Translated from Japanese by Jeffrey Angles

 

First published in 1939 and extensively revised in 1943, The Book of the Dead, loosely inspired by the tale of Isis and Osiris from ancient Egypt, is a sweeping historical romance that tells a gothic tale of love between a noblewoman and a ghost in eighth century Japan. Its author, Orikuchi Shinobu, was a well-received novelist, distinguished poet, and an esteemed scholar. He is often considered one of the fathers of Japanese folklore studies, and The Book of the Dead is without a doubt the most important novel of Orikuchi’s career and it is a book like no other.

For the first time, the University of Minnesota Press will publish the complete English translation of Orikuchi’s masterwork, whose vast influence is evidenced by multiple critical studies dedicated to it and by its many adaptations, which include an animated film and a popular manga. The Book of the Dead focuses on the power of faith and religious devotion, and can be read as a parable illustrating the suffering an artist must experience to create great art. A great deal lies hidden beneath the surface of the story; the entire text is a modernist mystery waiting to be decoded.

 

1

Quietly, gradually, the man felt sleep depart. He felt his eyes begin to open in the pitch-black night, in the midst of so much stagnation and cold pressure.

A barely audible sound – shhhh – followed by something that sounded like punctuation – ta. Shhta shhta shhta. What were these quiet sounds that reached his ears? The sound of dripping water? His upper and lower lashes began to separate of their own accord in the congealed darkness frozen around him.

Gradually, his knees, his elbows recovered their feeling, return­ing to his buried sensibilities. Something reverberated in the man’s head . . . A minute reverberation rippled through the tightened muscles of his body, and he began to cramp, all the way from the palms of his hands to the bottoms of his feet.

And then, even deeper darkness. With his eyelids now slightly parted, his pupils shifted to take in his surroundings. The first thing he became conscious of was the black boulder that formed a ceiling over him. Next, the icy stone bed beneath him. Then, the roughly hewn stone walls on both sides. And the sound of dripping, reverberating off the stone – shhta shhta.

Time went by . . . For the first time, he became aware of how deeply he had slept. He had slumbered for a long time. Still, he felt as if the visions that had presented themselves to him one after another were nothing but shallow dreams. He felt as if he had been dozing and the thoughts that had been floating into his head were now joining with reality and seeping into his eyes.

——Ahhhh, Mimimo no Toji.

Resurrected from somewhere within, these words reverberated through his memories with an even greater insistency than the other thoughts.

——Ahhhh, Mimimo no Toji. Still . . . I’m still thinking of you. It couldn’t have been yesterday I came here and fell into my deep slumber. Surely, it wasn’t the day before that either, nor the day before that. No, I’ve been asleep for a long, long time. But even so, I’ve been thinking of you the whole time, Mimimo no Toji, thinking of you since even before I came here . . . I was thinking of you even as I lay to sleep . . . And now that I’ve awakened once again, you’re the only thought that fills my mind.

He acted on habit – on the way he had lived on earth and the ways people had behaved since the time of the ancestors. He made a sud­den effort to raise himself, but he experienced a pain so severe it was as if his muscles were tearing. The pain was so intense that the joints between his bones seemed to be shattering. So he lay there silent and still . . . Ebony darkness. He lay there solemnly, making no effort, hands outstretched, as if his body were a streak of pure white incised into the gigantic, jet-black stone.

Memories of Mimimo no Toji. Deeply congealed memories of her and nothing else. Gradually, his thoughts began to spread out, extended short strings of association until they began to connect with things he had seen in days gone by. And then a bright sense of purpose rose up once again within his death-withered body.

——Mimimo no Toji. I only ever laid eyes upon you once, just one single time. Still, I’d heard of you for many months, many years. Come closer, Mimimo no Toji.

Something rose up from behind his memories – a sort of self-reflection.

——I . . . Where am I? And where is this place? . . . But more impor­tantly, who am I? I’ve completely forgotten who I am.

——But wait. I vaguely recall something. It was back then . . . the call of a wild duck, I think . . . That’s right. I was pulled out of the Osada residence and taken to Iware Pond. There were lots of people standing on the banks of the pond. Their heads were sticking out all over, watch­ing me from the tall grasses and the thicket. I seem to remember them calling out in loud voices. They were taking pity on me – they were in tears, wailing, all of them.1

——Even so, my heart was clear. As clear as the water of the pond. It was autumn. I remember. I remember hearing the call of a wild duck floating on the surface of the water. But now that I think of it – wait a moment. I seem to remember her grief-stricken voice in particular. I fell in love with her at first glance. Oh yes, it was you, Mimimo no Toji. And at that moment, it was like my heart and my flesh were quickly bound up, but I made it through. And then a feeling came over me, like I’d ventured out into the wide, wide world, so big and comfortable. I felt that for just a moment, then that was all . . . I could no longer see the sky, the ground, or the colors of the trees and flowers. Everything vanished – I . . . I didn’t know who or what I was. I belonged to a world that was completely unfathomable.

——It was then, at that very moment, that I forgot who and what I am.

His ankles, his kneecaps, his hip joints, his hairline, his temples, the hollow at the bottom of the back of his neck – all of these began to shift as he raised his skull. His knees, which happened to be stiff, began to buckle, as if that movement were the most natural thing in the world. But still, there was the same constant darkness, just like before.

——That must be it. The noble miko from the province of Ise – my noble elder sister.2 She must have come to call me back to life.

——Noble sister, here I am! . . . But wait, you serve the great gods. You mustn’t touch my body. I’m not far, just over here. Here is where I lie, silent and still. Ah, yes, I’m dead. I died. I was killed . . . I had for­gotten until just now. That explains everything. This place – this is my tomb.

——I can’t take this. Open the door please. Come down the road! Come to my tomb and fling the doors open . . . Please! Please, won’t you come? My foolish sister.

——But wait . . . Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s no one there at all. But maybe that’s just as well. If I were exposed to sunlight, my body would crumble apart in front of everyone’s eyes. Still, something is amiss. All of that happened so long ago. The sound of something being wrenched open – that also was so long ago. It sounded like my noble sis­ter was just speaking and knocking on the door of my tomb just minutes ago, but that was an illusion. That must have happened long ago, too.

——That must have all happened soon after I came here. I was still partially aware, at least. It was the tenth month, so the wild ducks were calling out.3 That was when I lost all consciousness of the world; my head hung, wrenched off to the side like one of the ducks with its neck broken. And then – I seem to remember hearing my sister wailing at the doors to my tomb and reciting a poem – ‘The ashibi growing over the rough stones.’ I realized winter had gone by and spring was coming. By then, my corpse must have already started to rot away. The poem con­tinued. The flowers ‘have fallen . . . But I cannot say that you, the one I should see, are really there.’ When I heard her say this, I realized I must really be dead . . . I felt around with my hand just like I’m doing now, and I found to my surprise that underneath my kimono, my body had grown flat, like a dried-up slab of meat.

He began to move his arm. One hand searched in the pitch-black emptiness. Then, with the other, he scratched searchingly at the slab of rock over him.

 

——I am one of this world
But from tomorrow onward
I will be thinking
Of Mt. Futakami
As my brother4

——I heard someone recite this funerary verse. My sister also recited her own variant of this poem. That’s how I came to know that my tomb is on the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami.

——She was a fine person. After hearing her recite her poem, I once again lost awareness.

——How long has it been? A terribly long time, I imagine. When my noble sister, the miko of Ise, visited, I felt like I was waking from a dream during a short nap. Now I feel like I’ve awoken from a long slumber. I hear those sounds. Sounds from long ago . . .

——I feel as if I can take them in my hands. I feel as if I can see them with my eyes. I need to quiet my heart . . . Calm down. If I don’t, my thoughts will scatter again. I can remember things from long ago with such vividness . . . But wait, I still don’t know who I am. I’m lying here, but who am I? Whose child am I? Whose husband am I? I’ve completely forgotten who I am.

He shifted his shoulders and the base of his neck. Using the top of his chest, hips, and knees, he tried to feel around him. As he did so, he let out a deep sigh like that of a real, living being.

——This is terrible. My clothing has completely rotted away. My hakama has turned to dust and scattered. What should I do? I’ve been lying here without anything on at all.

It seemed that blood, or something like it, was rushing through his body, making the muscles feel as if they were tightening. Supporting himself with his forearms, he lifted the top half of his body into the darkness.

——Oh, it’s so cold! What should I do? Tell me, oh noble mother. If I’ve done something wrong, then I apologize. Please give me some­thing to wear. A robe . . . My body will freeze here on the cold stone.

These were the words he tried to say, but they quickly faded away without ever really forming a proper voice. He continued for a long while to mouth his words silently.

——Please, Mother. I’ve lost my clothing. I might as well be a new­born baby without a stitch of clothing. I’m a baby. But how is anyone to know I’m here, crawling around on this bed of rock? If I bang my hands and feet on the stone like this, can anyone tell I’m here?

As his voice let out a whine, his corpse legs thrashed about. He floundered like a baby throwing a fit. He repeated the movements over and over again. There was no light penetrating the tomb, but as time passed, something like a thin membrane of ice crept in, making it pos­sible to sense the vaguest hints of the shapes of things. A pale glow, reminiscent of moonlight, had penetrated the tomb.

——What should I do? What should I do? Even my big sword has grown so rusty.

 

2

 

The moon was shining just like before. The mountains were tall, so the moonlight illuminated relatively few things directly. Instead, the light simply struck the mountains and fell into the sparkling valleys in be­tween. What light remained rebounded toward the heavens, reflecting vividly into the remaining nooks and crannies.

Nearby were the peaks of Sawayama. The peaks, which looked so dark, wove in and out of one another and grew tangled as they undu­lated into the distance. They were only half visible because of the slight fog that had settled as night fell. The fog also gave the cheerful moonlit night a sense of warmth.

Beyond the gathered foothills was a riverbed that sparkled with white sand. The Ishi River extended into the distance like a great, sparkling sash. To the north and south of that stretched a long streak of light, and at the northern extremity one could see it grow suddenly wider – that was probably where the village of Ōshikōchi lay. There, the Katashio River – now known as the Yamato River – emerged from between the mountains and cascaded downward. Northwest of that was a string of several flat surfaces that reflected the light – most likely the surfaces of the Kusakae, Nagase and Naniwa Inlets from the bay.

The night was quiet. As the hour for the cock’s crow approached, the mountain grew quiet and seemed to dampen everything with a coat of dew. Little spots of light appeared throughout the valley like light catch­ing on snow flurries. Some of the small cherry trees that were so plenti­ful in the Yamada valley were still putting out late blossoms.

A single road ran straight ahead. It suddenly descended from be­tween the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami – the Male Peak and the Female Peak. This old road ran from Naniwa to the former capital of Asuka, and, depending on the day of the week, there might be a lot of foot traf­fic during the day. The road was white and broad, so at night it looked like a stretch of pale grass meandering over the mountain. This was the Tagima Road. It ambled downward for a while, descended sharply, and then began to slacken and flatten out somewhat. There, one could see a forest of evergreens with pointed branches that stood uniformly in the same formation they had held for half a century. The moonlight and the faint shade of the trees fell upon a round burial mound along­side the forested incline. The moon shone on unblinking, whereas the mountains closed their eyelids deeply.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

Perhaps a voice was speaking, but it was so faint that even ears used to extreme silence would have had trouble picking it out. For that rea­son, the quiet echoes did not seem at all unusual or out of place.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

Voices. Definitely human. The nighttime chirping of a bird sum­moned another, distinctly different echo. Then all sounds stopped for a moment. The silence grew deeper than before, restoring a clarity that swelled to the fullest. The mountains crested over and over again as they stretched onward to the south – those were the Katsuragi Peaks. The mountains – Fushigoe, Kushira, Kogose – grew higher and higher until it seemed they would pierce the heavens themselves. There was where the twin peaks of Mt. Futakami stood, jet black, bearing down heavily upon the burial mound partway up its slopes.

What had at first appeared to be shadows had taken on a clear out­line and were approaching along the Tagima Road. Two, three, five . . . then eight, nine. The outlines of nine people. Together, they rushed down the steep incline toward Kawachi.

They were more like nine Shintō gods than nine ordinary people. They wore white robes and cloths wrapped around their heads, and their hands and feet were covered in traveling garb. In their hands they held walking sticks that stuck out above their heads. When they reached the spot where the ground leveled out temporarily, they stood for a moment before the forest.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

The words did not come from any one person’s mouth in particu­lar. The words broke the silence for only a moment, then nothing more. Startled at what they thought was the soul of the mountain echoing around them, the travelers all raised their voices. Immediately, however, the momentary burst of noise faded, plunging the landscape once again into its original silence.

——This way . . . This way . . . Please come . . . We call to you, the soul of the maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan.5

——You shouldn’t be lost in the depths of these mountains. Quickly, return to your body. This way . . . This way . . .

——We who have wandered these mountains over and over again have come in search of your soul. This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

The nine travelers with their walking sticks were like gods in their hearts. They placed their walking sticks in the ground and undid their headdresses, which were merely strips of snow-white cloth. The men undid them, extended them to their full length, and then turned to­gether to face the burial mound.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

As they repeated their movements, they felt a natural sense of gloominess and fatigue come over their exhausted bodies, and their fear­less, godlike hearts reverted to those of ordinary people. They continued to gaze at the burial mound; they wound the white cloth around their heads once again. The travelers stood there, walking sticks in hand.

——Everyone, this is all the farther our silent work can take us.

The eight other voices responded with an ‘oh.’ As if they had been trained to do so, they all quickly sat down and relaxed upon the grass, placing their walking sticks to the side.

——This is the boundary between Yamato and Kawachi, and we’ve just completed the ceremony to call back her soul. By now, the soul of the noble maiden must’ve returned to her body where it lies in the her­mitage. She’s probably just fine.

——But what is this place?

——Don’t you know? This is the great pass that serves as the bound­ary between the provinces of Yamato and Kawachi. It’s the pass on the Tagima Road, which crosses Mt. Futakami.

Another elder picked up the explanation and continued.

——Until four or five decades ago, this place was simply known as ‘the Gate’, and there were no markers anywhere to identify it. This tomb is the resting place of someone who frequented the emperor’s Shiga palace in the province of Ōmi. He lived in the royal residence of Osada in Shiki in the province of Yamato. There was an order that his body be interred in an embankment above the pond, but he had com­mitted a crime and was given only a temporary burial. Believing his vengeful spirit might bring about a natural disaster, people heeded the ancient story of the god Amewakahiko, transported his body here, and reburied him in this mound.6

One of the voices from before picked up the story. The man was even hoarser than the previous speaker.

——This is what was said at the time. He had committed a crime – he, a child of the imperial family. There was a decree that his body should stay here, keeping his spirit lying in wait and blocking the pass to prevent others who possessed hearts as wild as his – perhaps even wilder – from crossing over the pass into Yamato.

——We were really in our prime in those days. That was more than fifty years ago.

Another of the men chimed in, wanting to tell his own story.

——That’s right. Back then, I used to construct tombs. Later, I was conscripted to fix this road, so I know all about this gravesite. Back then, all these evergreens were just tiny saplings, but now they’ve grown into a big forest. What a terrifying place this was! One time, the spirit from this tomb possessed one poor fellow – a stone-transporter who had come from Asukabe in Kawachi.

By this point, the nine men had returned to an ordinary state of mind befitting their station as ordinary folk in the regular world. They had already forgotten how lonely it was to sit on top of the mountain and talk of things long gone. The late hour lubricated their memories, so the thoughts flowed back quickly.

——Come on, that’s enough. Let’s go back.

——Sure, sure.

Everyone undid the cloths wrapped around their heads and set aside their walking sticks, thus transforming themselves into ordinary pilgrims dressed in white clothing.

——You must surely know this, but this burial mound has a pro­found history that deserves our attention. Shall we try once more to summon her spirit?

The pilgrims followed the old man’s suggestion and once again began the spirit-summoning ceremony.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

——Ohhhhhhh . . .

Startled by the strange groan, every last one of the pilgrims doubted his ears for a moment; then fear began to descend over their hearts. They tried again.

——This way . . . This way . . . This way . . .

This time, a voice emerged clearly from deep inside the tomb – a voice of solid ice that had only just now regained its breath.

——Ohhhhhhh . . .

Different thoughts rushed through the minds of each of the nine men. They scattered in different directions like white clouds torn to bits upon the mountain peaks. They rushed off toward the Yamada valley, toward the Takenouchi valley, to the Osaka Pass, and back down the Tagima Road.

Only a single voice now remained, reverberating over the creases of the mountains and the valleys below:

——Ohhhhhhh . . .

 

 

 

Translator’s notes


1 In chapter 5, Orikuchi gives the name Shiga Tsuhiko to the character who is waking up and returning to life, but beginning here in chapter 1, he drops numerous, undeniable hints that his character is modeled upon the seventh-century short-lived prince Ōtsu (663–686), one of the sons of the emperor Tenmu.

2 Prince Ōtsu’s sister was Princess Ōku (661-701), and in the year 674, she became the first generation of imperial miko to serve at the Ise Shrine, the most important shrine in the Shinto religion.

3 Until the Gregorian calendar was implemented, in 1873, Japan used the lunar calendar, so the tenth month did not necessarily overlap with the modern month of October.

4 The poem is unmistakably similar to one that appears in the Man’yōshū (Collection of Ten Thousand Leaves), also by Prince Ōtsu’s sister Princess Ōku. She composed the following poem at the time Prince Ōtsu’s body was transferred to Mt. Futakami in the Katsuragi Range to be entombed: ‘I, who belong / To the mortal race of man— / From tomorrow / Shall I look on Futakami, / A mountain, as my brother?’ (Utsusomi no hito naru ware ya, asu yori wa futakamisan o iroso to ware mimu). Translation from Edwin A. Cranston, trans., A Waka Anthology, vol. 1, The Gem-Glistening Cup (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 184.

Here and elsewhere in the text, Orikuchi prefers to use the old pronunciations of place names. for instance, Mt. Futakami is more commonly known in modern Japan at Mt. Nijō (although the kanji used to write Futakami and Nijō are the same). The nearby village of Tagima is know today as Taima; the nearby temple of Manhōzō-in is now called Manpōzō-in; Shujaku Boulevard is now Sujaku Boulevard, and so on. In using these older readings, Orikuchi, a specialist in ancient Japanese history and folklore, worked to transport his readers into the ancient past and to show a stratum of history that lies beneath contemporary knowledge. Because Orikuchi was so careful in using the older version of proper names, I have preserved the old names in the translation.

5 In ancient Japan, there was a belief that the souls of people could leave their bodies and wander even while a person was still alive. This might happen at times of trouble, psychological stress, and so on. If a soul could not find its way back to the host’s body, then it could cause prolonged illness or other abnormal psychological effects. As Ando Reiji explains in the commentary translated in this book, the first few chapters of the novel do not unfold chronologically; instead, they jump back and forth in time. As we find out in subsequent chapters, the maiden from the Southern Branch of the Fujiwara clan is doing penance in the small heritage nearby. Much later, in chapter 15, we learn that her odd, distracted behavior on the night of her arrival at the temple inspired a local storyteller to send other locals into the mountains to try and call back her wandering soul. In other words, the rites, which are fully accounted for and described for the first time only in chapter 15, are depicted in chapter 2, but they appear to be the acts that resuscitate the dead prince in chapter 1.

6 This is the first of a number of times in the novel that the executed prince entombed on top of Mt. Futakami is compared to the rebellious god Amewakahiko from the ancient legends of Japan.

 

 

 

 

Excerpt from The Book of the Dead by Orikuchi Shinobu, translated by Jeffrey Angles. Reprinted by permission of the University of Minnesota Press. English translation copyright 2016 by Kodansha Ltd. www.upress.umn.edu

Photograph © Sai Mr.

Matt Dillon
The Colonel’s New Life