Thursday, May 24, 2012

Review: Professor Munakata, vol. 3

Recently I've been encountering the name Yukinobu Hoshino with some regularity.  One of the first cases was a couple of months ago when I picked up a copy of Big Comic, and read his interpretation of James P. Hogan's Inherit the Stars.  Since I'd already reviewed Big Comic, I didn't bother doing a write-up of it again. Later, I stumbled across 2001 Nights on Manga Fox, and seriously considered doing a short review of that, except that I just couldn't get into the series long enough to really research it.  2001 Nights is available translated in the U.S., so you can buy it and check it out for yourself, if you want.  If you're not familiar with Hoshino, then one place to start out is Helen McCarthy's commentary on her British Museum exhibit on him.  He does have a strong SF background, but he likes to write in other genres as well.  Which brings me to the next book.

(All rights belong to their owners. Images used here for review purposes only.)

Case Records of Professor Munakata (Munakata Kyouju Ikouroku), vol. 3, by Yukinobu Hoshino, Grade A.
I received a copy of volume 3, and started reading this series in the middle.  It's pretty easy to pick up and start following along, since the stories don't really build on each other.  The title character, Munakata, is a wandering professor of Japanese folklore, and he spends most of his time visiting different parts of the country to research the origins of various myths.  He's a big man, bald, usually wearing an overcoat, vest and bowler and walking with a cane.  He's strong, but not a particularly good fighter.  In a number of panels, he reminds me of John Cleese. Most of his real skill comes from remembering various stories and being able to connect seemingly unrelated elements to form a larger tapestry.  Since some of the tales include various fantastic creatures, he embodies parts of Ryoko Yakushiji and Master Keaton.  The artwork is very solid, and the backgrounds are extremely detailed.  There's lots of history, not just Japanese but also European and American, and drawings of various museum artifacts.  As long as you can accept things like instantaneous travel or jealous gods in an otherwise straightforward whodunit murder mystery, then it's a pretty riveting book.

In the first story, Sayo Hime no Gawa (Princess Sayo's River) a group of protesters are attempting to shut down a construction project putting up a dam across a river. The leader, a young woman with health problems, claims that the dam will kill the river.  Driving back home with her friend at the end of the day, they encounter Munakata walking alongside the road in the rain.  He's looking for the source of a specific folk tale regarding a Princess that had been eaten by a river snake demon.  They stop at one point and trek farther up the hill, where they see the mayor, the owner of the construction company, and some other business bigwigs playing golf together.  The next day, the woman suffers a dizzy spell, has a vision of being eaten by the river snake, and has to go to the hospital, leaving her friend and the professor to hike around until they find a giant boulder that had fallen hundreds of years earlier and blocked off the source of a different river. Munakata claims that the event surrounding this boulder was actually the origin of the Princess Sayo folk tale. The woman arrives at the boulder just in time for a big mudslide. She uses her cell phone to warn all of the protesters away from the dam. Then, because of the runoff from the golf course, the clear cutting of the forest, and the recent heavy rains, the mudslide turns into a flood, claiming the woman and all of the bigwigs celebrating the completion of the dam farther downstream.  The story ends with the woman's funeral.

Suisei Ou - Ragou no Hen (Comet Emperor - The Ragou Text), starts out with records of the appearances of Halley's Comet through the ages, and then picks up with Takeshi, a school boy, meeting up with Imibe, Munakata's rival in folklore studies.  Imibe and Munakata are both after stories about Susanoo, the legendary brother of the sun goddess Amaterasu.  Over time, the stories about the two tended to change, with Susanoo being degraded to a lesser character.  Takeshi's father was an explorer who had witnessed the most recent Halley's Comet appearance, and his notes are central to tracking down a related Shinto figure called Ragou.  In celestial terms, Ameterasu is linked to the sun, Susanoo to the moon, and Ragou to comets.  One unusual feature of Ragou's shrine is that it has a three-sided torii gate, and there is only one known example of this in Japan, on the west coast.  However, Munakata has found a statue dedicated to Ragou on the east coast.  Eventually, the group discovers that an ancient tribe of Japanese had built another three-sided torii in a cave under a well at the west coast, and it triggers with the appearance of Halley's comet.  According to Takeshi's father's notes, one entrance to the gate gives immortality, one gives death and the other transports.  Takeshi's mother and grandfather follow the boy to the well and it's revealed that the grandfather has been on a quest for immortality and had forced Takeshi's father through one of the gates to see which one it was - killing him.  Up until now, the boy and his mother had thought that the explorer had simply abandoned them.  As the grandfather tries to push Munakata through a second gate, Imibe, who's been hiding in the shadows, accidentally breaks through part of the well wall, letting an underground river flood the cave.  Munakata grabs Takeshi and the two of them enter the transport gate, taking them all the way over to a second cave with another three-sided torii, next to the Ragou statue in eastern Japan.  Imibe and Takeshi's mother are saved, but the grandfather and his bodyguards are presumed dead.

In Goou no Hourai (Arrival of the Cow God), Munakata and an assistant are traveling by bus to a remote village in order to investigate the legends of a cow-based shinto god, when a steer bolts across the road and is struck by the bus.  The vehicle isn't running now (and the steer is dead) so the passengers have to get out and walk 2 kilometers to the next town.  The assistant gets sick from seeing the corpse, and the sudden appearance of a wandering pilgrim causes her to pass out.  Munakata has to carry the woman on his back, and he and the pilgrim stop at a dairy farm to rest.  However, the two brothers running the farm are having a falling out, with the younger, meaner one accusing the older of letting 4 of his cattle escape. The younger one leaves and the older brother invites the three visitors inside.  Munakata notices a small shrine at the roof of the building that asks for the blessing of the Cow God, and he recounts the legend of the god who had visited two brothers in two different towns.  The one brother refused to welcome the god, while the other had set out a feast for him.  Some years later, the god returned with fellow warriors and laid waste to the village of the mean brother.  Munakata suspects that the story has something to do with a plague and human sacrifice.  The next day, he and the pilgrim explore the area and find a field with the remains of the original temple dedicated to the god.  Suddenly, three bulls show up in the field and attack, causing the two men to fall into a ravine, where they discover a huge bull skull with the horns still attached - the origin of the cow god story.  Above them, the bulls collapse.  A little later, the police arrive with a veterinarian, and the two brothers.  The younger brother recognizes his missing cattle, and the vet says that they have mad cow disease - the entire stock had come from Hong Kong, and hadn't been immunized. All 50 head are going to have to be culled, devastating the meaner younger brother, and completing the parallels of the legend.  Munakata comments that the skull of the "cow god" resembles that of a species of gigantic cattle that had been common in Europe thousands of years ago, but had been exterminated by humans. He wonders how one of those cattle could have made its way to Japan.

Uriko Hime Satsujin Jiken (The Princess Uriko Murder Case). A police detective is taking testimony from Munakata.  The professor is at an archeology dig in a forest searching for clues to Princess Uriko, and he'd noticed a large flock of crows making noise in a tree.  When he investigated, he found the corpse of a woman stuck in the upper branches and reported it to the police. The detective makes the link to a disappearance 2 years earlier of a woman named Sakiko, the step-sister of Noriko, the woman in the tree.  The two step sisters had been engaged to the same man, but Sakiko had supposedly committed suicide at a dam, leaving one shoe behind, so now the fiance is the main suspect.  However, Munakata relates the story of Princess Uriko, a young woman that had been engaged to marry a prince. Before the wedding, a fox spirit kidnapped Uriko, took her clothes and tied her to a branch at the top of a tree.  The fox disguised itself as the princess, but when the procession traveled down the road to the wedding site, someone spotted Uriko in the tree and the fox was unmasked, cut up into 3 parts and its eyes poked out.  This is eerily similar to what happened to Noriko, in that the crows had eaten her eyes.  Munakata also relates the story of Cinderella, where prior to the Brothers Grimm version, the step sisters had cut off their own toes to get their feet to fit into the glass slipper, and while on their way to the castle, were attacked by crows and their eyes plucked out.  Munakata speculates that what had happened was that Noriko was jealous of Sakiko's being in love with the same man as her, killed her step sister and then dismembered the body. The parts had been disposed of (with the shoe being found at the dam), but Noriko had gotten nervous and had driven alone to the top of the hill over the forest to look down at where she'd thrown a different part.  Supposedly, the angry spirits of Sakiko and Uriko caused her to slip and fall to her death in the trees below.  At the professor's suggestion, the detective has his men scour the forest, and they find a shoulder bag, with a mummified foot inside still wearing an old shoe.

Shuten Douji Ibun (The Strange Tale of the Drunk Child, or The Strange Tale of Shuten Douji). Munakata is out hiking the hills north of Kyoto looking for an old shrine that can help him confirm the story of Shuten Douji.  He meets an old priest and the two of them continue walking, exchanging details of the stories as they know them.  Several hundred years ago, the Mikado of the time wanted to defeat a group of oni, so he sent out his finest warriors.  One of the demons turned itself into a handsome young man with a penchant for drinking sake, hence getting the nickname "Shuten Douji".  The warriors failed to find the oni's castle, but did locate an underground passage that led to a big chamber filled with scorched bones.  The professor speculates that there'd been a plague at the time, and the story was related to the burning of the bodies of the deceased.  As they keep going, the priest demonstrates an agility in bounding up boulders that belies his age of 108.  They reach a shrine at the top of one peak, where a stone carving of a monster face with horns is confirmed as being one of the rarer images of an oni. Discarded bits of iron in a circle nearby might be from swords that had been stuck in the ground as part of a related folk legend.  The priest guides Munakata into realizing that the oni legend is actually an allegory regarding Oda Nobunaga's victorious surprise attack against the Imagawa clan at the battle of Okehazama, just outside Kyoto.  (The bit about burned bodies may really regard the torching of an entire village during the war.) Suddenly, the priest transforms into one of Nobunaga's generals, and Munakata finds himself surrounded by mounted samurai that rush past him.  When the vision fades, the priest has vanished and the professor finds himself completely alone on the mountain.

Summary: The Case Records of Professor Munakata features a professor of Japanese folk lore who travels Japan (and even goes to Britain in a different volume) in search for the facts hidden beneath various legends and myths.  The artwork is solid and the stories are filled with the history and culture of Japan, from the Jomon and Yayoi periods.  If you can accept the fantastic elements, such as teleportation and vengeful ghosts, this this is a great series. Recommended.

As a side note, in Shuten Douji Ibun, Abe no Seimei makes a cameo appearance as the ancient priest that had originally set up protections against the oni army.  Seimei is featured in one of the Konjaku Monogatari stories illustrated by Shigeru Mizuki (which I'll review next week).

1 comment:

Mizuki Genshou said...

Very well written review, thank you!