Editors' pick

The Tale of Shuten Doji


Editorial Review

Monster vs. Samurai: Moving Pictures of Yore

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, April 5, 2009

"The Tale of Shuten Doji" at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery is a show about an ogre -- bloodthirsty, dangerous and entirely Japanese. You'll recognize him. Shuten Doji "Hulks" out.

He goes red instead of green, and grows a pair of horns, but otherwise he's much like Dr. Bruce Banner in the Marvel comic. When Banner loses it, he bulges all at once, and becomes huge, super-strong and enraged. Shuten Doji does the same. You don't want to be there when it happens.

The Sackler's show suggests a high-tone movie, an elitist and exquisite one, handmade for the samurai before there were movies, and after those disciplined warriors had mostly given up killing each other to become, instead, competitive aestheticians.

Once they proved themselves in bloody battle. Now, in the Edo period (1615-1868), they mostly show their mettle in less strenuous pursuits. They attend the Tea Ceremony. They practice their calligraphy. And they display their high refinement by the way that they respond to objects such as these -- say, that 70-foot hand scroll, silk and touched with gold, that depicts in thrilling detail Shuten Doji's deeds, his dastardly depredations, his superhuman strength and his eventual demise. The other things on view -- the fans and folding screens, and wood-block prints by Hokusai -- tell the ogre's story, too.

Like Count Dracula, Shuten Doji lives in a faraway castle, and drinks blood. His horns evoke the Minotaur's. Like Bluebeard, he's peculiarly colored and awful to young women. Like Mr. Hyde's, his change of shape is triggered by the stuff he drinks.

Not just any good guy can take on such an ogre. One so monstrous requires a mighty hero. Otherwise, what's the point? If Saint George sets out to rescue the princess from a mouse instead of a dragon, he's ridiculously overdressed. If Professor Moriarty is a dummy, Sherlock Holmes is too clever by half. It's sort of like the Super Bowl -- you want nearly even odds.

Bring me the head of Shuten Doji!

That mission is assigned, by the emperor himself, to an especially skillful samurai. His name is Minamoto no Yorimitsu. People call him Raiko. Raiko actually lived: He was born in 948, founded a great family and died in 1021. Of course, he instantly accepts the emperor's assignment. He's our hero.

Like d'Artagnan in "The Three Musketeers," Raiko has buddies. He is not just courageous, he's cunning. He doesn't just barge into Shuten Doji's goblin-defended redoubt. Instead, these valiant comrades stash their armor in their backpacks and disguise themselves as monks.

When brave Ulysses blinded the one-eyed giant Polyphemus, he did so by first getting that dreadful Cyclops drunk. Raiko does something similar, with the aid of an especially potent sake. Once his foe is wobbly-drunk, our hero swings his sword and slices off Shuten Doji's head.

Hot blood spurts. A lifeless body falls. Hurray! The evil ogre's dead!

Except he isn't. As in "Fatal Attraction" (when Glenn Close, dead and drowned, sits up in her bath), the story takes a shocking twist. Shuten Doji's big red head leaps up (like a jack-in-the-box) and, continuing the fight, bites our hero's head. If Raiko hadn't come equipped with a special magic helmet he'd have been in real trouble.

This climactic scene appears on a fan by Kawanabe Kyosai (1831-1889), which opens the exhibition. Shuten Doji is chomping. He no longer has his body, but he still possesses a memory of his body, seen in this sketch in his arms of curling smoke.

But then he's dead for real. Whew! At the end of the tale Raiko and his companions return to Kyoto in triumph, bringing the head with them in a big basket, or on a bullock-drawn cart.

* * *

Ann Yonemura, the exhibition's curator, who has been working at the Freer and Sackler galleries for more than 30 years, has spent much of that time assembling these objects. The six long painted scrolls at the exhibition's core came in 1998. The wood-block prints by Hokusai did not arrive until 2007. They're impressive as a group, for together they survey the varied narrative traditions of Edo-era art.

Three of the hand scrolls -- on silk instead of paper, and lavishly golden -- are especially deluxe. Though primarily the work of Kano Shoun (1637-1702), they were, in part, painted by a prince of the imperial household.

They really are like movies. The banded clouds that separate their long shots and their medium shots function, as the scenes flow by, exactly as dissolves.

The tale of Shuten Doji is, as action horror movies ought to be, chilling and event-filled, bloody and exciting. But that's not the only reason that it became such a staple. It also carries with it, as does much art in Japan, complex implications.

Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147-1199), the first of Japan's shoguns, was one of Raiko's descendants, and proud of it. The shogun in Japan was second in his power only to the emperor, and the office was hereditary. Tradition held thereafter that to be a shogun one had to trace one's lineage back to that noble bloodline. When Tokugawa Ieyasu took over the country in 1603, he felt obliged to forge a family tree showing that he, too, was a legitimate Minamoto.

By showing a Shuten Doji folding screen to one's friends, or by putting the creature's horrific head on a costly painted fan, one was subtly suggesting two opposing things. One: Since Raiko was terrific, and the Minamoto bloodline wonderfully heroic, the shogun of the day must be, by implication, fully worthy of his post. Two: There is something most attractive about Shuten Doji. We do not wholly dread him. In fact, we rather like him, much the way we rather like Dr. Frankenstein's monster and the violence of the Hulk.

Shuten Doji loses, of course, but things might well have gone differently. That's a key point of the story. He doesn't lose by much.