Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Don't look back! Spirit possession and the human gaze.

There is a particularly baffling sequence in the film Spirited Away where Chihiro passes Kaonashi on the bridge early in the morning on her way to meet Haku.  They bow, acknowledging each other's presence. However, when Chihiro reaches the other side of the bridge and looks back Kaonashi has suddenly disappeared.  Later, when she returns accross the bridge, he is still missing.  Or so we think.  As she enters back into the bath house he appears, following in her shadow.

 Film stills.  Spirited Away.  2001.

For the longest time I couldn't make sense of this sequence.  I felt it was significant somehow otherwise Miyazaki wouldn't have spent so many frames depicting it.  I suspected that it eluded me because of some unspoken folk belief so inherent in Japanese culture it doesn't require explanation. Finally I stumbled upon a possible explanation in a book completely unrelated to anime/manga.  In Karen A. Smyers The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Workship there is a brief description of a local folk practice that involves feeding foxes in order to curry their favor.  The ritual involves placing offerings on small Inari shrines in the woods at night.  Practitioners caution Smyers never to look backwards at any time during the ritual.  When she asked why the practitioners explained that spirit foxes could possess her if she looked back, even if she didn't see or feel anything. 

Fox Messanger. Geoff Prewett.  2009.

Spirit affliction and possession has a long and deep history in Japan.  The act of looking or seeing seems to be a method by which the spirit can take hold of a human.  Emphasis on eyes and the power of the gaze abound in kaidan, tales of the strange and supernatural that became popular during the Tokugawa era.  The human gaze as catalyst for doom returns to the modern era in Ringu and Ju-On.  Once you have seen the accursed you cannot escape their wrath.

Film still.  Ringu.  1998.

I used the print below in my Ghost without a face presentation at Sakuracon 2013 because I found the depiction extremely unusual.  It depicts the unfortunate Oiwa from the Yotsuya Kaiden.  Usually ghosts are shown without feet.  But if you look closely you'll see one human foot and one spectral foot.  Its a doppleganger moment.  Is she looking back and seeing her doom?

Oiwa jōchin.  Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797 - 1861).  Ashmolean Museum.

Smyers, Karen Ann. The Fox and the Jewel: Shared and Private Meanings in Contemporary Japanese Inari Worship. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999. Print.

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Are mountain gods vindictive?

I came across the article with this title the other day.  What a great title!  I had to read it.

The article compares the belief structures around yama no kami of townsfolk versus forest-dwelling hunters in rural Nagano Prefecture around the turn of the 19th century.  The townsfolk viewed the Mountain Gods with fear and were loathe to enter the forests lest they incur their wrath.  Interestingly, the tribe of hunters who lived in a separate settlement further in the mountain forests dismissed the townsfolk's beliefs as superstitiousThis is not to say that the hunters did not believe in spirits.  Their beliefs were quite strong, and they observed rituals of respect when climbing the sacred peaks.  They, however, did not believe the mountain spirits to be vindictive as did the townsfolk(Please note, I am paraphrasing a great deal and leaving out many subtle nuances carefully crafted in the article for brevity's sake.)

The development of this belief is one that I have encountered before in Louis Perez's History of Japan (1998).  Perez links the development of Mountain = God = Scary belief to the formation of permanent settlements away from the coast.  What's so important about the movement inland?  In Carmen Blacker's Catalpa Bow, Blacker links the geographic transition to changing concepts about the world of the dead.  In ancient times when cultural centers were located on the coast the spirits of dead ancestors were said to live in a land across or beneath the sea.  The movement inland altered these beliefs.  Land is cleared for the building of structures and wild plants tamed for agricultureMost hunter-gatherer societies have a more integrated relationship to their surroundings.  Whereas permanent farming settlements further solidified the boundaries between the human world (village/fields = cultivated) and the spirit world (forest/mountain = wild).  Instead of the ocean, mountains and their surrounding forests became the land of the spirits. 
Irontown.  Film still.

I was immediately reminded of Miyazaki's film Mononoke Hime and the differing views held of the forest by the Irontown residents and Ashitaka.  Like the hunters in the article who live outside of "town," the Emishi in Miyazaki's movie regard the forest and its spirits in a very different light.  The binary becomes even more fascinating as Miyazaki adapts it to speak from an environmentalist perspective: town/forest; transformation/resistance; modern/ancient; destruction/creation.   

It's ironic that, much like the forest is transformed by the influx of the Irontown humans, the 1880s Japan referenced in the article is soon to be transformed by the influx of Western modernism.  As Lady Eboshi tried to kill the Spirit of the Forest in hopes of transforming the Gods back into mere animals; ssimilarly, modern Japan brought about the death of yokai and other fantastic spirits.  Mandated by the Meiji Restoration, which ended almost 300 years of Tokugawa isolationism, a great deal of traditional culture was rejected and bulldozed under in the name of bunmei kaika (文明開化), civilization and enlightenment.  Almost overnight the spirits that once terrified humans suddenly ceased to exist, dismissed as the superstitions of an uneducated, irrational past.

Blacker, Carmen. The Catalpa Bow : a Study in Shamanistic Practices in Japan. Richmond: Japan Library, 1999.
Schnell, Scott. “Are Mountain Gods Vindictive? Competing Images of Japanese Alpine Landscape.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. 13, no. 4 (January 1, 2007): 863–880.
Perez, Louis G. The History of Japan. Greenwood Press, 1998.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Sakuracon 2013 - Kaonashi: a ghost without a face

Apologies!  It's been too long since I've posted.  I'm going to motivate myself to post about my research at least twice a month.  I know I've said that before, but here's hoping I stick to it.  ^_^

As usual, I had a blast at Sakuracon 2013.  I really applaud the folks that put on this convention.  I've been going without fail since I moved to the Puget Sound.

I only gave one panel this yearIt's titled, Ghost without a face: exploring Hayao Miyazaki's Kaonashi/No-Face. Kaonashi literally translates as without face.  He is such a fascinating and baffling character I could help but get side-tracked into researching the possible historic/contemporary the influences that inspired his creation.  Here are the notes and slides from my presentation.