Fairy Tale Tuesday No.89 – The Ogre of Rashomon

In this story from The Japanese Fairy Book, collected by Yei Theodora Ozaki, the city of Kyoto is being terrorised by a savage ogre. According to local rumour, he waits at the gate of Rashomon at twilight and devours those who would pass through. Obviously, they stop using the gate.

Fortunately, a legendary ogre-slaying general happens to be in town with his band of knights. One of them hears the story and shares it with his friend Watanabe, but Watanabe dismisses the idea as ‘some old woman’s story’. When prodded with the accusation that he’s too afraid to believe, he agrees to go and investigate. To show how fearless he is, he has all the other knights write their names on a sheet of paper, so that he can stick it on the gate and thereby prove he was there.

It’s a dark, wet night. Watanabe reaches the gate without incident, looks about, decides that’s quite enough investigation for a stupid bet and sticks the paper on the gate so that he can go home. Then his helmet is pulled from his head, and he realises he’s not alone. Groping blindly in the dark, his hand encounters a vast, hairy arm. There is an ogre after all.

Watanabe slashes at the arm, and quickly regrets it as the rest of the ogre comes into sight. The creature is huge, taller than the gate, and breathes fire. Watanabe holds firm, however, and launches a full-on attack. The ogre is taken aback by his ferocity. Realising the knight is actually quite dangerous, he decides to cut his losses and leg it. Though Watanabe gives chase, he can’t quite catch him, and returns empty-handed to the city. There, under the gate, he finds the arm he cut off. Watanabe brings that back to show his friends.

They are all terribly proud and the story quickly spreads, but Watanabe’s sense of accomplishment is tempered by the knowledge there’s a really angry one-armed ogre out there somewhere who probably wants that limb back. He seals the arm in a box of iron and keeps it in his room, always under his eye.

One night an old lady knocks on the door. She claims to have been Watanabe’s nurse when he was a baby. Though puzzled as to why she would call so late, Watanabe is pleased by the news and orders his servant to bring her in. The old lady is full of praise for his deeds at the gate of Rashomon and begs to be shown the arm. Though very reluctant at first, he finally opens the box to show her. Leaning close, she suddenly plunges her hand inside. “Oh joy!” she bellows. “I have got my arm back again!”

Because of course she’s not Watanabe’s nurse, she’s the ogre, cunningly disguised. Having reclaimed his arm, he takes on his own shape – presumably destroying Watanabe’s roof in the process. Though shocked, the knight reacts fast. He draws his sword and tries to fight, but the ogre just leaps into the air and disappears into the clouds. He never returns to Kyoto.

This story leaves me with several questions. For instance, master of disguise though the ogre evidently is, how did he even know what Watanabe’s nurse looked like? Also, given that he’s at least twice the knight’s size, you would think he might inflict a little more damage. There is no indication that Watanabe’s sword is magical; whatever strength he has is entirely his own. The power of being the hero of the story is a wonderful thing! Provided he can be goaded into using it, that is.

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