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Noriko T. Reider. Seven Demon Stories from Medieval Japan. (Boulder: 2016, University Press of Colorado. Pp. 292. ISBN: 978-1-60732-489-8.)[Notice]

  • Jacob Danson Faraday

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  • Jacob Danson Faraday
    Memorial University of Newfoundland

Demons, ogres, and oni, or Japanese supernatural creatures, have been central to Japanese culture for hundreds of years. In Seven Demon Stories from Medieval Japan, Noriko T. Reider writes, “to study the oni in Japanese folklore is to study humanity” (250), and after reading this volume, it is easy to see why this might be the case. Universal themes of human society, such as good and evil, mortality, religion, ethics, sexuality, and political conflict, are explored in oni stories, and in Seven Demon Stories, Reider provides a clear, accessible overview of a selection of this oni literature. The book is organized into four sections: Samurai, Scholars, Women, and It (i.e., the personified inanimate object). In each section, Reider demonstrates the significance of these characters as the primary actors in encounters with oni. Perhaps more importantly, however, she broadens that significance to medieval Japanese demon literature genres in general, and beyond, using these seven stories to discuss medieval political struggles, social structure, ideas of gender and sexuality, as well as the genre’s lasting influence on modern literature and media. Reider is very clear about what is actually in the text, what is implied (e.g., satire, humour, word play), and what has to be assumed due to the inevitable lacunae caused by damage and decay of the ancient scrolls. All seven essays follow the same form, with a short introduction, notes about the source material, a plot summary of the included story, a discussion of major themes (e.g., relations between Japan and China during the medieval period), characters (e.g., Raikō, the warrior-aristocrat, who first appears in documents in the year 988), and similarities with other stories (e.g., the sixth story, “Blossom Princess,” and three comparable folktales), and concluding with a full English translation. Though each essay could be read independently as a study of one specific story, Reider is careful to build on subsequent chapters by making reference to the characters, politics, oni characteristics, and historical documents from previous essays. My favourite example of this is her discussion of the characters and plot elements of the seventh story, “The Record of Tool Specters,” as a satirical commentary of the elements of the first story, “The Drunken Demon.” The translations in Seven Demon Stories are generally quite dry (e.g., “One night last autumn while I was viewing the moon, the demon took me away and brought me here. I am in such a miserable state” [44]). This is, I believe, a deliberate choice on Reider’s part, as her focus seems to be on producing an accurate, “no-frills” English record of the stories. The exception here is the sixth story, “Blossom Princess,” which is much longer and much more descriptive. By including this story, Reider is not only able to draw out and discuss the rich socio-political background of this story, but also to demonstrate that academic translations in this genre can still be elegant, poetic, and artistic. Despite the intentionally academic tone, Reider finds ways to communicate the strangeness, magic, and wonder of these supernatural beings. She shows the power of the oni, giving many examples, such as shape shifting, creating living human beings from bones and corpses, and wielding control over people and things. This is an important tactic to attract and retain non-specialist readers, who, like me, might be interested in the topic of demon stories in general. Reider also shows how oni stories can be used to actively communicate customs, beliefs, ethics, and complex religious principles (e.g., inanimate objects being able to attain enlightenment). My primary criticism of Seven Demon Stories is the brevity of …