Continuing with Oni Week, today’s yokai is the most famous woman oni in Japan. She has been mentioned briefly on the blog before, in my entry for Onibaba, but as she is just such a quintessential Halloween monster I felt she deserved a revisit. She could be considered a type of yamauba, or else a kijo (a woman oni). She is, by far, the most famous woman oni of all time, and a very popular subject of old art as well, from paintings to ukiyoe prints to noh plays.
(Yesterday’s and today’s yokai are illustrations I originally had planned for Night Parade, but ended up not being able to fit them in. Wait for the sequel!)
This demon goes by many names. Kurozuka, or the witch of “the black mounds,” is one of her more famous ones, but she is also commonly called the oni of Adachigahara, or even just simply Onibaba, “the demon hag.” The first two names come from where she lived, in an area called Kurozuka, near Adachi, in Fukushima. The name Onibaba can be a bit confusing, as it can refer specifically to this particular demon woman, or to any of the many demon women in Japanese folklore. That’s why when talking about this one, It’s better to mention Kurozuka or Adachigahara just to keep the story straight.
The story has changed over the years and through various adaptations. Here’s a paraphrase from the entry that I wrote about demon women two years ago:
Perhaps the most famous onibaba story is the tale of the demon of Adachigahara. In this story, a wealthy couple has a child who, for the entire 5 years of her life, has never spoken a single word. The couple consults a doctor, who tells them that the only way to cure their daughter is by feeding her the fresh liver of an unborn fetus.
They call their daughter’s nanny and put the task of retrieving the liver onto her shoulders. Rightfully expecting that it will take some time to find a willing baby liver donor, the nanny gives her own daughter a protection charm, kisses her goodbye, and leaves on her long journey.
The nanny travels for days, months, and even years without finding anyone willing to give up their baby. Eventually, her travels take her to the moors of Adachigahara. Here she finds a cave and decides to hole up and wait for a pregnant woman to pass by on the road. It takes many more years, but eventually a lone pregnant woman does pass, and the nanny leaps out of the cave and slays her, taking the fresh liver from her womb. It is only after the deed is done that the nanny notices the young woman is wearing the very same protection charm that she had given her daughter so many years ago!
The knowledge of what she had done weighed so heavy on her that the nanny went insane and transformed into a yokai. And she remained there, on the moors of Adachigahara, for many many years, catching and eating travelers who would pass by.
That’s the version of the story I’m most familiar with. There is also an old black and white film called Onibaba (which is great if you’re into older cinema!) which, despite the name, has very little to do with this Onibaba. In this film the demon woman is created in a matter similar to yesterday’s yokai, Shuten-dōji, by putting on a demon mask and trying to scare a traveler, and then the mask bonds to her face and causes her to turn into the demon she was posing as. Quite different from this one, as you can see.
In the noh play Kurozuka, she is eventually visited by Buddhist priests, whom she tries to kill. While she is out gathering firewood, the priests find her room full of dead bodies and bones and they recognize her as the demon she is. She goes after them, but (in a common noh-style deus ex machina), they are able to hold her back with their Buddhist prayers, and drive the evil spirit from her, banishing it forever.
Do you like Japanese ghosts and demons? Are you a fan of strange Japanese horror? Then get my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons from Amazon.com today!