Saturday, 20 December 2014

Child-Eating Winter Demons #1: Namahage

You hear it every single year. Some young, metropolitan types in semi-formal garbs slurping on mocha lattes and mulling over the pros and cons of Christmas as if, even after thirty consecutive years of it, they've never had this tedious conversation before. One of them straightens up in their chair and says, "ah, sure it's for the chaps, isn't it?" and shakes her head at the Bewley's waitress that's been circling their table like a vulture waiting to seat the next pack of mincing Dubcentric overcoats.

Well to you I say this; fuck the chaps.

What have they ever done for anyone? Besides screaming, roaring, and writhing around in pools of their own wee while you're trying to entertain drunken house guests on Christmas eve. They're little headaches who exist only to bleed your bank account dry, turn into egomaniacal, techno-dependent teenagers, and to dump a snotty grandchild in your lap by the time you're fifty-two.

My main gripe with them is that they're just not very good at things. If I were ever to procreate with someone, I'd have to be assured that the corpulent result of our efforts would at lease be capable of telepathy or possess the ability to commune with the dead. Useful things, abilities that the mother and I could benefit from, none of this colouring book shite. I'm not the only one with this opinion either, human beings have expected the very best from their offspring for centuries and have sought to instill the fear of failure in them for just as long.

While Christmas has its share of benign and generous creatures that want only the best for the children, there are also those of a more rigid and cruel demeanour that stalk in the shadows. For every Yang there is a Yin, and as long as there are little bastard kids that don't do as they're told, there is a Christmas demon that will gobble up the ungovernable tykes, leaving little but a crimson stain on their Peppa Pig bedclothes for their parents to discover in the morning.

So let's celebrate these all-important moral enforcers, these horned foils to Father Christmas, these child-eating transdimensional overseers to which we owe so very much.

The Namahage (生剥)

The Japanese have a long and rich history of scaring the fuck out of each other, most of all they've had a long and rich history of scaring their children into boundless servitude, which has led to the mosaic web of fantastical beasts and night demon myths that make Japanese culture so very interesting and utterly disturbing. And so, we travel to the Akita Prefecture of Northern Japan, to a little fishing city called Oga, for our first look at demonic and festive whip-cracking.

One of the big cultural practices unique to Oga is their New Year's Eve (Western calendar) 'Namahage Festival' in which large groups of young men don ogre-like masks, straw costumes, and run wild around the city brandishing kitchen knives and making sure the children of the city have been respecting their elders and have been doing what they're told.

The legends begins, as many Japanese tales do, with those pesky Chinese. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty (87 BC) came to Japan and with him came five ogres (Oni) with a penchant for stealing crops and women from the people of Oga. As rebuttal, the people of Oga challenged these ogres to build a thousand-step staircase from Oga to the five shrine halls before the morning time. If the ogres could complete this task, the people of Oga would supply them with a young woman every year, but failure would result in their instant banishment from the city. The story ends with one of the Oga peasants crying like a rooster to fool the Ogres into believing that time had run out and they'd failed the challenge.

It's a bit of a fucking head-scratcher though because the ogres seem to come back every New Year's Eve to scare the shit out of the children (and apparently female in-laws) into obeying their families. It's that kind of lapse in continuity that would usually put me off a good myth, but I can forgive any tradition that makes bratty kids cry in public.

The Namahage actors dance around the city wielding their giant knives, handing out sticky rice cakes, and baying for the blood of naughty children. It shows a bit of duality in Japanese demonism when an earthbound ogre walks through the streets of your home with the intention of either giving you a cake to ward off disaster, or skin your child alive. If Western kids often burst into tears while sitting on a benevolent fat man's lap, imagine what would happen if we gave him a knife and the agency to frighten some manners into the little shits.

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