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A few new stretch goals were unlocked for the Kickstarter today. First, the slipcase for the hardcover collector’s edition—a popular request—has been unlocked. Secondly, as we have reached 1200% funding, the book will now be printed via offset printing instead of digital print-on-demand. After the Kickstarter, remaining offset copies will be sold until they are all gone, after which subsequent books will be produced via print-on-demand (as they are currently produced).

Now, on to today’s yokai!

“staring contest”

Toriyama Sekien’s mekurabe

Mekurabe is found in the same book that many of this month’s yokai come from: Toriyama Sekien’s Konjaku hyakki shūi. In his book, Sekien draws a lot upon history to either invent new yokai or to catalog yokai from famous stories. Many of these come from ancient China, as we’ve seen, as Chinese classics were a big part of Japanese literature. Others, like mekurabe, come from Japanese literature. Mekurabe was not made up by Sekien, although it was named by him. It first appeared in Heike monogatari—an epic poem which chronicles the long conflict between the Heike (aka the Taira clan) and Genji (aka the Minamoto clan). Remember those names! They come up a lot in Japanese folklore!

Mekurabe comes from a story in which Taira no Kiyomori (there’s one of those names!) encounters the creature in his garden. Kiyomori steps out into his garden and is shocked to see it is full of skulls. What’s more, the skulls are rolling about, left and right and all around, tumbling over each other. There are too many to count. Kiyomori shouted for help, but nobody heard him.

Just then, the countless began to gather together in the middle of the garden, clumping together, rolling up each other, and forming one giant mass. The skulls grouped together to create a single enormous skull, close to 45 meters in size!

The giant mass of skulls glared at Kiyomori out of its countless eye sockets.

Kiyomori took a breath, and recovered his bravery. He then glared back at the skulls.

Some time passed. Finally, the mass of skulls crumbled apart, melting like a snowflake in the sun, and vanished leaving no trace behind.

one of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi’s versions

So Taira no Kiyomori was pretty much a badass. Of course, he went on to establish the samurai-dominated government, which eventually became the shogunate, so (spoiler alert) we all knew he was going to win. I think my favorite part of this yokai is it’s name, which Toriyama Sekien chose masterfully!

Incidentally, the idea of things clumping together to form bigger things (as these skulls did) is not unheard of elsewhere in Japanese folklore. The first one that comes to mind is another yokai, gashadokuro, who not only is made from things clumping together, those things also happen to be skeletons, just like mekurabe. I wonder if they’re cousins? Another famous example is pebbles which are said to grow together and form into boulders over time. One such boulder is in Kyoto’s Shimogamo shrine. These rocks are even referenced in Japan’s national anthem.

And of course, if you’re about my age, you’ll surely remember the Constructicons, which kind of work the same way. When I was a kid I loved them! It always amazed me that someone would have come up with the bizarre idea of robots clumping together to form an even bigger robot. Of course this isn’t just the transformers, but all kinds of Japanese tokusatsu and sci fi movies and tv shows. Looking back at these now, through the lens of folklore, it makes a lot more sense!

My sketch of mekurabe, to be painted later, as part of the Kickstarter project