In Noriko Reider’s Japanese Demon Lore, she recounts one curious tale of an Oni: “Shuten Dōji, the chief of an oniband, lives on Mt.Ōe. During the reign of Emperor Ichijō, Shuten Dōjiand his oni band abduct people, particularly maidens, enslaving them and eventually feasting on their flesh and drinking their blood. The concerned emperor orders the warrior hero Minamoto no Raikō and his men to stop the abductions by vanquishing Shuten Dōji and his band of oni followers. Raikō and his men disguise themselves as yamabushi (mountaineering ascetics) and by means of guile, deception and some divine help, they eliminate Shuten Dōji and his oni band. There are many theories regarding the origins of the Shuten Dōji legend, including the notion that Shuten Dōji and his fellow oni were nothing more than a gang of bandits who lived on Mt.Ōe, or that Shuten Dōji was a Caucasian man who drifted to the shore of Tanba Province (present-day Kyoto) and drank red wine.”(20)
The story Reider recounts is interesting for a variety of reasons. For one, it gives us a look at the basic nature of Oni, that of brutish cannibalistic monsters who abduct maidens to feast on their flesh. However, it also provides them with a second nature: that of outsiders to the Japanese empire and its rule, creating this weird dichotomy of both disgust and sympathy that has been carried through to modern times. I won’t be able to get into the whole history and stories behind the Oni here, mainly because I don’t have the time or the space to do so. However, I will be linking some further readings down below if you want to read through them on your own time. Noriko Reider’s book I linked to above is a great start and I’ve pulled the vast amount of my information from there. She also has a section on modern representations of Oni that mentions a couple more popular anime and manga Oni characters, one of which I’ll talk about below.
There are many theories as to the origins of the Oni myths and perceptions. From what I’ve been reading, it seems as though in the beginning Oni were thought of as more of an umbrella term for spirits of evil, much like the term youkai is used now, but then took on a more distinguishable character and look as time went on. Some claim that Oni were originally seen as beings brought over from Buddhist mythology as a sort of demon right out of hell, sometimes thought of both as the torturers of wrong-doers while they were in Hell, and the sinners themselves. And in a lot of modern representations, I can see this as being the case. However, there is the more complicated origin: that of the demonification of outcasts or foreigners. There are some who believe that the Japanese people saw foreigners or those that did not fall under the Emperor’s rule as Oni, and from the general description of Oni, I can kind of see that as being the case especially if we’re talking about a Japanese person’s first meeting of say a Russian, European, or person of a darker skin tone.
In general, Oni have a pretty distinguishable look to them. They are predominantly male, very tall and muscular as well as hairy. They also are depicted as having one or more horns protruding from their head and a mouth full of oversized canine teeth in their large mouths just right for chowing down on human flesh. More often than not their skin is some sort of darker or unnatural shade like red, blue, yellow, or black. They are also usually shown as scantily clad in nothing more than a tiger-skinned loin-cloth. And while I say that they are usually predominantly male, there have been some notable female Oni, usually a woman who has been transformed into a monster by either hatred or shame.
There are some other notable qualities of Oni that I should mention as well, besides their propensity for cannibalism. For one, it is thought that Oni possess the ability to control lightning, and have commonly been associated with lightning storms. Why this is the case ranges from the theory that Oni were used as a way to explain natural and frightening phenomena to the fact that metalworkers were often seen as outcasts of society. When metalworking was just introduced to Japan, it wasn’t exactly a sought-after trade and those people were relegated to the borders of society, and so the process of shaping metal was thought of as connected to Oni both because of their outcast status and the fact that the sparks produced by shaping the metal reminding people of lightning. Another quality Oni have are their ability to shapeshift, much like many other youkai in Japanese mythology. They are sometimes seen as a sort of androgynous creature, able to shift between a male and female shape at will, often luring their victims in by being sexually alluring.
There are so many different representations of Oni in anime and manga, and I’ll only have the time and space to talk about a few. The first one that came to mind for me, because I love this series so much, are all the Oni in Yu Yu Hakusho that work under Koenma. This particular representation seems to be playing off of the Buddhist origins of the Oni mythology, painting Oni as the servants of Koenma and the God of the Underworld, King Enma. Their appearance matches pretty closely as well, with their strange skin colors, horns, and tiger-skin loin-cloths. And while they’re never seen as having the appetite for human flesh or actively punishing the denizens of Hell, we’re not really shown what really happens in the realm of the dead. I’m also tempted to say that Goki is an Oni, considering his huge, hairy, and horned demon form and his love of eating children, but I feel like he might be a different kind of youkai. Someone can correct me if I’m wrong.
Next we have the Oni brothers in Dragon Ball Z that Goku meets after he is killed and sent to the afterlife. When he accidentally falls off snake way, he winds up in the lower levels of the spirit world and consequently meets and blue and red Oni. These two characters play off the “Red Oni, Blue Oni” trope where characters of conflicting nature are often brought together as team members or wind up facing off against each other. The Red Oni is supposed to be the hot-headed brutish one while the Blue Oni is supposed to be the smarter more introspective one. However, Toriyama flipped this personality trope with these two. You can also see the more standard look of the Oni, with the horns on their head, large stature, and clubs they carry. They are also shown as working for King Yama (or Enma), by guarding his fruit trees, another variation on the Buddhist origin myth.
In more recent series we also have Odanna from Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits. Odanna carries some of the characteristics of Oni, but others not so much. For one, we see him as a handsome man with two small horns poking out of his head. It is commonly known that Oni can transform into a more handsome or appealing shape to lure their victims in. Odanna has also shown in later episodes that he can transform his shape at will, becoming a younger looking and more human version of himself. We also know that Odanna likes the taste of human flesh, but then so does every other youkai and ayakashi in the series, so cannibalism isn’t exactly special in this sense. One thing that confuses me though is his connection with fire, as Oni are almost always connected with the element of lightning. Perhaps this is due to their other connection to the Underworld, and this fire is supposed to be connected to the fires of Hell in some way. That I’m not sure. Odanna is also displayed as someone beneficial to the overall lives of Aoi and the town at large. This is not unique to the myths surrounding Oni, as some can be seen as bringers of good wealth, but it is an anomaly in their myths.
The last one I want to talk about is Lum from Urusei Yatsura. Reider goes into a lot of detail on the representation of Lum in terms of the Oni mythology, and I encourage you to check out what she has to say on the subject as I’ll only be able to paraphrase a little bit here. In essence, Reider likens the background of Lum as an Oni to those myths that deal with Oni as outsiders or foreigners considering her origins as an invading alien race. We also see a bit more of the female side of Oni as both alluring and possessive. We also see the connection through her appearance: her two horns on the top of her head, her tiger-skin bikini, and the small fangs that she has. She also has a connection or ability to control lightning at will, an affinity that is commonly associated in Oni mythology.
There are so many other anime and manga that I can point to to talk about Oni representation, but I’ve run out of space and time. If you have a favorite Oni-like character, let me know in the comments below! Otherwise, check out some further reading below.
~~Thanks for Reading!~~
- Michael Dylan Foster, The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore (2015)
- Noriko Reider, “The Transformation of the Oni: From Frightening and Diabolical to the Cute and Sexy”
- Noriko Reider, Japanese Demon Lore (2010)
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