Shuten Dōji Will Drink Your Blood and Eat Your Flesh

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A new exhibit, at the Smithsonian’s Sackler Gallery opens Saturday, March 21 and runs through September 20. It features hanging scrolls, folding screens and printed books telling the Shuten Dōji legend:

One thousand years ago, the ogre giant Shuten Dōji lounged in his mountain castle, sipping wine and snacking on samurai meat. As he dined with his demonic companions, with a gaggle of captive young noblewomen to serve them, perhaps he wondered how sweet life had turned out for him. A life of debauchery rewarded day after day with earthly pleasures.

Nearby by in Kyoto, the capital of medieval Japan, the emperor grew concerned. Each day, he was forced to stand by and watch, as Shuten Dōji kidnapped one woman after another. The emperor called for the legendary samurai Minaomoto "Raiko" Yorimitsu and his five retainers to conquer the ogre giant. The handsome and morally righteous Riako accepted the challenge, and after a brief stop to pray, he and his band set off toward Shuten Dōji’s castle on Mount Oe.

Disguised as Buddhist monks to avoid suspicion, with armor hidden in their wooden backpacks, the good guys traveled deep into the mountains. Along the way, the disguised samurai met three gods in human form, who shared their strong dislike for the ways of the wicked Shuten Dōji. Raiko is given a magical helmet, as well as a special sleep-inducing sake (rice wine), and the gods guide him to the castle.

When the samurai arrive, they are welcomed and entertained by Shuten Dōji, who is fooled by their monk costumes. After they enter the giant’s home, they watch as horned demons slice off human thigh and shoulder meat before eating it like sushi. Dōji settles down on his favorite decorative rug as the captured noblewomen enter through hand-painted doors to serve the guests wine. It’s then when Raiko gives Shuten Dōji the special sake, and the giant quickly becomes drunk and sleepy.

What Raiko doesn't know, is that whenever someone serves Shuten Dōji wine, the ogre giant transforms into a hairy, red, demon. But Raiko, nevertheless, ambushes and beheads the monster. The hero can’t declare victory, however, because when Raiko least expects it, Shuten Dōji’s head jumps back to life and attempts to kill the samurai. Protected by his magic helmet, Raiko deflects the attacks, conquers the monster and his demon henchmen, and marches victoriously back to Kyoto hauling Shuten Doji’s head in an ox-cart.

Good vanquishes evil once again.

The "Tale of Shuten Dōji," is a legend first found in 14th-century Japan. "This is a healthy corrective of any clichéd notion you had of Japan." said Jim Ulak, deputy director of the Freer and Sackler Galleries at a press preview yesterday morning.

The illustrations featured in the exhibit were one of the ways Japanese families entertained themselves in the 17th-century, when the most exquisite drawings were made. According to curator Ann Yonemura, a series of three hanging scrolls, which alternative between words and text like a children's book, would be the equivalent of a feature film.

Though fictional, there is at least one truth to this tale. No matter what period you live in, monsters, heroes and captured maidens make for good entertainment.

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