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Shinobu Orikuchi: 死者の書 (The Book of the Dead)

The ghost story is a key element of Japanese literature. We can find ghosts in the Tale of Genji and Konjaku Monogatari (Tales of Times Now Past). They are to be found in Ueda Akinari‘s Ugetsu Monogatari, made into a famous film by the great Kenji Mizoguchi. They are still found in modern Japanese literature and, in particular, in manga and anime, as well as in Japanese cinema and drama. On this website, we have Chiya Fujino’s ルート225 [Route 225], Fumiko Enchi’s Masks and Murakami’s 世界の終りとハードボイルド・ワンダーランド (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), though modern writers such as Kobo Abe, Natsume Soseki, Yasunari Kawabata and Kenji Nakagami have all written what we would call ghost stories.

This novel was first published in serial form in 1939 and only issued in book form in 1943. This is in itself surprising, given the date, but particularly surprising as, at least for those familiar with ancient Japanese history, it could be seen as critical of the royal family, something which was not accepted in 1943. Orikuchi was an authority on early Japanese history, literature and religion and this can be seen very much in this novel.

We start with a dead man who is in his tomb. He is in pain, uncomfortable and very much dead. He cannot remember who he is but can remember Mimimo no Toni, the last woman he saw in his life and with whom he fell in love at the moment of his death. He can also remember his sister reciting poetry at his graveside. We later learn that he has been dead for fifty years, that he was connected to the Imperial house and that he was forced to commit suicide. Japanese readers will have recognised his story as that of Prince Otsu, who lived in the seventh century. Orikuchi calls his man Tsuhiko Shiga, perhaps to disguise his royal connections.

While Tsuhiko Shiga is lying in his grave, thinking about Mimimo no Toni, wondering who he is and what he is doing there, we are also following the story of the woman known as the maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan. She is a historical character, Chūjō-hime, daughter of Fujiwara no Toyonari, head of the powerful Fujiwara clan. We first learn of her when we hear the voices of people calling for her soul. She had disappeared from Nara, her home. Women of her station were generally kept under close watch and could not travel on their own. The people were calling for her soul, as it was believed that the soul can go off wandering on its own before the person dies. The maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan is the great-great-niece of Mimimo no Toni.

The maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan had had a strange vision, the vision of a man who looked a bit like a woman and also a bit like a foreigner. The vision appeared over the peak of Mount Futakami, where her family came from (which she did know) and where the dead man was buried (which she did not know). The maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan was a very intelligent woman, so much so that her uncle would later say that she was so intelligent that she broke through the normal confines for women of that period. We know that she had studied the Chinese classics and that the women who taught her could teach her no more. Her father had managed to obtain an extremely rare manuscript of a specific Buddhist sutra (Japan was extensively Buddhist in those times) and she had vowed to make a thousand copies of it, which she did. We follow her struggles in doing so.

However, she has now walked off to the west, towards Mount Futakami, a woman who comes from a rich and powerful family, who has little contact with the world and, indeed, very little contact with men. She enters the temple precincts, which causes the abbots some consternation. Women are not allowed to enter and the monastery will have to be purified. The abbots are well aware who she is and therefore know that they cannot just throw her out so they send to Nara for instructions. Meanwhile, she is given a small precinct where she can stay with her servant. There she prays but she also sees (or, at times, simply feels) the ghost who has come to look for her, presumably because he sees her resemblance to Mimimo no Toni. He keeps rerurning.

By this time, the people at Nara are well aware of the situation, as is her father, who is not in Nara. We follow the political situation in Japan and in Nara specifically at that time. This includes restrictions on construction and architecture and the possible invasion of Silla (in modern-day Korea). Naturally, we also follow at least some of the discussion about the maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara Clan.

Eventually the servants see the ghost as well and are not surprisingly petrified. The ghost even descends to her on a cloud. She sees him, a giant, who appears to be naked and, using the lotus plants around the monastery, vows to make him a giant cloak, even though women of her class would have had no idea how to use a loom. However, as an intelligent woman, she is determined to learn and, eventually, she does.

This is a superb story and one that has enthralled Japanese readers and critics for many years. We get a ghost/love story that could only be Japanese, a lively description of the political situation in Japan in the eighth century, wonderful poetical portraits of the area around Mount Futakami, such as the description of the virgins wearing only azaleas descending from the mountains or the description of the ghost himself as he appears above the mountain, the story of a highly intelligent woman who seems to challenge the conventions of the day, though not in an aggressive or hostile way, and political, religious and philosophical discussions of the issues of the day. Anyone who is even vaguely interested in Japanese literature should definitely read this book. You will not regret it.

I would add that the book includes a long foreword by the translator and, as an afterword, three essays, by the noted Japanese critic Ando Reiji. These give fascinating insights into Orikuchi, his background and his work, as well as into the history, religion and literature of the period and are well worth reading to enhance your enjoyment of the work, thought he work can certainly be appreciated without the background reading.

Publishing history

First published in 1943 by Seijisha
First English translation by The University of Minnesota Press in 2016