Rhetorics of Subversion in Medieval Japanese Popular Prose: Grotesque, Carnivalesque, and Ambivalent Laughter in Morokado monogatari – By Raechel Lynn Dumas

Morokado monogatari もろかど物語 (The Tale of Morokado) belongs to the bukemono 武家物 (warrior tale) subset of otogizōshi 御伽草子 (companion tales), an anachronistically constructed Japanese literary genre encompassing nearly four hundred prose narratives produced during or around the Muromachi period (1337-1573). As Chieko Irie Mulhern’s discussion of the genre illustrates, conventional perspectives on otogizōshi regard tales derivative of this largely oral tradition as unsophisticated works displaying frivolous recreational value and unequivocal didacticism: “Otogizōshi in today’s practical usage, at any rate, refers to those small books (sōshi) of popular literature which were written for the explicit purpose of entertainment and moral edification.”[1] In a more recent study of the genre, Konishi Mizue echoes this sentiment, writing that

while otogizōshi laughingly related absurd tales to delight readers, we must not forget that that there were also those works which served the purpose of reiterating and rendering intelligible—for women and children in particular—narratives intended for the education of the masses.[2]

Although claims to this effect may indeed be sufficient to characterize certain works belonging to the genre, within the rich interdiscursive tradition in which medieval Japanese storytellers and audiences participated one may also locate narratives that deploy those very qualities that have gained otogizōshi its “unliterary” reputation as a means of reconsidering the dominant literary and social dialogues that pervaded medieval Japan. As Morokado monogatari demonstrates, the vernacularism, didacticism, and privileging of the physical world over the realms of poetic and philosophical abstraction that are characteristic of works of this genre embody the potential to engage multi-dimensionally with prevalent cultural discourses and literary conventions. Such texts therefore invite us to reassess the narrow definitions within which otogizōshi have historically been circumscribed.

Although Morokado monogatari lends itself to any number of readings, one particularly striking characteristic of the work is its heavy deployment of grotesque—and often humorous— corporeality as a mode of articulating “unofficial” perspectives on both historical and contemporaneous literary, social, and religious discourses within pre-modern Japan. As such, the work of Mikhail Bakhtin provides an especially fruitful starting point from which to analyze the text. Bakhtin conceptualizes grotesque realism as a mode of biological and social exchange that effectuates “the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, [and] abstract” to the level of corporeal materiality, thereby inducing a carnivalesque overturning of social customs and hierarchies.[3] I would like to suggest than an examination of Morokado monogatari as a work reflective of a Bakhtinian figuring of the grotesque embodies the potential to illuminate the implications of this and other works of the genre beyond their perceived function as rudimentary pedagogical texts.

Axiomatic to Bakhtin’s conceptualization of the grotesque is the concept of ambivalent laughter, whose object is the serio-comic word whose purpose is “to provide the corrective of laughter and criticism to all existing straightforward genres, languages, styles, voices; to force men to experience beneath these categories a difference and contradictory reality that is otherwise not captured in them.”[4] This ambivalence, I suggest, is crucial to Morokado monogatari, in which the denigration of categorical abstractions to the plane of materiality serves at once to affirm the legitimacy of “official” discourses while simultaneously denying their preeminence by articulating the ideological dynamism and linguistic ingenuity of the common people. This essay examines Morokado monogatari in terms of its effectuation of ambivalent laughter through grotesque embodiment and carnivalesque inversion by examining such attributes as character development, narrative technique, plot devices, and the deployment of conventional Japanese literary images and themes. In doing so, it attempts to expand our understanding of how Morokado monogatari—and, by extension, other works of the genre—might be said to both engage critically with Japan’s long literary history and proffer alternative conceptualizations of Japan’s past, present, and future social relations beyond the limitations of medieval Japanese vernacular fiction as it has historically been defined.

The deployment of Bakhtinian theory in discussions of medieval Japanese prose is far from unprecedented. In fact, as Michelle Osterfield Li has convincingly argued, the carnivalesque realm which for Bakhtin is epitomized in the work of Rabelais has been imagined—albeit imperfectly—in a wealth of setsuwa 説話 tales (a genre comprised of mythical, folkloric, and didactic narratives). In these tales, grotesquerie frequently functions as a mode of effectuating a “temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order.”[5],[6] What is striking about Morokado monogatari, however, is its reflection of an impressively diverse spectrum of attributes characteristic of Bakhtin’s grotesque.

According to Bakhtin, the reversal of cultural norms within literature is enacted via two primary modes: grotesque realism and the carnivalesque. The latter of these concepts refers to the broader process by which normative assumptions—both cultural and literary—are undermined via the abolition of categories and hierarchies and the celebration of language considered to be obscene, nonsensical, and/or expressive of the linguistic creativity of the common people. The former represents the mode by which the latter is achieved, and according to Bakhtin is constructed through the use of parody and irony, the suspension of normal rules of behavior, the misuse of common objects, bodily imagery (and specifically dismemberment, mutilation, and the lower bodily stratum), the exaggeration of numbers, the use of disguises and riddles, the positioning of women as destructive of men or as foils, a focus on commoners, depictions of food/wine/banquets, and degradation—all of which are prominently featured in this tale.[7]

On its surface, Morokado monogatari represents a rather conventional tragedy detailing the separation of two lovers, their arduous road to reunion, and the exacting of revenge. The aristocratic protagonist Morokado loses his wife Jōruri Gozen to the lecherous and cunning Nijō Middle Captain. After a failed attempt at storming his nemesis’ castle, Morokado enters into a life of religious reclusion during which he constructs a public bathhouse designed for the physical and spiritual purification of its visitors. Jōruri Gozen, having warded off the Middle Captain’s sexual advances by entering into a lengthy period of spiritual devotion in order to be cured of a feigned illness, visits the bathhouse, whereupon she discovers that her husband, whom she had previously thought dead, remains among the living. When word of Morokado’s survival spreads, the Middle Captain’s soldiers arrive at the bathhouse intent upon beheading him; however, he is rescued through an act of divine intervention when a Buddha statue exchanges places with him, sacrificing its own head in place of that of Morokado. Morokado collects the statue’s two pieces and embarks upon a journey to a series of religious sites, at each one leaving behind a stupa engraved with clues concerning his whereabouts. Jōruri Gozen, aided by her maidservant Renzei, escapes the Middle Captain’s clutches, and the two women follow in Morokado’s footsteps, relying on these clues to direct them toward their next destination. The women’s journey ends when they arrive at an ascetics’ inn and discover that Morokado had died some days earlier. Hearing their sorrowful laments, a group of neighboring ascetics (who later reveal themselves to be deistic figures in disguise) revives Morokado from death, and our hero’s desire for revenge is subsequently realized as he is granted imperial protection and, alongside his newly conscripted army, successfully crushes the Middle Captain.

Beneath the conventional storyline and more-or-less stock personalities—that is, the quintessentially noble, the unapologetically evil, the impossibly virtuous, and the fiercely loyal—that grace the pages of Morokado monogatari lies a considerably more nuanced layer of engagement with both these archetypal literary figures and, more broadly, the cultural framework within which these characters are embedded. More pointedly, those figures in Morokado monogatari who initially strike the reader as categorically “good” and “evil” personae are subject to grotesque embodiment and carnivalesque inversion to produce a comic effect. These denigrations in turn serve to call into question the authority of the longstanding literary conventions and socially constructed roles in which these characters are embedded.

Morokado himself is a shining example of the text’s deployment of corporeality. From the early pages of the narrative through its conclusion, our hero is time and again explicitly rendered in terms of the carnivalesque-grotesque. An early description of Morokado upon his reaching the age of nineteen reads, “he possessed the virtue and capabilities of seven hundred men. His bow required the strength of five men, and the length of his sword was fifteen palm-breadths.”[8] Although the exaggeration of numbers deployed here is not entirely out of the ordinary—many works of medieval Japan similarly emphasize the attributes of their heroes in hyperbolic terms—this portrayal of Morokado heralds a far more fantastical construction of our protagonist later in the text. For instance, while Morokado’s men attempt to gain access to the Middle Captain’s mansion in Takanokura—and, subsequently, are killed in battle—Morokado himself participates in a number of increasingly preposterous feats of strength. After leaping over a moat of “nine arm-breadths” in width, Morokado, armed with his unusually lengthy sword, engages in a near-endless battle with enemy warriors until, finally, his weapon breaks. When Morokado finds himself disarmed but unwilling to abandon the fight, the following scene ensues:

He ran underneath the tower, pulled hard upon the tallest pillar, held it at his side, ran into the throng, and when he confronted them they knew not what was transpiring. Just as the autumn wind scatters the tree leaves, in a flash he sent them flying in all four directions.[9]

The scene described above features not only another instance of the gross exaggeration of Morokado’s strength, but also a number of other characteristics of the grotesque: an inordinately high body count, the suspension of normal rules of behavior, the positioning of the tale’s female protagonist as a catalyst for male destruction, and the misuse of an object. In isolation any one of these attributes might be attributed to the generally fantastic nature of both the warrior literature and folkloric writings of medieval Japan. Conjointly, however, these elements produce a somewhat cartoonish effect. Moreover, the last of these characteristics—the misuse of an object—is of particular interest in several respects.

Firstly, in this excerpt Morokado’s masculine power is represented by two decidedly phallic objects: his sword (the destruction of which renders Morokado momentarily impotent), and the pillar (through which his virility is restored). Such imagery is fundamental to a Bakhtinian conceptualization of the grotesque, which features a reversal of the topographical bodily hierarchy in which the upper stratum is replaced by the lower one, an anatomical inversion that embodies ideologically subversive implications:

Things are tested and reevaluated in the dimensions of laughter, which has defeated fear and all gloomy seriousness. This is why the material bodily lower stratum is needed, for it gaily and simultaneously materializes and unburdens. It liberates objects from the snares of false seriousness, from illusions and sublimations inspired by fear.[10]

In the scene described above, Morokado is rendered an object of ambivalent laughter via the author’s employment of the dually hyperbolic phallic images as signifiers of his heroism. On one hand, the sword and pillar serve as testaments to his unparalleled strength, reaffirming longstanding conceptualizations of heroism as an attribute situated firmly within the sphere of male aristocratic behavior. On the other hand, the noble implications of Morokado’s actions are somewhat undermined by the blurring of boundaries between hyperbolic heroism and parodic representation.

This excerpt is also meaningful in that its concluding image implicates not only the nobility in laughter, but also the written word itself. The image of autumn’s scattered leaves (aki no kaze no ki no ha o chirasu 秋の風の木の葉を散らす) pervades Japan’s classical literary cannon, functioning as a kigo 季語 (seasonal word) that renders such emotional experiences as the contemplation of the transience of the material world, the feeling of sadness at the passage of time, and the longing for a lost lover in abstract representational terms.[11] The interpolation of this conventional poetic image into the somewhat mocking heroic construction of our warrior hero has a tragicomic effect: the meaningful image of scattered leaves is momentarily recognizable as such, but this somber recognition is transformed into a farcical one vis-à-vis the image’s association with the gross exaggeration of both the lower bodily stratum and the rapidly growing pile of corpses. Thus, the notions of nobility and poetic language are liberated from the weighty historical and literary connotations in which they are embedded, effectuating what Bakhtin describes as a purification of the consciousness of men from “false seriousness, from dogmatism, from all confusing emotions.”[12]

Yet another character of extremes is Tsukiōmaro, a servant boy who leaves his sickbed to inform Morokado that his castle and his wife have been taken by the Middle Captain. The loyal servant accompanies Morokado and his kinsmen on their subsequent attempt to exact revenge upon the Middle Captain. Following the defeat of Morokado’s clan members—who enter into battle unarmored and armed with hunting arrows—Tsukiōmaro commits suicide as a diversion so that Morokado may make his escape. Tsukiōmaro is in every respect a paragon of self-sacrificial devotion, and moreover is linked to the spiritual realm via the revelation, at the end of the tale, that his appearance in the narrative foreshadows the deities’ own intervention in Morokado’s plight. However, in his suicidal effort to aid Morokado’s escape, Tsukiōmaro’s noble virtues become manifest in decidedly corporeal terms. Following the servant’s pronouncement that Morokado must survive the battle so that he may be enabled to pray for the attainment of paradise for his murdered kinsmen, the following scene ensues: “He cut off the beautiful head of one of the men who had been defeated, slit a cross into his own stomach, forced the decapitated head into it, and presently thrust his sword through his windpipe and fell over facedown.”[13]

The description of Tsukiōmaro’s suicide produces a powerful sense of ambivalence. His death, which is the culmination of a tragic series of events, both affirms the depths of his devotion and evokes a palpable sense of pity. Furthermore, it creates a sense of fear and uncertainty regarding the trajectory of Morokado’s own life. However, the theatrical grotesquerie with which Tsukiōmaro’s self-sacrifice is realized serves to strip the practice of ritual disembowelment from its more abstract signifiers in favor of illuminating its more immediate, and decidedly more gruesome, implications.[14] Moreover, in the wake of Morokado’s silent escape from the battle scene, Tsukiōmaro—the only character who does not actively participate in the skirmish—emerges as the scene’s hero in a moment of hierarchical inversion. In other words, the lowly servant is transformed into the text’s principle object of celebration (a development that will be paralleled in the text’s treatment of Renzei, as will be discussed later in this essay). The battle at Takanokura concludes, then, with a succession of motifs congruent with a Bakhtinian figuration of the grotesque—dismemberment, self-mutilation, the positioning of a woman as the source of male downfall, the elevation of a commoner, and the degradation of nobility—which together bring about a dissolution of established norms.

Following Morokado’s defeat at Takanokura and entrance into religious life, the narrative focus shifts toward the exploits of his wife Jōruri Gozen and her maidservant Renzei. Like Morokado, Jōruri Gozen is in many respects figured as an archetypal personality. She is a paragon of feminine passivity and the quintessence of wifely fidelity, the latter to such a degree that she repeatedly readies herself to commit suicide rather than relinquish herself to her captor. Renzei likewise possesses a seemingly limitless degree of devotion, going above and beyond at every turn for the sake of her mistress. However, Renzei, unlike the rather one-dimensional Jōruri Gozen, is revealed to be a complex character whose increasingly central role in the narrative serves to invert both conventional social hierarchies and gender expectations in a number of respects.

Renzei emerges as one of the narrative’s most significant characters when, as a means of circumventing the Middle Captain’s attempts to sleep with Jōruri Gozen, she explains to the captain that her mistress is incapable of engaging in intercourse because she has contracted a venereal disease, the cure for which requires a three-year devotion to spiritual practice. Although the intertwining of spirituality and corporeality is far from unprecedented within pre-modern Japanese literature, this moment in Morokado monogatari is significant in that while the didactic writings of classical and medieval Japan frequently situate femininity as a hindrance to male spiritual practice, here Renzei appropriates popular conceptualizations of female bodily impurity—one of the many vices of women according to both native Japanese Shintō and imported Buddhist thought—and projects them onto Jōruri Gozen in order to preserve her mistress’ chastity.[15] The laughter evoked by Renzei’s plan is an ambivalent one, for the dogmatic construction of women’s bodies as fundamentally defiled is in this scene simultaneously affirmed by the believability of her story and undermined by the maidservant’s clever employment of this decidedly false assumption to rescue Jōruri Gozen from male subjugation. In other words, Jōruri Gozen’s purity is preserved via a declaration of her lack thereof. Moreover, here the Middle Captain is made complicit in his own ridicule by accepting Renzei’s deceitful claim as a truth.

As the narrative progresses, Renzei’s cunning intellect gives rise to the maidservant’s rather unexpected transformation into one of the tale’s principle driving forces. In order to provide Jōruri Gozen the opportunity to escape the Middle Captain’s mansion, for instance, Renzei devises an elaborate scheme so that she and her mistress might run away under the cover of night. She plans a party and, taking advantage of the festive atmosphere, ensures that all of the men present become inebriated to such a degree that they collapse into slumber. Consequently, the women are able to flee the mansion, tiptoeing across a roomful of bodies of unconscious male aristocrats strewn about the floor. This scene embodies several characteristics of grotesque realism—namely, a focus on the activities of a commoner, the representation of festive drinking, and the degradation of nobility. For Bakhtin, images of festive consumption constitute “the most simplified expression of the ambivalent lower stratum,”[16] and thus represent one of the principle modes by which folk culture has historically attempted to “overcome by laughter, render sober, and express in the language of the material bodily lower stratum (in an ambivalent sense) all the central ideas, images, and symbols of official cultures.”[17] In Morokado monogatari, the transformation of officialdom into an object of comical delight is flawlessly executed, the maidservant causing a carnivalesque hierarchical collapse as the fear induced by male authority figures is diffused in the face of their festive degradation at the hands of a woman of low social stature.

The dissolution of social order achieved in the scene described above is sustained throughout the text by the persistent juxtaposition of the active maidservant with her passive mistress. As a woman, and moreover one of low social status, Renzei represents a rather unlikely heroine, particularly within the context of a warrior tale. Even so, as the frail Jōruri Gozen—in whom the Middle Captain locates an ideal iteration of femininity—comes to occupy a background role from which she occasionally emerges for the purposes of lamenting the difficulty of her plight, proclaiming her desire to abandon the quest to locate Morokado, and threatening to commit suicide, the tenacious Renzei demonstrates a near-infinite degree of emotional strength, physical fortitude, and wisdom.[18] As Margaret Childs notes, depictions of the sexual politics of Japanese court life within such canonical Heian era texts as Genji monogatari 源氏物語 (The Tale of Genji) and Ise monogatari 伊勢物語 (The Tales of Ise) attest to a “high correlation between fragility and beauty” within the aristocratic sphere.[19] This conventional aestheticization of female vulnerability is problematized in Morokado monogatari, however, as Jōruri Gozen’s pitiable helplessness and melodramatic fits of sorrow, when contrasted with Renzei’s prudence, transgress the limits of seriousness to arrive at the realm of amusing caricature. Moreover, vis-à-vis her mistresses’ degradation Renzei is elevated to the position of the text’s principle female character.

Having illustrated some of the ways in which character construction in the earlier pages of Morokado monogatari serves to transform ideological abstractions into corporeal objects of ambivalent laughter, I turn now to a variety of other modes by which the carnivalesque-grotesque is deployed throughout the text. As Jacqueline Pigeot’s discussion of the narrative suggests, the transgressive elements of Morokado monogatari extend beyond its representation of individual characters, since the text also utilizes a variety of plot devices, narrative techniques, images, and themes designed to transcend audience expectations—among them “bifurcation, coups de théâtre ou attentes déçues” (forks in the road, unexpected dramatization or surprising deceptions), and the positioning of “châtiment,” or castigation, as a central motif.[20]

Of particular interest in these regards is the text’s playful confusion of spirituality and corporeality, a phenomenon first suggested in Renzei’s deception of the Middle Captain and which is re-invoked upon Jōruri Gozen’s discovery that Morokado has survived and taken up the task of hosting visitors to his bathhouse. In this scene, which takes place prior to the women’s escape from Takanokura, Jōruri Gozen peeks through a hole in the wall as Renzei converses with Morokado, her husband-turned-ascetic. Morokado is almost unrecognizable in his priestly garb, but some trace of his former self remains:

As she looked upon him through a crevice, Jōruri Gozen was unfazed by his black monk’s garb. Nevertheless, when she caught sight of the remnants of his visage, it was no different than, for instance, when spring flowers are blown by the mountain winds and accumulate, concealed beneath the green leaves.[21]

The image of Jōruri Gozen spying on her husband from behind the ostensibly private wall of the bathhouse has decidedly erotic implications. As spaces in which clientele are subject to both seeing and being seen by others in states of undress, bathhouses are spheres in which the distinction between public and private is blurred. That Morokado’s bathhouse is a site of religious pilgrimage (to which Jōruri Gozen travels because, according to Buddhist statutes, she is “deep in sin owing to the five obstructions and filial piety”) introduces a second dimension of categorical conflation to the text, also rendering indistinct the spiritual and the erotic.[22] In the bathhouse episode, Morokado is unknowingly transformed into the object of Jōruri Gozen’s gaze, which penetrates the man’s priestly robes to reveal his true identity as her lover. This figuring of the monk as an object of erotic desire creates ambivalent laughter, as the lofty spiritual ideals associated with the image of the somber ascetic are undermined by an affirmation of the potential for his body to arouse sexual desire.

This humor is heightened by the deployment of common poetic tropes to describe Morokado. The image of blossoms scattered in the wind (yayoi nakaba no hana no yama arashi ni fukarete 弥生なかばの花の山あらしに吹かれて), which in Japanese poetry is frequently figured as a symbol of transience, here characterizes a man whose subsequent religious pilgrimage and death will conclude not with an affirmation of impermanence, but rather in a revival from the dead—a topic to which this essay will later return. Moreover, in Japanese poetry the image of early summer’s impenetrably dense greenery (aoba no soko ni ichi fusa uzumoruru ni koto narazu 青葉の底に一ふさうづもるるに異ならず) is commonly associated with the experience of longing for an unattainable lover.[23] The conflation of religious and erotic imagery is subsequently revitalized when Jōruri Gozen, prior to her departure from the bath, inscribes a verse upon her robe and leaves it behind for Morokado’s contemplation. The verse, which is the first in a series of puzzles featured in the tale, has both heavily spiritual and decidedly sexual connotations. Jōruri Gozen’s vow—“Gods, have compassion! Bound to you, I will lie with no other man”—invokes the deities but is addressed to her husband. [24] That the poem is inscribed upon the woman’s hadaginu 肌衣—literally a “robe worn against the skin”— also serves to infuse this scene with eroticism.

The bathhouse also becomes the setting for another moment of categorical confusion when, upon receiving the news of Morokado’s survival at Takanokura, the Middle Captain sends a group of men to capture and murder him. The men arrive at the bathhouse with the intention of decapitating Morokado, but our hero is rescued through deistic intervention when a Buddha statue exchanges places with him, sacrificing its own head in place of that of Morokado. This scene represents a literal conflation of the spiritual realm with the material one and has equally solemn and comical implications. Here, the value of religious devotion is positively affirmed, while simultaneously a deistic entity is subject to denigration via the dismemberment of its anatomical image. This moment also evokes laughter in its reaffirmation of Morokado’s false heroism as the survival of our naïve protagonist, who remains entirely unaware of his rescue until informed of his own murder by witnesses to the incident, is portrayed as a consequence of deistic intervention rather than one of his own noble fortitude.[25] Morokado subsequently flees the bathhouse, vanishing into obscurity for the second time in the tale.

The inversion of the spiritual/corporeal hierarchy achieved in the scenes described above also occurs in the narration of the women’s michiyuki. As an exact mirror of the path taken by Morokado, the michiyuki functions as a plot foil for our protagonist’s own journey. As the women travel from location to location, they encounter a series of stupa engraved with clues concerning Morokado’s whereabouts (a phenomenon which, we later discover, constitutes another instance of deistic intervention in the course of Morokado’s life).[26] Although the women’s journey takes the form of a religious pilgrimage, the object of their pursuit is the reuniting of two lovers, one of whom, as an ascetic, is precluded from romantic involvement. The trajectory of the women’s journey is thus dictated not by their spiritual devotion, but rather by that which is frequently imagined to be its most fundamental hindrance: erotic desire. Moreover, although Morokado himself is entirely absent from this episode, the fact that clues concerning the vanished lover’s location are inscribed upon stupas further suggests a denigration of the sacred.[27] To elaborate, in addition to illustrating the employment of spiritually meaningful objects as a mode of fulfilling worldly aims, the inscriptions on the stupa, which contribute a puzzle-like element to the women’s journey, function as parodical prophecies that serve to transform the image of religious pilgrimage into something more akin to a wild goose chase. Indeed, such a notion is repeatedly affirmed by Jōruri Gozen herself in her lamentations of the seeming futility of the women’s search for Morokado. For Bakhtin, parodical prophecies are evocative of laughter in that

they mock not so much the naïve faith in forecasts and prophecies as their tone, their interpretations of life, history, and the times. The jocular and merry approach is opposed to the serious and gloomy one; the usual and commonplace to the strange and unexpected, the material and bodily to the abstract and the exalted.[28]

The women’s michiyuki evokes laughter in other respects, as well. As earlier noted, when, in the wake of his defeat at Takanokura, Morokado abandons his attempt to rescue Jōruri Gozen—choosing instead to elude his foes by taking the tonsure and later embarking upon an evasive religious pilgrimage—it is Renzei who is entrusted with emancipating her mistress from her captor and, ultimately, reuniting her with her estranged husband. While Matsumoto Ryūshin’s examination of Muromachi period honjimono 本地物 (tales of the origins of deities) illustrates that the depiction of a woman searching for her husband—rather than the more common image of a man searching for his wife—is not exclusive to Morokado monogatari, the stark contrast between the actions of Renzei and those of Morokado nevertheless serves to undermine the heroic persona attributed to the latter in the early pages of the narrative.[29]

For example, returning to the subject of the maidservant’s trickery of the Middle Captain’s associates—marking the outset of the women’s journey—it is noteworthy that the women’s surreptitious departure from Takanokura is reminiscent of the conclusion of Morokado’s own attempted coup. However, while these scenes share certain grotesque elements (e.g., the absurdly high count of bodies littering the floor and the exaltation of lowly characters), Renzei’s comical degradation of the nobility contrasts starkly with Morokado’s desperate, and largely futile, slaughter of enemy soldiers. As noted earlier, this inversion of social hierarchy remains in effect throughout the women’s pilgrimage, as Renzei is elevated to the position of heroine vis-à-vis the gradual descent of her aristocratic counterpart into a state of neurosis.[30] It is also the case, I suggest, that the unflappable Renzei, who is responsible for the success of the women’s quest to locate Morokado, comes to serves as a rather unexpected foil for Morokado himself. “Womanhood is shown in contrast to the limitations of her partner (husband, lover, or suitor),” writes Bakhtin. “She is a foil to his avarice, jealousy, stupidity, hypocrisy, bigotry, sterile senility, false heroism, and abstract idealism.”[31] Although according to Bakhtin the women most frequently positioned as foils for male characters are those with whom men are romantically involved, in Morokado monogatari it is largely through Renzei’s intellect, emotional stability, and staunch realism that Morokado’s own carelessness, false heroism, and idealism become evident. As such, the humor located in Renzei’s actions is twofold: her activities serve not only to undermine the authority of the text’s villainous characters, but also to call into question the legitimacy of a cultural value system in which heroism is circumscribed within the realm of aristocratic male activity.

A final example of the manner in which the women’s michiyuki entails a subversion of conventional ideological constructs may be located in Renzei’s account of the origins of Zenkōji 善光寺, the home of Japan’s earliest Buddha image and the final destination of Morokado monogatari’s traveling women. Zenkōji, Renzei explains, was constructed by Yoshimitsu Honda, a warrior who had come to possess the image after it had concluded its travels throughout India and Korea and designated Japan as its permanent home.[32] Renzei’s recounting of the origins of the Buddha image is intended to strengthen her mistress’ resolve to continue the quest for Morokado by underscoring the religious significance of the women’s destination. The interpolation of a hagiographical account of the origins of this living Buddha into the text, however, may be read as a moment embodying elements of the grotesque in a number of ways. Firstly, Renzei’s emphasis on the religious significance of the women’s destination again obfuscates the distinction between the spiritual and the corporeal by rendering the audience incapable of discerning whether it is the promise of a religious encounter or a romantic one that drives Jōruri Gozen to continue on her arduous journey. Moreover, in consideration of the religio-history of the specific Buddha icon housed within Zenkōji, the fact that this particular locale marks the women’s final destination further emphasizes the text’s conflation of eroticism and spirituality and heightens the aura of mystery surrounding the women’s pilgrimage. In the seventh century, an imperial edict declared the Zenkōji image a hibutsu 秘仏 (hidden Buddha), and by the thirteenth century even its omaedachi 御前立ち (a copy of a hibutsu which stands in front of the original) had become subject to public viewing only once every six years.[33] The secretive nature of this Buddha image parallels Morokado’s own elusion of the public gaze following his departure from the bathhouse. Moreover, the enigmatic nature of both of these figures enhances the puzzle-like element of the women’s journey as it nears its conclusion.

Finally, the insertion of this “official” religious history into the folk narrative resembles what Bakhtin describes as a textual amalgamation of “official” and “carnival” lives, a phenomenon he describes in his discussion of medieval European illuminated manuscripts:

Two aspects of the world, the serious and the laughing aspect, coexisted in their consciousness. This coexistence was strikingly reflected in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century illuminated manuscripts, for instance, in the legendaries, that is, the handwritten collections of the lives of the saints. Here we find on the same page strictly pious illustrations of the hagiographical text as well as free designs not connected with the story. The free designs represent chimeras (fantastic forms combining human, animal, and vegetable elements), comic devils, jugglers performing acrobatic tricks, masquerade figures, and parodical scenes—that is, purely grotesque, carnivalesque themes.[34]

Although Morokado monogatari is not an illustrated manuscript, it is undeniably a work in which sacred histories and the grotesque-carnivalesque are inextricably intertwined. As such, the interpolation of the “official” religio-history referenced by Renzei into the work’s grander narrative lends to the construction of a textual structural framework that mirrors the playful denigration of ideals perceivable at so many individual moments within the story.

In the final episode of Morokado monogatari, the chimera-like quality of the text is reiterated in terms which for Bakhtin represent the quintessential example of the carnivalesque combining of disparate concepts: the image of death and renewal. Upon their arrival at Zenkōji, Renzei and Jōruri Gozen discover that Morokado had died some ten days before, having “vanished like the evening dew”[35] after a brief period of illness. When a group of ascetics—who are later revealed to be deities in disguise—overhear the sorrowful laments of the women, they perform a ritual designed to raise Morokado from the dead. The scene depicting Morokado’s awakening from death is laden with an aura of suspense that is ever heightened by the narrator’s employment of theatricality. As the ascetic who initiates the ritual invokes the names of an array of deities, plumes of black smoke rise from the earth; when his efforts prove fruitless, a second ascetic intervenes, adding to the already lengthy list of deities several more names as he begs the gods to supplement his spiritual strength. This plea is followed by yet another chant that further elevates the dramatic tension of the scene, since the words, which are rendered even in typewritten manuscripts as a lengthy series of hiragana, would have amounted to little more than gibberish for medieval Japanese lay-audiences.

The scene described above may be said to deploy the grotesque in the construction of a carnivalesque atmosphere in a number of respects. For one, by employing religious ritual as mode of dramatization, the text places the spiritual on the corporeal plane, rendering both sacred phenomenon and language (e.g., the billowing smoke, the names of the deities, and the ascetics’ incomprehensible utterances) objects of visual and aural sensation. Furthermore, by the Muromachi period Pure Land Buddhism had gained wide acceptance among Japan’s general populous, and, as Keller Kimbrough notes, popular prose writings of this era reflect a “sometimes startling gap between orthodox doctrinal and popular vernacular representations of Pure Land practices and beliefs.”[36] Such is the case in the scene of Morokado’s revival, during which esoteric Buddhist elements are introduced for the first time into what might otherwise be characterized as a Pure Land-oriented text. This moment, I suggest, not only reflects the commonplace folkloric practice of blending and re-imagining diverse religious belief systems, but also illustrates the reality that the vernacular literary mode was one in which the storytellers and audiences of medieval Japan were empowered both to re-imagine officially sanctioned doctrines and histories and to contribute to the intertextual and interdiscursive conceptualization of the historical moment in which they existed.[37] Official histories, hierarchies, and categories could be done away with in order to create space for the emergence of popular conceptualizations of the past, present, and future world.

This historical consciousness is manifest on a corporeal plane as Morokado is successfully revived from the dead. In this scene, both poetic language and Buddhist doctrine are again implicated in falsehood. The text’s earlier comparison of Morokado to the vanished blossoms of spring and, later, the dissipating evening dew (yūbe no tsuyu to kiete ゆうべの露と消えて)—yet another highly conventional poetic abstraction of transience—become invalidated by our hero’s reentrance into the world of the living. Further, Morokado’s emergence from the grave signifies not only his own renewal, but also that of society at large. While during his first life Morokado’s various guises are reminiscent of what Bakhtin describes to be representatives of the old—the feudal king, the sacristan, the gloomy agelast[38]—these various facades accompany him to his grave, and our hero is born anew amid the celebratory exclamations of his lover, of Renzei, of the now-unmasked ascetics who have revived him—amid a laughter that sublimates authority, austerity, and the fear of death itself.

In many respects, the conclusion of Morokado monogatari engenders a reaffirmation of the sociopolitical topography operative in the beginning of the text. Following Morokado’s return from the dead, our hero is granted imperial permission to rejoin the secular world, reclaim his usurped lands, and murder his foe, leading to a seemingly sweeping reinstatement of social order. The honor of his clan restored, Morokado reunites with his wife, produces a number of male children, and is immersed in prosperity. All of these blessings, the text reminds us, are the consequences of Morokado and his family’s devoted worship of the deities.

This restoration of order, however, is an incomplete one. The narrative’s conclusion also reflects an ambivalent treatment of these newly reestablished norms. For instance, although Buddhist law prohibits one’s abandonment of asceticism after having taken the tonsure, following his tenure disguised as a monk Morokado undergoes an imperially sanctioned re-secularization in order that he might both reunite with Jōruri Gozen and take the Middle Captain’s life. Thus, although on the one hand the narrative’s conclusion offers a testament to the gravity of spiritual devotion, on the other our protagonist’s joyful unmasking casts a comic light on religious dogmatism by suggesting that his masquerade has led not only to a deepening of his spiritual devotion, but also to the fulfillment of his worldly desires. As Bakhtin writes,

The mask is connected with the joy of change and reincarnation, with gay relativity and with the merry negation of uniformity and similarity; it rejects conformity to oneself. The mask is related to transition, metamorphoses, the violation of natural boundaries, to mockery and familiar nicknames. It contains the playful element of life; it is based on a peculiar interrelation of reality and image, characteristic of the most ancient rituals and spectacles.[39]

This regenerative theme is mirrored by yet another imperially sanctioned action that violates conventional order: Morokado’s murder of the Middle Captain. Here the subjection of the abusive governmental figure to corporal punishment constitutes a denigration of authority; the image of the public official, who is an archetypal agent of fear, is transformed into a grotesque object of laughter. “The abuse and thrashing are equivalent to a change of costume, to a metamorphosis,” writes Bakhtin.

Abuse reveals the other, true face of the abused, it tears off his disguise and mask. It is the king’s uncrowning [. . .] But in this system death is followed by regeneration, by the new year, new youth, and a new spring.[40]

Finally, the regenerative possibilities of death—both Morokado and the Middle Captain’s—are realized on an even grander societal plane in the narrative’s final lines. While Morokado monogatari concludes with the joyful reinstatement of our protagonist’s own position within the social hierarchy, the text also re-invokes the name of Tsukiōmaro, the self-sacrificing servant-turned-hero of the skirmish at Takanokura: “He sought out Tsukiōmaro’s relations, enthusiastically expressed his gratitude, gave them a family estate, and in the future they grew increasingly prosperous, all of this being realized according to the will of the deities.”[41] In these concluding lines, Morokado monogatari displays a final inversion of social hierarchies: the servant is elevated vis-à-vis our protagonist’s acts of humility. Though here the role of the deities in the prosperity of both families is again reaffirmed, this moment is less evocative of supernatural awe than it is of a popular-festive envisioning of a society in which access to wealth and happiness has been expanded to those who have historically been relegated to the margins of culture. As such, the ambivalent laughter that pervades Morokado monogatari is retained at its conclusion by a re-envisioning of the world not according to abstract organizing principles, but rather in terms of what Bakhtin describes as a “pregnant and regenerating death.”[42]

In investigating themes of grotesque embodiment, carnivalesque inversion, and the production of ambivalent laughter in Morokado monogatari, I have attempted to underscore some of the ways in which otogizōshi, as a form of vernacular storytelling, sought to critically engage with the social and religious doctrines, textual conventions, and official histories that permeated classical and medieval Japanese literary and cultural discourses. As this analysis demonstrates, while Morokado monogatari presents neither a perfect nor a permanent dissolution of all established hierarchies, customs, belief systems, and norms, the text does demonstrate historic awareness in its envisioning of medieval Japan’s social and textual realms as sites of change, renewal, growth, and abundance—images which, Bakhtin writes, “saturated with time and the utopian future, reflecting the people’s hopes and strivings, now became the expression of the general gay funeral of a dying era, of the old power and old truth.”[43]

In their own examinations of Morokado monogatari, both Fukuda and Matsumoto uncover topographical and ideological discrepancies among the narrative’s variant manuscripts, designating the work a “regional” tale-type whose disparate versions reflect the convention among religious practitioners of modifying texts for the purpose of promulgating the merits of particular local religious sites.[44] Although Morokado monogatari’s regionality attests to the work’s almost assuredly didactic objectives, this attribute reflects not a rigid adherence to authoritative ideologies, but rather a versatility that undermines dogmatism by demonstrating the potential for the linguistic and conceptual creativity of those positioned outside of the aristocratic literary and social realms to displace hegemonic conceptualizations of the world via the creation of alternative narratives. According to Bakhtin, the various forms adopted by the medieval culture of folk humor “uncrowned and renewed the established power and official truth. They celebrated the return of happier times, of abundance, and justice for all the people. Thus had the new awareness been initiated and had found its most radical expression in laughter.”[45] A work that is eminently concerned with the generative possibilities of destruction, Morokado monogatari illustrates through the production of laughter the paradoxical character of genre fiction, whose most successful works deploy conventional character types, narrative devices, images, and themes as a mode not only of fulfilling audience expectations, but also transgressing them. As such, the text demonstrates that otogizōshi and other types of medieval Japanese popular fiction merit reconsideration beyond the categorical limitations within which they have historically been circumscribed.

Raechel Dumas


Raechel Dumas is a doctoral student in Japanese in the Department of Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Colorado at Boulder. Her research interests include gender and sexuality in Japanese genre fiction, gender performance and poetics in medieval and early modern Japanese theatre, and critical theory. She is currently working on her dissertation, which examines corporeality in contemporary Japanese crime, horror, and sci-fi. She is also an instructor at the University of Colorado, where she teaches courses on Japanese literature, cinema, and pop culture.


[1] Chieko Irie Mulhern, “Otogi-zōshi. Short Stories of the Muromachi Period,” Monumenta Nipponica 29.2 (1974), 184.

[2] Konishi Mizue, “Hachikazuki to Hisame: joseishi kara mita otogizōshi,” Osaka shōin jogakuin daigaku ronshū 41 (2004), 54. My translation.

[3] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), p. 19.

[4] Mikhail Bakhtin, The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, ed. M. Holquist, trans. C. Emerson and M. Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), p. 59.

[5] A literary predecessor to otogizōshi comprised of religious and secular myths, folktales, and anecdotes deriving from Indian, Chinese, and native Japanese sources.

[6] Michelle Osterfield Li, Ambiguous Bodies: Reading the Grotesque in Japanese Setsuwa Tales (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2009), p. 52.

[8] Morokado monogatari, in Muromachi monogatari shū ge, vol. 55 of Shin Nihon koten bungaku taikei, ed. Ichiko Teiji et al. (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1992), p. 366. This and all subsequent translations of this work are my own.

[9] ibid., p. 375.

[10] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 376.

[11] For some examples see Manyōshū 325-27, 1558; Kokinshū 203, 215, 282, 286, 290, 362; Gosenshū 217

[12] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 141.

[13] Morokado monogatari, p. 374.

[14] The close ties of disembowelment to longstanding samurai ethnical codes are underscored by Chiba Tokuji’s comment that “seppuku was a form of purification for the warrior, a means of preserving his honor in even the most desperate or adverse circumstances.” H. Paul Varley, Warriors of Japan: As Portrayed in the War Tales (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994), p. 65.

[15] For an in-depth examination of representations of the female body in medieval Japanese literature see Hitomi Tonomura, “Black Hair and Red Trousers: Gendering the Flesh in Medieval Japan,” The American Historical Review 99.1 (1994): 129-54.

[16] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 171.

[17] ibid., p. 394.

[18] The extent to which Jōruri Gozen is framed as a paragon of feminine desirability is perhaps most clear in consideration of the following passage, which describes the various reasons for the Middle Captain’s rejection of a slew of potential wives prior to falling in love with Morokado’s wife: “The Middle Captain looked at each of them—their coloring, both dark and light, and their hair, short and long, and found all of this despicable. Some played the koto but could not play the biwa; others played the biwa but could not sing; some could sing but possessed terrible penmanship. He was displeased with those who were short as well as those who were tall as the trees deep within Mount Miyama, and so each of the twenty women were sent away.” Morokado monogatari, p. 367.

[19] Margaret H. Childs, “The Value of Vulnerability: Sexual Coercion and the Nature of Love in Japanese Court Literature,” The Journal of Asian Studies 58.4 (1999): 1061.

[21] Morokado monogatari, p. 381.

[22] ibid., p. 380.

[23] For some examples see Manyōshū 321-24, 401; Kokinshū 200, 462, 538, 560, 686, 1045

[25] Morokado’s ignorance of the incident, as well as his subsequent expression of thankfulness to the deities, are heavily emphasized in the text. Upon returning from the mountains in which he had been collecting firewood and hearing tell of the murder of a monk (who according to witnesses resembled Morokado), our hero thinks, “How cruel! Which monk have they cut down? If only we could hide and bury his remains, for we have reason to do so.” Morokado subsequently discovers a headless Buddha statue and, realizing that he has been saved by deistic intervention, cries tears of gratitude, locates the statue’s disembodied head, and, for the second time, surreptitiously escapes to “a place unknown.” ibid., p. 382.

[26] All of these locations are religious sites which differ among various versions of the text. Fukuda Akira, “Morokado monogatari no denshō,” in Gunki monogatari to minkan denshō (Tokyo: Iwasaki Bijutsusha, 1972), p. 151.

[27] Stupas are intended to commemorate Buddhas, Buddhist saints, and religious events and mark consecrated geographical locales. For a more thorough discussion of their role in Japanese religious ideology, see Elizabeth Grotenhuis, Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1999).

[28] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 234.

[29] Matsumoto Ryūshin, “Honjimono shūhen no Muromachi-ki monogatari: Akashi monogatari hoka bukemono shohen ni tsuite,” in Chūsei shōmin bungaku: monogatari sōshi no yukue (Tokyo: Kyūko Shoin, 1989), p. 348.

[30] In one particularly moving travel scene, Renzei even manages to draw attention to the hypocrisy exhibited by a group of monks who refuse Jōruri Gozen and her servant a room in which to rest overnight. Honing in on the ascetics’ lack of compassion (a fundamental component of Buddhist doctrine), she convinces them to allow her to enter the inn, saying, “How uncompassionate! If it were two or three nights… but could one night be so bad? If you are a human being, you should help others!” Morokado monogatari, p. 392.

[31] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 240.

[32] Morokado monogatari, p. 391.

[33] Suzuki Michitaka, “Hibutsu (Hidden Buddha): Living Images in Japan and the Orthodox Icons” (paper presented at the Symposium on Spatial Icons, Textuality, and Performativity, Moscow, Russia, June 23-25, 2009).

[34] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 96.

[36] R. Keller Kimbrough, “Tourists in Paradise: Writing the Pure Land in Medieval Japanese Fiction,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 33.2 (2006), 269. For additional reading on Pure Land Buddhism, see William LaFleur, The Karma of Words: Buddhism and the Literary Arts in Medieval Japan (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

[37] See Lafleur, The Karma of Words for a discussion of religious syncretism in medieval Japan.

[38] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 206.

[39] ibid., p. 39.

[40] ibid., p. 197.

[41] Morokado monogatari, p. 397.

[42] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 197.

[43] ibid., p. 99.

[44] For discussions of this topic see Matsumoto Ryūshin, “Honjimono shūhen no Muromachi-ki monogatari: Akashi monogatari hoka bukemono shohen ni tsuite,” in Chūsei shōmin bungaku: monogatari sōshi no yukue (Tokyo: Kyūko Shoin, 1989) and Fukuda Akira, “Morokado monogatari no denshō,” in Gunki monogatari to minkan denshō (Tokyo: Iwasaki Bijutsusha, 1972).

[45] Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, p. 99.

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