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21 October 2011

The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima


Hello! This is Kurotsuta Murasaki-chan, happy to be writing my first Japanese Folktale. Folktales have, and will always, hold a special place in the Gothic Subculture; for they are stories of goblins, and faeries that so delight those of us whose hearts are lined in black velvet and violet silk. I find all folktales interesting, but my love of anime has got me interested in Japanese folklore in particular.

Japan is a fascinating place with a feudal history and thrilling ghost stories and legends of youkai {spectres, ghouls} and bakemono {monsters, shape-shifters} as well as their famous snarling oni {Demons}. But surprisingly, vampire legends are few and far between in the "Land of the Rising Sun", although, thinking on it... that nickname might be a contributing factor. Oh yes, they have legends such as that of the Yuuki-onna {Snow woman}, but she didn't always fulfill the traditional requirements to really earn her the title of "Vampire". Japan had few vampiric influences until the "westernization" that took place in the late Edo and Meiji Periods (1603-1868 and 1868-1912 respectively). In fact, the Japanese word for vampire (And no, I don't mean "Vanpaia", all you Vampire Knight fans), Kyuuketsuki was developed in the Meiji period by piecing together kanji that accurately described the concept.
However! That's not to say that our lovely friends in the land of sakura don't have any stories of blood-drinking creatures of the night.
Perhaps the most well known of this handful of stories is "The Vampire Cat of Nabeshima", which was famously translated by A.B. Mitford (Full name: Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale) and featured in his 1871 publication, Tales of Old Japan. I love this book because, as well as the vampire cat, it is also full of thrilling tales of samurai revenge, fairy-tales, and an intriguing account of the seppuku or hara-kiri ceremony (Honour suicide via disembowelment). But back to the subject at hand: the vampire cat. I would like to tell you the whole story in detail, but that would take up far too much space (after all, you can buy the book.) But I will provide a short version (By me).

Sometime in the early to mid Edo Period, the prince of the Nabeshima Clan, which held authority over the Hizen Prefecture (modern day Nagasaki), was bewitched by a vampire cat. One night, the prince's favorite concubine, O-Toyo, awoke in the night to find a giant cat with a forked tail observing her from the corner of the room. As she let out a cry, the cat sprang upon her and, snapping her neck with it's jaws, drank her blood and assumed her form before burying her under the veranda.
As the days went by, the chief advisor of the Nabeshima Clan, Isahaya Buzen, began to notice that the prince was rapidly falling into illness and lethargy. He and the other councilors concluded that this strange sickness was the work of some sort of devil and set up a night watch of one-hundred retainers to stand guard over the prince as he slept. But strangely enough, at ten o'clock, all one-hundred retainers fell soundly asleep.
After several other failures of this kind, the Nabeshima councilors appealed to a monk named Ruiten to recite prayers every night for their lord. One evening, just as Ruiten had finished his litanies and was retiring, he noticed a samurai outside, praying. As the young man was leaving, Ruiten approached him. Itou Souda (for that was the young man's name) was a foot solider in the Nabeshima infantry who was concerned about the prince. Itou desired to stand guard over the prince, but as he held no sufficient rank, he could not appeal. Ruiten was impressed that a man of such a young age as Souda - for he was no more than twenty-three years aged - should have such a strong sense of loyalty and devotion to his master, and thus told Souda that he would consult the Nabeshima advisors and see what could be done to for him.
After Ruiten's consultation with Isahaya, Itou was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and that night he stood guard over Nabeshima-sama {Lord Nabeshima}. Just as with the other, at ten o'clock, he began to fall asleep. After trying everything he could think of to keep himself awake, Itou was fall back on his last resort: he laid out some oil paper, sat upon it, and unsheathing his tanto {dagger}, stabbed himself in the thigh. The pain effectively kept him awake, and as he sat there, the false O-Toyo slid the door open and entered. She kept a steady eye on Itou as she approached the prince's bedside and knelt down. As she did, Itou twisted the knife around in his leg to show her that he was very much awake. Wrinkling her nose, the false lady left and did not return that night.
With the devil's identity revealed, Itou set up measures to capture and kill it the next night. As the vampire entered, Itou attacked her with a sword and, after landing several blows, the ghoul reverted to the form of a giant cat and fled into the night.
The Nabeshima Clan led a great hunt in the mountains and the monster was vanquished. The prince returned to health and he and Itou Souda became fast friends ever after.

A classic vampire tale, is it not? After it's publication in Tales of Old Japan, several other versions of this tale were written by various authors, including a variation by a Frenchman named Maurice Dubard. Several minor alterations were made in Dubard's version and the excerpts concerning the nightly draining of the prince's blood were described in somewhat more... erm... explicit detail than in all other versions of the story. Unfortunately i have not been able to do much research on this version, but I am satisfied that what I have learned is sufficiently accurate.

It is suggested that the "vampire cat" in the story is a nekomata or "Two-tailed Demon Cat", because in the original illustration in the book (Oh, yes, that would be the picture at the top of the post) the vampire-cat is featured having a forked tail. In Japan it was believed that if a cat grew to a certain size, it's tail would fork and it would become a nekomata. Due to this, it was customary in feudal Japan to cut off a cat's tail once it grew "too long". As with all animals in Japanese lore that were said to have magical powers (others include foxes and badgers), not all nekomata were malicious; some were quite helpful and whimsical, but many lived up to their title of "Demon Cat".
Nekomata have been featured in contemporary works such as anime and manga; for instance it is given a cameo in the popular anime/manga Naruto as one of the nine "tailed beasts".

Thank you for reading, this has been Kurotsuta Murasaki,
Until next time, Sayonara.










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