Monday, May 4, 2015

Folktale Files: Rokurokubi

Rokurokubi by PEJIE on Deviantart

For centuries, tales of strange women have circulated throughout Japan.  They are the Rokurokubi.  It's said that at night, the heads of these perfectly normal-looking women will snake out on impossibly elongated necks or detach entirely, then stalk the night in search of blood and death.  A man who marries a rokurokubi can expect only misery and despair.

There are actually two kinds of rokurokubi (and depending on what you're reading or who you're talking to, they might be described as different spirits entirely).  There are the nukekubi, whose heads are completely detached when active.  And then there are those with "necks that extend".  These have no extra name, and are simply called rokurokubi.

The Nukekubi

The nukekubi were actually the original type of rokurokubi.  The head of the nukekubi is said to come off at night and fly through the air in search of victims.  They attack people, or sneak upon them in their sleep to drink their blood.

A nukekubi could be killed, however, if one was to locate the body and move it.  The head, missing its body and lost, would never be able to reattach.  Some stories say that at dawn, the monstrous head would be destroyed.

There are other stories that circulate around the nukekubi.  Some say that the nukekubi phenomenon is simply a metaphor for somnambulism (sleep-walking).  There are a number of stories which paint the nukekubi as less-than-terrifying, wherein the head is found wandering around at night by a lone man along the road.  The man draws his sword, and chases the head all the way home.  Inside, the nukekubi wakes up, exclaiming that she had a nightmare about being chased by a man with a sword.

Different renditions present the nukekubi as a modified form of astral projection (so to speak).  In other words, the spirit of the woman leaves her body.  When the spirit does this, it happens to take the form of her head during its ghostly jaunts.  The woman's actual head stays attached to her, but her spirit head floats free in the night.

An essay by Matsura Seizan in "Kasshi Yawa" tells my favorite nukekubi story.  (By the way, if this has somehow been made into a horror movie, even just a short, SOMEBODY PLEASE TELL ME.)  Once upon a time, the story goes, in Hitachi province, a woman fell ill with a dire, incurable sickness.  A travelling peddler told her husband that eating "the liver of a white dog" would heal her.  So, husband goes home and kills the family dog.  The woman eats the liver, and is cured.  But the girl she gives birth to soon after is born a nukekubi.  Later, when the head of the girl is flying around, the white dog reappears, bites the head, and they both disappear.  The end.

A final detail I particularly enjoy about the nukekubi is how one can identify the monster.  It's said that upon waking, a person can see a thin line encircling a nukekubi's neck where the head detaches.  I love this because it reminds me of one of my first favorite ghost stories: The Red Ribbon.

The Rokurokubi

Possibly a deleted still from 100 Monsters
In the Edo period (between 1603 and 1868), tales of the long-neck Rokurokubi began to surface.  The necks of these rokurokubi are often depicted in art of the era as extremely thin, sometimes drawn as a barely discernible line.  Later renditions leave the neck as a consistently long, infinitely extendable organ.  It seems that rokurokubi can elongate their necks at will, and not simply during unconsciousness.  As a result, the stories rationalizing the rokurokubi are distinct from those surrounding the nukekubi.

In another story from the "Kasshi Yawa", a teacher checks on his female student one night and sees a column of steam rising from her chest.  As he continues to look, her head disappears, and is replaced with an image of an extremely long neck rising into the air.  However, when the student turns over in bed, her neck returns to normal.  The teacher dismissed her the next morning.  This story gave rise to the notion that the rokurokubi's neck was an ectoplasmic manifestation of the soul as it leaves the body.  

Elsewhere, the rokurokubi is closely tied to karma.  Like the story of the nukekubi and the white dog, rokurokubi are said to be born as the result of karma destined to punish their parents for past crimes.  

Other stories say that the rokurokubi are simply women afflicted by a particular medical condition.  The cause or mechanism for this condition is not known, but is not believed to be a spiritual phenomenon.  Later, in side shows and magic acts, individuals with slightly longer necks than usual would be displayed to the public (or life-like dolls would be used to simulate the stretched-neck effect).      

The final explanation for the rokurokubi is that they are snakes which have shape-shifted into human form.  Not to be confused with the amphibious yokai known as the Nure-onna.  Nure-onna have snake bodies with female heads and dwell by bodies of water and are completely different.  Japan has a lot of monsters...  

In conclusion, the rokurokubi is a wonderful introduction to the broad and diverse world of Japanese spirits.  They can be creepy or silly, depending on the context, but always weird.

If you'd like more of a yokai fix, I recommend 100 Monsters (if you can manage to find it).  It's a movie that has a few very effective moments of atmospheric horror but is mostly goofy-ass ridiculousness with puppets.  Check out the trailer below.


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