japanese Ghosts and Demons, which fills but one small room of Oxford’s giant Ashmolean museum. Nevertheless, its seventeen prints contain such a fantastic mix of the grotesque, the cute and the comic that I’ve decided to squeeze the creatures they depict into my list for 2010. This is an exhibition about obake, which are a diverse group of beings from Japan unified by a single characteristic: they are all transformative, beings who have broken the laws of constancy to shift or metamorphose into something else. The Japanese culture and language magazine, Mangajin, carries an engaging article about obake on its website which, despite being unrelated to this exhibition and written several years ago, could comfortably appear alongside the prints in the gallery. I’d also strongly recommend the section of it which touches on foxes. The Mangajin article’s author, Tim Screech (professor of Japanese Art History at the University of London), explains obake far better than I ever could. Obake, the Japanese “ghost,” is exactly what its name suggests: o is an honorific prefix, while bake is a noun from bakeru, the verb meaning “undergo change.” Japanese ghosts, then, are essentially transformations. They are one sort of thing that mutates into another, one phenomenon that experiences shift and alteration, one meaning that becomes unstuck and twisted into something else. Obake undermine the certainties of life as we usually understand it. You might have guessed that I find transformations and metamorphoses endlessly fascinating. My favourite one on show in the Ashmolean exhibition can be seen in the wonderfully titled Nikushi the Frog Spirit Conjures up a Magical Battle of Frogs at Tateyama in Etch? Province. The fighting frogs in question are stones transformed by Nikushi into battle-hardened amphibeans, armed to the teeth with bulrushes and lily stalks. Clicking either of the above images will take you to the relevant pages of the Ashmolean’s site, where you can zoom in and explore the rest of the prints in the exhibition to your heart’s content. This link will take you to the exhibition’s contents page. There is much to admire, but make sure you don’t miss a landscape haunted by the ghosts of a warlord’s victims. If you like the look of all this, then there are more obake haunting the Internet. Wikipedia has some digitised illustrations from the 1776 bestiary Gazu Hyakki Yak?, or The Illustrated Night Parade of A Hundred Demons. This was Toriyama Sekien’s definitive catalogue of obake and other wondrous creatures. Here’s a close-up of the Yamabiko, an echo monster from the mountains. And here’s the Tenome, an obake with eyes in its hands. It reminds me of the second scariest monster from Guillermo Del Toro’s astounding Pan’s Labyrinth, the Pale Man. I’m sure some of the creatures from Gazu Hyakki Yak? will be reappearing on the blog in the New Year. To coincide with the release of the US paperback, January’s blog posts are going to be devoted to The … Read More
The UK is covered in snow at the moment, bringing all the usual travel chaos and outraged claims that we should by now have learned how to command the weather to our bidding. On the morning it started I was lucky enough to not have to be anywhere in a hurry, then lucky enough to see a fox padding along the stream bank behind our flat. He looked especially red against all that white. After that I turned on the television to find out what the roads were like. The first thing that appeared on the screen was the forest god from Princess Mononoke. In an inspired piece of scheduling, that film was being shown as the sun came up. It was the scene where the forest god stands in the pool and stretches his neck towards the canopy. My favourite part of the entire film, which in turn is my favourite Ghibli animation. I can assure you that my day usually starts with no such enchantment. Indeed, I normally get things going with a whole lot of clumsy stumbling, swearing and toe-stubbing. This snowy morning being far from the norm, I thought it only right to share here a recommendation of Princess Mononoke for those who haven’t seen it, as well as the following pair of YouTube marvels. Princess Mononoke is a straightforward love story and eco-fable that reminds us that smashing the natural world to bits is in nobody’s long term interests. The art is jaw-droppingly beautiful and by turns cutesy (there’s a chorus of gorgeous bubble-headed forest folk) and savage (there’s gore in some places – especially when the wolves get involved). Somebody going by the name of head6of6metal6 had the great idea of setting some clips from the film to Glósóli by Sigur Rós. As an aside, I remember that I was listening to this song when I wrote the last sentences of The Girl with Glass Feet. And here’s another video that I rather like, this time by choppopclaymation. If you’re caught in the snow, I hope you’re safe and warm enough to enjoy some of it.
I had one of those rare moments of quiet synchronicity the other day when I was doing the recycling. In a pile of newspapers I noticed an old article from the New York Times, which stood out because of this amazing accompanying art by Jason Holley. The article is about the tenacity of Coyote, about how he’s breeding with wolves to make meaner, fitter pups and about – and this is the thing I wanted to share with you – how he works with Badger to feast on poor Ground Squirrel and his family. In a nutshell, Coyote’s not so good at digging, so he lets Badger delve into Ground Squirrel’s burrows. When Ground Squirrel breaks cover, Coyote chases him down at a speed Badger couldn’t hope to match. The pair share the carcass, even though in other circumstances Coyote and Badger might be the ones fighting each other. This incredibly jaunty video best demonstrates what goes on. Now here’s the thing: I’d just been reading a Hopi folk story called Coyote and Badger. It’s a neat expression of the uneasy relationship between the two animals, because after going out hunting for food together, Badger dupes Coyote into killing himself. Coyote’s a really interesting character in these Native American stories. He’s like the fox in European folklore, a trickster figure who can be both crafty and a buffoon. You can read a version of the story online here. If you like Coyote, I’d heartily recommend an excellent essay by Terri Windling. Here’s a snippet that sums up the dynamic at the heart of trickster stories. In the oral tradition, Coyote stories are marked by their combination of outrageous (sometimes X–rated) humor and elements of great profundity; they are stories in which the sacred and profane are tied ineluctably together. “They are funny stories,” a Navajo friend tells me, “but they are also sacred and serious. Trickster reminds us not to be too simplistically dualistic in our thinking; that good can come out of bad and vice versa; and that right and wrong are not always poles apart.” Windling’s is an entertaining and comprehensive look at trickster figures from around the world, from Coyote to Anansi to Shakespeare’s Puck. Her closing remarks about 21st century tricksters and the eventual emergence of female trickster figures are fascinating: I would suggest that this is one such example. And this one is slightly less controversial…
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