«Chi-mi-mô-ryô» 魑魅魍魎

By Reyne Le Nestour
Translation from French by Lucia Finotto

       Since the end of last year, VIVACE has been pursuing a new project called «Trio of Monono-ke». The trio involved is composed of three artists: a narrator, a pianist, and a percussionist. Yoko Nakatani composed some of the themes and music fragments, while I created a kind of “stage directions”, just as a guideline, as we wanted to maintain a spirit of improvisation. It was a challenge for us albeit a very rewarding one. At the beginning of April, we concluded the recording of three «Monono-ke» tales, and the editing process is well under way at this moment. The problem though is still the title: «Monono-ke». It is a mysterious word, and during all these months I have been thinking about how difficult it is to truly explain its meaning. It is for this reason that I decided to write about it.

       The tales we have been using for this project had been published in New York in 1972 by the John Wetherhill publishing house, which at the time also had a branch in Tokyo. The work was the product of a collaboration between the well-known calligrapher and painter Akeji Sumiyoshi, known in France as “Maître Akeji”, and Patrick Le Nestour (pen name PALEN), a poet and a linguist, later, a professor of Japanese.
       These two artists had met in Tokyo in 1964 and immediately formed an artistic bond and a personal friendship which was going to last throughout their lives. Maître Akeji was familiar with the Japanese folktales and used to recount them to PALEN. The latter chose seventeen among them, and rewrote the stories in English, adding his own personal twist. Akeji painted a table for each tale, according to their subject. This splendid album was published in a limited edition of only 183 copies. It is luxurious oversize volume (42cm×32cm16.5in×12.6in) with cloth binding and a slipcase. Especially remarkable is the fact that all the illustrations by Maître Akeji are original. This means that he painted more than three thousand tables for this book.
       From 1965 to the end of his life, in 2018, Akeji and his wife Asako withdrew from the world to live on the Himuro mountain, north of Kyoto, and to lead a life of seclusion and self-sufficiency. Akeji produced his colors and his painting brushes himself, exclusively from materials that he collected from the surrounding nature.
       One day, a few years ago, Maître Akeji explained to me how the title of the book had been chosen. He said that he thought: “It must be the time when «Monono-ke» can be released little by little” and he chose «Monono-ke–Mystery of things» as a title, which was rather unusual for 1972. Yet, at that moment I did not try to think about the meaning of his words.

       There are two possible Chinese characters which could be used to write «Monono-ke». One means “Ghosts of things” and the other “Appearances of things”. From the Heian (794-1185) to the Kamakura (1185-1333) eras, this word meant “Spirits bringing curses to people”. People were frightened, and the word was very much in use at the time. Mysteriously though, the word later became obsolete and remained inconspicuous for nearly six hundred years.
       In 1997, just a few years after the publication of a book on the same subject, an animation film directed by Hayao Miyazaki, entitled «Princess Monono-ke» achieved worldwide success. Because of that, today the word «Monono-ke» evokes Miyazaki’s movie to the mind of most people around the world. Despite that, I believe that we do not really understand the true meaning of this word.

       Personally, I think that «Monono-ke» (the spoken word) is a synonym of «Chi-mi-mô-ryô» (used in the written language). But let us take a moment and look up this word in a dictionary; here is what we find:
«Monono-ke» = Type of phantoms, living spirits, revenants who curse people.
«Chi-mi-mô-ryô» = Spirits of nature. Different kinds of revenants. Monstrous apparitions.
       I realized that there are several little nuances of meaning within the same semantic field and a strange atmosphere about them: «Monono-ke» is strongly connected with “fear-恐れ” while «Chi-mi-mõ-ryõ» has a lot more impact, emphasizing “reverence-畏れ”. (The pronunciation of these two words is identical – “osore” in Japanese)

      On the other hand, as I said above, I could not resist the temptation of looking up the etymology of “oni-”. The left part of the four characters composing «Chi-mi-mô-ryô-魑魅魍魎» are exactly “oni-” which today means, “monster” or “demon”. Regardless, its meaning is negative and sinister. Finally, after some time spent researching, I found a rather convincing hypothesis.
       Here is my theory: Etymologically the word “oni” is a compound of “o--big” and “ni- -vermillion”. Centuries ago, “ni” was a synonym of “vermillion earth” and it was believed that the spirits inhabited the vermillion earth… This shade of red color was used during divination rituals, such as “Haniwa” and “Torii”. In time, the same word “ni” came to signify “divine spirit”. This theory concludes that “oni” meant “Big spirit”. From this we can say that «Monono-ke» must have meant “Appearance of invisible things”. I imagine that once upon a time people lived with these “things”, respecting and revering them.
       Nevertheless, during the second third of the Heian, period, in the famous « Tale of Genji », we can find a sentence announcing “Oni, it stinks…” and the living spirit of Dame Rokujyô-no-miyasudokoro exerting Dame Aoi until her death is called «Monono-ke».
       In the 11th century, Japan was going through a period of cultural reconstruction after an era of significant foreign influence. At the same time, Japanese politics and civil society were on the verge of collapse because of the myriads of conspiracies to overthrow power and the vulgarization of Onmyô-dô (the principle of yin and yang) which took hold among the masses. During this period of social upheaval, the distinction between “fear” and “reverence” gradually faded away and, of course, “fear” totally took over the field.

       Linguistically speaking, all languages are living beings naturally morphing and self-transforming. In the end, I think of the words of Maître Akeji “It must be the time when «Monono-ke» can be released little by little”. Perhaps he wanted to say that we need to resurrect the feeling of reverence for « Monono-ke».
      Suddenly, I don’t know why, I feel like we too are similar to the dusty smoke of «Chi-mi-mô-ryô».