A-Yokai-A-Day: Taki Reio

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Who else is excited for season two of Stranger Things coming out today? I know I am!

What does Stranger Things have to do with yokai, you might ask? Well, nothing really, at least on the surface. However, there are some parallels that can be drawn between the world of that show and yokai lore. For example, both the Upside Down and ikai, the world of the yokai, are normally separate, but some people can cross between them at certain times and/or places. Also, the demogorgon may seem to be be evil, but in fact it is just behaving according to its own nature. It’s not evil in the sense that many horror monsters actively seek to destroy humanity. In that way it is like yokai, most of whom are not necessarily evil, but just doing their own natural thing.

But most of all, it’s the fact that they don’t explain (or at least they haven’t yet) the true nature of the strange things happening in the show. It’s presented as is, without the typical backstory that seems required by Hollywood and most TV productions. There is a monster, there is a weird world, and there are some strange things going on, but we’re not given the omniscience treatment; we are left to wonder just as the characters are. In that sense, the show shares something in common with yokai, whose primary draw and power lie in the fact that they are unexplained (and maybe unexplainable).

I’m hoping that in season two they give us more of the good stuff without killing the magic by over-explaining things. Sometimes the best mystery is the one that remains a mystery!

Taki reiō
滝霊王
たきれいおう
“waterfall spirit king”

Sekien’s taki reiō

Taki reiō is an apparition that can be seen in the basins of certain waterfalls found throughout various nations. It is so powerful that all types demons, spirits, and yokai, bow down before it!

Toriyama Sekien’s illustration for taki reiō looks exactly like Fudō Myōō, one of the most important Wisdom Kings in Japanese Buddhism. (Fudō Myōō is the Japanese name for the Buddhist/Hindu deity Acala.) Like most Buddhist gods, he takes on many different forms. For instance, he is said to appear as one of the judges of Hell. so it’s not entirely strange that he might appear as a strange spirit king in certain waterfalls, and certainly not surprising that demons, yokai, and other spirits would bow before him. Further supporting theory this is the fact that Sekien’s entry references Seiryōso (“The Seiryū Commentaries”), an annotated version of the Diamond Suttra from China.

Fudō Myōō appears in a waterfall in this print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi

Murakami Kenji and other yokai scholars have gone so far as to say that taki reiō is not actually a yokai, but just an image of Fudō Myōō himself. Which takes us back to the timeless question: what is and what isn’t a yokai?

This is one of those times when I use “yokai” in its most broad definition. Normally, most Japanese would probably not include Buddhist gods like Fudō Myōō among yokai. However, strange occurrences and phenomena certainly are considered yokai. So what do you call the strange occurrence of a Buddhist god appearing in a waterfall? And what about a yokai who looks exactly like Fudō Myōō? Where do you draw the line? Is yokai such a derogatory word that it can’t be used to refer to holy beings or phenomena? Each person you ask will probably have a different answer.

Incidentally, the connection between Fudō Myōō and waterfalls is not isolated only to this yokai. There are a number of waterfalls in Japan with Fudō Myōō connections. Some of them are thought to be a possible inspiration for this particular yokai, however there isn’t any hard evidence to prove which one in particular inspired Toriyama Sekien to come up with Taki reiō.

Some waterfalls with Fudō Myōō statues include Iwadani waterfall in Ikoma, Nara; Takitanifudō waterfall in Ida, Nara; Nageshi waterfall in Higashiyoshino, Nara; Momo’o waterfall in Tenri, Nara… just to name a few.

Myōō-in, a Buddhist temple in Ōtsu, Shiga has a statue of Fudō Myōō which was allegedly made by the the high priest Sōō who lived from 831 to 918 CE. He is said to have carved it from a holy tree taken from the basin of a nearby waterfall. According to Mizuki Shigeru, the legend of this Fudō Myōō statue may also have been the inspiration for Toriyama Sekien’s taki reiō.

It seems likely that we’ll never know what Sekien had in mind with this yokai; why he made it; if it was inspired by any real-world stories; what makes it different from Fudō Myōō… But that’s just part of its mystery and what makes it special!

Taki reio, to be painted in the coming months

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