This time we continue reading the Japanese historical novel The Demon Cat Sword by Kouichi Matsuoka (松岡弘一の“妖猫剣”). The story resumes with Kyoushirou, still in his pet cat form Shiro, returning alone to visit his human master Orin. She is worried when she sees he is covered with blood and dirt, so she calls for their family doctor to take a look at him, the middle-aged mustachioed Ryouan whom Shiro quickly pegs as a quack who is just running up Orin’s medical bill. Ryouan examines Shiro’s wounds and correctly deduces Shiro was cut by a blade. They struggle as he tries to put medicine on Shiro, but Shiro notices at some point that Ryouan is really a demon! He sees Ryouan has a tail and follows him out into the street when he leaves.
Ryouan gets into a palanquin that is carried through the fruit and vegetable market of Shirakabe. This part offers some characterizations that suggest a more comical attitude toward the characters than was evident in the first few chapters of the book, including this great description as Shiro attempts to question Ryouan:
This passage describes how Shiro is discovered in Ryouan’s palanquin. The men who carry the palanquin are disturbed by what they hear in it and investigate, finding a large white cat perched on Ryouan’s shoulder like a falcon on a falconer. Kyoushirou has a sharp claw poised to cut a vein in Ryouan’s neck as he questions who sent Ryouan! Ryouan tells him about a dead freelance samurai whom I will call the Rotting Ronin.
This part in chapter 6 gives us more insight into how the demon world works and how their true natures are revealed to one another. One interesting detail is that Ryouan married a human woman and has half-human, half-demon children with her, though his family is unaware of his demonic nature. Kyoushirou leaves Ryouan on good terms, even with an invitation to Ryouan’s medical practice in Konya, as he follows the Rotting Ronin when he sees the ronin wrapped in cloth in the marketplace during this discussion.
Kyoushirou finds the Rotting Ronin in a nearby Buddhist cemetery under a withered tree. The author sets quite the scene with paper lanterns rattling in the wind at dusk and even a disembodied spirit floating around. At this point, Kyoushirou turns back into his human form, which is that of a beautiful, naked young man. He talks with the Rotting Ronin about the message Okoma pilfered. The Rotting Ronin suggests it is an assassination plan, but Kyoushirou wonders who is to be assassinated. They discuss their situation of coexistence with the human world before the Rotting Ronin takes his leave.
The next scene has Kyoushirou and Okoma in their white and black cat forms respectively, attending the March 3rd Doll festival on a snowy evening in Edo. People are gathered around a place serving warmed sake as well as around the gate to the Takamatsu house. This is the night that the letter Okoma took had referenced as the time of the assassination. Indeed, the daimyo of Takamatsu, Kinemon, is riding around Edo in a palanquin with samurai surrounding him as his guards. Kinemon got on the bad side of many samurai and ronin for his manipulation of the rice market, and the assassination plot is soon set in motion as groups of ronin leave a tavern shouting for the death penalty on their way to intercept the palanquin. They stab into the bamboo blinds of the palanquin with their swords, hearing Kinemon’s cries. Kinemon is buried and said to have died of an illness, the disinformation probably part of the whole assassination conspiracy. His head is pickled in salt and stolen away in a bucket rather than buried with the rest of him. The cats witness this event, but the next scene has them checking out some new clothes in human form while getting a little flirty with each other.
Then Kyoushirou meets with the Takamatsu house’s chief minister, Isobe Kisaburo. He shows Isobe a letter which I assume is about the assassination plot, and a sum of money is discussed. Kyoushirou realizes he can’t reveal where he was during the assassination since he’d have to explain why he was a cat, and he can’t talk about the existence of demons here with this man. While they are talking, a spear tip pierces through the shoji screen, and Kyoushirou picks up a small seal, probably a name chop, that someone dropped in the commotion of the attack. One of the attendants of the house discovers that the pickled head of Kinemon was left there and freaks out before Kyoushirou leaves. Kinemon’s nose is cut off, which makes the discovery even more gruesome. Later when Kyoushirou meets up with Okoma with the stolen seal, he laughs callously at this reaction.
Then they banter a bit about Kyoushirou’s feelings for Orin after he playfully rebuffs Okoma when she can’t keep her hands off of him. But he tells her that Orin is his human master and is like a daughter to him. When she scoffs, he says Orin is his goddess. Okoma asks what she is to Kyoushirou then, and his answer is something about her being his lecherous cat shapeshifter, which she really finds amusing: “すけべな化け猫.” It’s kind of cute since they are obviously so into each other, and this overall lecherous portrayal is consistent with real feral cat behavior generally. I was wondering how the author would handle the issue of having a girl’s pet cat able to turn into a handsome young man. There is now perhaps some hint of a love triangle possible, but that may amount to nothing since book two in the series does have Okoma and Kyoushirou still paired; the cover art for that book shows a human samurai with a black cat sitting across his shoulder, so Okoma must still be his girl then.
Kyoushirou goes to Hikawa Shrine in the mountains where there are more disembodied spirits. He meets the Rotting Ronin, who now has the demon sword. The sword’s power is evident here, and I guess it has some sort of snake spirit in it or some snake attribute. When it appears in the story, there’s always some talk about a snake around it. It’s hard to understand because one of the kanji pairs that comes up doesn’t seem to be in any dictionaries that make sense of the term. The scene is very complex, with both Kyoushirou and the Rotting Ronin transforming while exposed to this flashing, glowing sword. Okoma shows up because she’s worried about Kyoushirou. There are many words in katakana here that I can’t figure out, but there is a moment where they decide that they’ve found Kinemon’s nose. The nose is related somehow to some Japanese demon called Toubyou (トウビョウ) that is a snake and probably why I can’t make heads or tails of this section. It’s one of those esoteric Japanese legendary monsters that everyone over there knows and that is enshrined in a few places in Japan. The main English-language reference I find for it is on some gaming wiki for Megami Tensei and this page on Wikipedia [Japanese only]:
It doesn’t give any clues regarding what the origin of this monster may be, but it doesn’t look too native given that it has no kanji or hiragana name that I can find. Perhaps it’s a Hindu borrow?
Part 1 wraps up with a brief but sweet description of Shiro the white cat returning to crawl onto a futon with Orin, licking her feet to tickle her, but this passage is split in two. After a few paragraphs at the end of part 1, it continues in chapter 1 of part 2. But overall the story swings from garishly violent portrayals of death, a “Beetlejuice” ghost vibe, lusty moments between Kyoushirou and Okoma, and the pet cat cuteness of Orin with Shiro.
Part 2, “Accepting One’s Fate,” is much shorter at 8 chapters. I didn’t use the title for the blog post title after all since I found more dramatic elements than this rather clichéd concept. Chapter 1 continues with Kyoushirou as Shiro the pet cat with Orin, licking her and enjoying the warmth of her room since it is winter and snowy outside. It may be that Orin is not truly a young child but may be as old as 17. The text doesn’t come right out and say that’s how old she is here but is a bit oblique about the time. At the beginning of the book, Orin is called a shoujo (少女), a term which usually covers girls from the age of 7 to 18, a very large range, plus girls were marriageable much younger in the Edo period.
Chapter 2 of part 2 starts off following Okoma in much the way part 1 followed Kyoushirou in a few solo moments. Here we find out that Okoma is indeed a pickpocket by trade though sometimes she works as a restaurant serving girl. It gets into more detail about the friction between the demon world and human world when humans first came to the country. Apparently, some of the humans tried to exterminate the demons, and the demons went into hiding over this. Okoma is involved with a business selling boiled food and dojou or loach soup, loach being just a thin eel-like type of fish, so she’s going back to work in that type of establishment at this point of the story.
Here is a description of one of the old Edo period dojou soup establishments that is still open for business and trying to preserve the traditional menu:
Here is the menu for that shop with photos from their Japanese language site:
Okoma gets her first customer and tries to figure out what percentage of demon blood the woman has, concluding that the woman was the type that she can’t figure out. This section also talks a lot about how Okoma is setting up this restaurant as a monster consultation office (お化け相談所). Next time we’ll see what this place is all about as we continue reading.
This section of the novel gets a bit hairy for a non-native reading it since there are so many obscure kanji and katakana that come up for the historical aspects and for fantasy elements. But this illustrates why I differ strongly with many second language teachers who prefer graded readers and more controlled intermediate and advanced level texts, though not many of these types of texts exist anyway for native speakers of English learning a foreign language. So you are really better off struggling with a text and encountering words like this that you aren’t sure of. As with your native language, reading widely is the only way to really gain fluency, and it’s not wrong to not have perfect understanding of every word all of the time.
Part two of a four part series.