“Shutendoji Monogatari,” (“The Tale of the Drunken Demon”), is one of Japan’s most popular folk tales, dating back to the 14th century. Beyond its depictions in pictures and scrolls, it features in kabuki and noh plays as well as modern-day comic books that highlight its humorous themes. The story has also served a didactic purpose, communicating ethics and religious beliefs, and providing important moral lessons about the follies of human nature.

The demon, Shutendoji, enters the world as the offspring of a Buddhist deity and a human woman. Early in life he develops an unhealthy fondness for liquor, and eventually, after a failed attempt to reform him at a Buddhist monastery, his true nature emerges. He becomes a demon and takes refuge in a distant mountain castle. His subsequent life of evil is punctuated by his assistants’ sorties into the capital to kidnap beautiful maidens.

Tokyo’s Nezu Museum, in celebration of the new year, is exhibiting picture scrolls of this tale by three artists dating from the 16th to the 19th century. The highlight of the show is an eight-scroll depiction of the story by Sumiyoshi Hironao (c. 1781-1863). The eight scrolls, part of the museum’s permanent collection, each measure 10 meters long, making this the most detailed set of Shutendoji illustrations in existence. This marks the first time that the museum has displayed the scrolls in their entirety.

Sumiyoshi’s work is exquisitely depicted on silk, resulting in bold, crisp colors. An official painter serving the shogunal court, he was commissioned to create the series as a dowry for a daimyo’s daughter. Sumiyoshi is known for his work in yamato-e, the traditional style of Japanese painting that dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185). Characteristics of yamato-e include the stylization of thematic elements, use of brilliant pigments and depiction of traditional cultural themes.

One of the most compelling images from Sumiyoshi’s scrolls is the last scene, in which Lord Minamoto no Yorimitsu (948-1021), commonly named Raiko, decapitates the demon. The severed head, still alive, flies across the room and attempts to snap off Raiko’s head. The sacred helmet Raiko received from Buddhist deities, however, protects him from the demon’s wrath.

Stories such as this one, which first appeared in Japanese literature during the Kamakura Period (1185-1333), glorified the world of the samurai and their bravery. The mighty warriors of “The Tale of the Drunken Demon,” led by Raiko, set out on a mission to Mount Ibuki, outside present-day Kyoto, to rescue court princesses captured by the evil Shutendoji. The story ends with the victorious slaying of the demon and the repatriation of the princesses.

“Shutendoji Monogatari” is one of those rare stories inspiring art that is intended to amuse, teach a moral lesson and speak of the power of Buddhism and samurai bravery. No wonder the tale has held the public’s interest for so many centuries.

“A Tale of Expelling the Demon: The Shutendoji Picture Scroll” at the Nezu Museum runs until Feb. 17; ¥1,100. For more information, visit www.nezu-muse.or.jp/en

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