Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Yamata no Orochi: In Legend and on Film

The Yamata no Orochi is a legendary dragon from Japanese mythology. Described as a beast so gigantic that a cedar forest grew on its back the Orochi possessed eight-heads and eight-tails, had eyes as red as winter cherries and a belly that was always stained with blood.

According to the Kojiki (lit. “Records of Ancient Matters” c. 712 C.E.), Orochi was slain by the Shinto storm god Susanoo, who was one of the three deities born to god Izanagi following his return from the underworld. Susanoo’s brother and sister were Tsukuyomi, god of the moon, and Amaterasu, goddess of the sun. Susanoo resented his role as god of storms and rebelled eventually causing so much disruption that he was banished from heaven and sent to Earth.

Once on Earth, Susanoo encountered an elderly couple who along with their young daughter were all weeping profusely. Susanoo inquired as to what was the matter and learned of the Yamata no Orochi and how the couple had been forced to sacrifice one of their eight daughters every year to the beast and now the time had come to sacrifice the eighth and final daughter.

Susanoo then promises the elderly couple to slay the Orochi if they in turn will let him marry their last daughter. The couple agrees and Susanoo transforms the girl into a comb which he then fastens in his hair. Susanoo then goes to work setting a trap for the dragon. He prepares eight barrels of rice wine and places them on a platform surrounded by a fence with eight openings. When the Orochi arrives to devour the young girl it instead discovers the wine. The monster greedily consumes the wine until it passes out drunk. Susanoo then goes and splits the Orochi open with his sword. When he does this he discovers fabulous Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (lit. “Grass Cutting Sword”) which he gives to his sister, Amaterasu, to make amends for past wrongs.

Amaterasu later passes the sword along to her descendent; the first emperor of Japan. This sword along with the Yata no Kagami mirror and Yasakani no Magatama jewel become the three sacred Imperial Regalia of Japan which still exist today in the emperor’s keep.

Orochi: The Eight-Headed Dragon

Over the years Orochi has appeared in a handful of Japanese comics, video games, anime, and even live action films beginning with 1959’s The Three Treasures and most recently in 2003’s Onmyoji II.

However, perhaps the most famous film to star the titular dragon is the 1994 fantasy epic Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon. Produced by Toho Studios (home of Godzilla) and directed by 90s Godzilla series veteran Takao Okawara, the film is set in medieval Japan and tells the story of Osus; the younger son of a pair of twins born to the Emperor of Yamato. An evil shaman named Tsukinowa tells the Emperor that if the boy is allowed to live that great misfortune will fall upon the kingdom. The Emperor agrees to kill his infant son and has Tsukinowa throw him off a cliff. However, the child is saved at the last minuet by the intervention of the phoenix-like White Bird of Heaven who deposits the child with the Emperor’s sister who is a priestess of the gods.

Osus is raised by his aunt and grows into a fine young warrior. Eventually his father tells him that he may return to the palace, much to the dismay of Tsukinowa. However, Osus’ return does bring misfortune in the form of the eminent death of both his mother and brother. Angry at his son the emperor sends him away on what must surely be a suicidal task to kill the chieftain of a nearby clan of barbarians.

On the way Osus encounters a young priestess named Oto who possesses the nifty ability to shoot fireballs from her palms. The two travel to the palace of the barbarian chieftain and Oto attempts to infiltrate the palace but is captured and bound to a post where she will be sacrificed to the demon-god Kumasogami. Osus storms the palace, kills the chieftain, and rescues Oto but not before Kumasogami materializes and the two duel it out.

Upon returning home the emperor says that he is proud of his son but does not yet forgive him. Tsukinowa, however, is furious and summons a sea monster to kill Osus. Osus battles the monster but goes down for the count until Oto sacrifices herself to save him.

Meanwhile Osus’ aunt learns that Tsukinowa is actually a devotee of the nefarious lunar deity Tsukuyomi who is preparing to return to Earth (he's been floating around in the depths of space in what looks like a UFO made out of crystals) where he will wreak havoc. Osus, distraught over Oto’s death, takes refuge in the temple of the Bull-Headed Judge of the Underworld. The Judge appears before Osus and challenges him to a duel. Impressed by his skills he makes him the gods’ champion and returns Oto to him as well. The Judge then tells Osus that he must travel to the moon where Tsukuyomi has set up base and defeat the evil god.

Together Osus and Oto fly to the moon upon the White Bird of Heaven and attack Tsukuyomi in his palace. Osus and Tsukuyomi sword fight and then eventually transform into giant monsters; Tsukuyomi into Orochi (there was a reason this film was named after him) and Osus into a giant robot armed with light saber, I mean….oh hell it’s a light saber!

Of course, Osus triumphs banishing Tsukuyomi back to the depth of space. In the end Oto asks the Judge of the Underworld why, if Tsukuyomi is evil, the other gods don’t simply just kill him. The Judge responds saying that the next time Tsukuyomi returns to earth he will prove a force of good because “gods are like that.”

Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is an epic if flawed film. The film’s story obliviously takes several creative liberties with the original mythology, most notably the fusing of the character of Tsukuyomi with that of Orochi. This aside the film has several other problems. The plot feels episodic and forced. The human fight scenes are well staged as is the fight between Osus and the demon-god Kumasogami which reminded me of something one might see in an old Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movie.

However, director Takao Okawara has often been criticized for his inability to stage a properly choreographed monster fight scene, a fact which is especially true when dealing with Orochi and Osus’ final anemic lunar battle. Part of problem is the fact that Orochi is simply a large mechanized puppet and thus can’t move around very well. Then there is the fact that Osus transforms into a robot reminiscent of something one might see on The Power Ranger. Not that Tsukuyomi and his lunar palace (did he buy it from Rita Repulsa?) don’t also come across as the type of villain one might expect to see on that show.

In the end, Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon is definitely not one of Toho Studios’ better films. Using the Netflix five star rating system I give it a two and a half; I like it – just not that much.

Ghidorah: Spawn of Orochi

While Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon was a weak movie in many ways, Toho has nevertheless produced a large number of stellar giant monster films (or “kaiju eiga”) over the past fifty-years. During this time Toho has created a number of iconic creatures including Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, and Ghidorah; a golden three-headed dragon dedicated to destroying all life on Earth. A force of nearly unstoppable destruction Ghidorah is the modern day descendent of Yamata no Orochi; in spirit at least.

Having first appeared in the 1964 monster mash Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Ghidorah quickly became one of Toho Studios’ most iconic villains battling such characters as Godzilla, Mothra, and even the superhero Zone Fighter on numerous occasions. Ghidorah was a beast so powerful it often took the combined effort of Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan and on one occasion four other monsters to stop him.

In the 90s Ghidorah’s size was increased and he was rechristened King Ghidorah. Ghidorah has also taken on a number of different forms over the years including; Mecha-King Ghidorah (a cyborg form), Desghidorah (a black four legged version), Cretaceous Ghidorah (who was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs), Grand King Ghidorah (a pointer version of King Ghidorah), and Keizer Ghidorah (a four legged shape shifting version).

The connection between Ghidorah and Orochi was always implied, never explicit, until the 2001 film Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack in which it is actually stated that Ghidorah is an immature Orochi having failed to grow its remaining five heads.

Sources:

The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Mythology (2001) by Arthur Cotterell & Rachel Storm
Orochi at www.tvtropes.org

Pictures:


At Top: Susanoo battles Orochi (c. 1870s) by Toyohara Chikanobu.

Center Left: Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon (1994) movie poster.

Center: Godzilla vs. Ghidorah from Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All Out Attack (2001)

Bottom: The many faces of Ghidorah. Clockwise from the top left; Desghidorah, Cretaceous Ghidorah, Keizer Ghidorah, and Mecha-King Ghidorah.

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