|An old witch takes the form of a giant cat|
to waylay young women visiting the shrine.
Print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1845
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons..
Our subject today is shape-shifting demon cats in Japanese folklore and kabuki theater. We’re going back to 19th-century Japan, where these sorts of weird cat stories were not uncommon. Enjoy.
The cat-shaped stone at Okabe
Next to the temple in the village of Okabe, there was a mysterious cat-shaped stone. Naturally there was a juicy story to explain this odd stone, and it involved a cat who, in disguise as a friendly old woman, haunted the temple grounds, luring young girls into her house to kill and eat them. This cat witch was so evil, she eventually changed into the stone.
So, if ever you happen upon a stone shaped like a cat, beware, because it could be a witch.
The kabuki performance and the dance of the cats
Another version of a cat witch at Okabe can be seen in the illustration below, where we see the story as it was enacted in a kabuki performance. Here’s what’s happening in this scene:
The witch, in human female form, is in the center with a big, scary cat behind her. Notice that she has cat’s ears. The men on either side of her are samurai trying to kill her. Also notice the two dancing cats with pieces of cloth on their heads. In Japan, there was a belief that when a napkin went missing, the cat had stolen it to wear on its head when it attended the dance of the cats. I know…I never heard of this either. Anyway, these cats would get together in the temple with their napkins on their heads and dance, singing out, “Neko ja!” (“We are cats!”) This is a really inappropriate thing to do in a temple, but then, they were badly behaved cats.
|The witch is in the center, with a giant cat in the background.|
Two cats dance beside her with cloths on their heads, and two samurai are trying to kill her.
By Utagawa Kuniyoshi. 1835.
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Getting back to our story…So this samurai stopped at a temple for the night and was disturbed by these dancing cats. But in this case, they were singing, “Don’t tell Shippeitaro.” Naturally the samurai asked the villagers what this dance was about, and they told him that once a year, the cats forced them to send their most beautiful maiden to the temple to be sacrificed to the spirit of the mountain. Shippeitaro, it turned out, was a brave and honorable dog of the village.
The samurai got an idea.
The samurai’s idea
His idea was to take Shippeitaro and put him in the cage where the young girl was supposed to go. Then he took the cage to the temple, and out came the dancing cats, along with a giant tomcat. The tomcat opened the cage expecting to find a young maiden, but out jumped Shippeitaro, who grabbed hold of the giant cat, at which point the samurai drew his sword and killed the cat. Shippeitaro took care of the other cats. Thus the village was freed from its rather horrible burden.
Katharine M. Rogers, Cat (London: Reaktion Books, 2006), 56–58.