Last week’s post was about kumihimo (くみひも / 組紐), so this week I need to start with も (mo). I got quite excited when I thought about this week’s topic as I realised I had another opportunity to write about Japanese spirits and monsters. I decided to write about…
Mononoke (もののけ / 物の怪)
Many of you will know the word “mononoke” from the Studio Ghibli film, Princess Mononoke (もののけ姫), which is about the battle between human beings and the spirit of the forest, referred to in the film as “mononoke”.
Because of this film, many people believe mononoke are forest spirits, which appear as animals like wolves and boars. However, the idea of mononoke goes back to the Heian period (794-1185), appearing in the early 11th century novel the Tale of Genji (源氏物語 / Genji Monogatari). These days, the word “mononoke” is often used interchangeably with “yokai” (妖怪), meaning spirit, monster or demon, but the original meaning of mononoke was something even more intangible and mysterious.
It was believed that a person’s spirit would detach itself permanently from the body at death, and that it was possible for this to happen temporarily during times of emotional stress or difficulty. This spirit could then possess another person, perhaps from resentment or jealousy, and it was this angry,vagrant spirit that was called “mononoke”. Mononoke were believed to cause death or illness, and had to be exorcised by Buddhist priests.
There is some discussion over how to write “mononoke” in Japanese script. The Studio Ghibli movie chooses to use just hiragana (もののけ). However, “mononoke” can also be written in kanji. The first kanji is usually 物 (mono), which is then followed by the possessive particle の (no). 物 is usually translated as “object” or “thing”, but it does not necessarily have to be a tangible thing. After 物の there is some debate about whether to use 怪 or 気 (both can be read as “ke”). The first kanji, 怪, means “apparition”, “mystery” or “suspicious”. The second kanji, 気, means “spirit”. I think it would be accurate to say that 怪 has more of a negative feeling than 気 and, if that is true, I think I would prefer to use 怪 because mononoke are vengeful spirits.
Japan Echo published an excellent article called Understanding Mononoke over the Ages, which adds:
Since the mononoke in Genji monogatari and other Heian works are mysterious, formless spirits, it seems far more appropriate to use 気. Nonetheless, two of the best-known annotated editions of Genji monogatari have rendered mononoke as 物怪, and this version has therefore taken hold.
I should mention that, while I am fascinated by kanji, I am certainly no expert! If you know any more about which kanji should be used for もののけ, please leave a comment below.
Most people will translated “mononoke” as “the spirit of a thing”. I think this is a good enough translation, so long as you don’t mix up mononoke with tsukumogami (a kind of yokai which are actually household objects which have come to life on their 100th birthday). Tsukumogami are “things with spirits”, I suppose, but mononoke are usually thought to possess humans, not objects.
As well as the Studio Ghibli film, there is an animated TV series called Mononoke (モノノ怪). Mononoke is a spin-off from the 2006 series Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales, and one of the characters from Ayakashi, the medicine seller, also features in Mononoke. I haven’t seen either of these animes, but I think I would like to! Wikipedia says:
Mononoke takes place during the Edo Period Japan with the four class system, Samurai being the highest class and merchants (such as the medicine seller himself) being in the lowest class. Only Samurai were permitted to carry swords, which is why it comes as a shock to many of the characters that the medicine seller would be carrying a sword.
Mononoke follows a wandering, nameless character known only as the “Medicine Seller” (voiced by Takahiro Sakurai). The series is made up of individual chapters in which the medicine seller encounters, combats and subsequently destroys various mononoke. The “mononoke” are a type of ayakashi, unnatural spirits that linger in the human world.
The Medicine Seller always proceeds in the same manner, using his knowledge of the supernatural to fend off the mononoke until he can learn the spirit’s shape (Katachi), truth (Makoto) and reasoning (Kotowari). Only then can he unsheathe his sword and exorcise the demon.
Here’s the opening of Mononoke:
Do you know any other stories about mononoke? How about other yokai? I’ll try to squeeze more yokai into Weekly Shiritori if I can!
Mononoke (もののけ) ends with け (ke), so next week I will be looking for a noun beginning with “ke”. If you have any suggestions, please leave them below! And, don’t forget, no words ending in ん! (^_^)v