Myths and folklore are littered with ‘villains’ in the form of an old woman. Think Baba Yaga, and virtually every old witch in the fairytales. In Japan, there is the infamous onibaba (鬼婆) from which noh plays and films have draw inspiration.
The name of onibaba is quite straightforward, with oni 鬼 meaning ‘demon’ and ‘baba’ 鬼婆 a shorter – and generally considered ruder – form of ‘grandmother’ or ‘old lady’.
A story of the onibaba tells of a nanny/wet nurse of a young princess born of a noble family. The nanny herself is also a mother, but because of her job, the two live separately.
One day, the princess falls ill and doctors claim the only way to save her is to feed her the liver of the foetus in a pregnant woman. The nanny was shocked, but couldn’t bear to see the princess she’d taken care of for so many years die, so she set off on a journey. The nanny wandered around the country, stopping at Adachi-ga Hara and decided to stay in a small stone hut there. One autumn day, a young pregnant woman came with her husband, asking to stay the night. That night, the woman suddenly went into labor, and the husband left to find a doctor.
The nanny grew desperate, and decided to attack the woman, using a knife to cut open her stomach and take out her baby. The woman, verging on death, said she came all this way to meet with her long separated mother, and now she was going to die without fulfilling her wish. From an amulet the woman carried, the nanny realised she had killed her own daughter and went crazy with grief.
From then on, whenever any travellers came to stay the night at her hut, she would appear before them as a kindly old woman during the day, then kill them at night, drinking their blood and eating their flesh. Becoming the onibaba.
Many years passed, and a monk came by the onibaba‘s stone hut to stay. She invited him in, then at dusk, claimed she was going out for firewood and left the hut. Before she left, she warned the monk not to look at the innermost room. The monk was curious and decided to take a peek. Inside, he found piles of old corpses that stank of rotting flesh and realised the old woman was the legendary onibaba. He tried to leave, but the onibaba found him and chased after him. Thinking it was his end, the monk put a statue of the Buddha on the ground and started to recite scriptures. Suddenly, the buddha rose into the air and cast the onibaba away with a bolt of lighting. The monk buried the onibaba and set up a temple for the Buddha nearby. This became the Kurozuka of Adachi-ga Hara, sometimes used synonymously to refer to the onibaba.
Source: 日本神妖博物誌 作者： 多田克己 譯者：歐凱寧