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The Demon at Agi Bridge

The telling is in the writing. This is evident on every page of The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a collection of early and medieval Japanese “spoken stories” known as setsuwa. The anonymous chroniclers of these tales not only succeed as The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles W. Chesnutt did in preserving narrative, but (thanks to translator Burton Watson) in capturing their entertainment value.

The telling is in the writing. This is evident on every page of The Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales, a collection of early and medieval Japanese “spoken stories” known as setsuwa. The anonymous chroniclers of these tales not only succeed as The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and Charles W. Chesnutt did in preserving narrative, but (thanks to translator Burton Watson) in capturing their entertainment value.

Editor Haruo Shirane selected 38 examples from thousands of surviving setsuwa. As he states in his Introduction and notes accompanying each story, Demon at Agi Bridge is for either classroom or personal use. While volumes containing “Introduction” and “classroom” are not usually associated with pleasure reading, in this instance they both add to appreciating the text. Those seduced by The Tale of Genji, gasped at the twists and turns in Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s short stories (the most famous being Rashomon), or acquainted with Murakami’s vanishing ladies will recognize that these early narrative gems are the foundation of Japanese literature. For those who are not, Demon at Agi Bridge and Other Japanese Tales are—to use an old-fashioned western phrase—ripping good yarns.

Setsuwa encompass rich and poor, royalty and commoner, human and animal, living and dead. They offer practical advice for living a meaningful life under the Buddhist principles of karma (cause and effect) or reincarnation (rebirth in another body). These unknown setsuwa authors took great care in describing physical detail and behavior. They were also exceptionally good at creating an atmosphere and building suspense. Hence, the basics retained from setsuwa’s oral beginnings are never dull.

This imaginative moralizing is best seen in the ghost stories. Within them both sexes are examined with equal zeal. In “On Receiving the Immediate Penalty of an Evil Death for Collecting Debts in an Unreasonable Manner and with High Interest” (yes, the titles are succinct and dryly humorous), a rich woman pays for a lifetime of greed:

On the evening of the seventh day, she came back to life, the lid of her coffin opening of its own accord. Peering into the coffin, the observers were confronted by an unbearable stench. From the waist up, she had already turned into an ox, with horns four inches long growing out of her forehead. Her arms had become the forefeet of an ox; the nails on her hands had split and turned into an ox’s hooves. From the waist down, she remained in human form. She had no use for rice and fed on grass, and after she chewed her cud. She was naked and without clothes and lay in her filth.

Then, it is apparent to all that an arrogant youth taunting of a supernatural being will end badly in the book’s title story, which goes by the full name “How the Demon at Agi Bridge in ?mi Provence Ate Somebody”:

As the man turned to look back, he could see the demon’s face, vermillion in color and round like a sitting mat, and its single eye. It had three hands, with claws like knives five inches long. Its body was bluish-green in color, and its eye was amber. Its hair was in a tangle, like a bramble bush, and just looking as it turned one’s heart cold, an unspeakable horror. But because he kept praying to Kannon (“the Lord who regards all”) as he raced along, the young man was able to reach safety in a place where other humans were about. At that time, the demon said, “Very well – but sometime we’ll meet again!” and with that vanished from sight.

Many of the stories in this collection end with the phrase, “This, then, is how the story has been handed down” or some similar declaration of authenticity. Fortunately, non-Japanese readers are now able to read and discover setsuwa for themselves.

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