Japanese tale #16 – The dancing fox

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Once upon a time, stood a village near a huge forest. And in those woods, lived a fox name Okon who loved to trick people.

Its mischiefs were many and known all across the land. Here and there, farmers whispered:

– Have you heard? That sly beast pushed Akiko to eat sweet dumplings…made of mud! And yesterday, Goro has dived in a tub of ox manure thinking it was a bath!

The villagers were fed up with the fox’s hurtful pranks. Many times they had tried to catch him. They had dug pits, put on snares and baits, but alas! clever as he was, Okon had always easily escaped.

– Blasted animal! We must find a way to make him stop!

A young man finally came forward and said:

– My friends, Bon Odori is coming. Okon will for sure attend and attempt to trick us once again. I may have an idea…

The following days, the village bustled with activity. People dashed in every corners, colorful fabrics trailing behind them. And wonderful aromas were coming from the kitchens.

Okon was puzzled:

– Humans are preparing a true feast this year. This is going to be quite a party!

When the night of Bon Odori came, a procession gathered at the village’s outskirts. The fox happily yelp:

– Well what a sight! They have outdone themselves!

Villagers were all dressed differently. Their colourful kimono and hats shone in the lantern lights. Suddenly, drums rang and the whole procession started to dance.

A demure flower girl, fragrant blossoms in her sleeves, smiled happily at a fearsome red oni. A yakko-san, holding a spear, stood along a fake monk. A beautiful princess went hand in hand with a goofy man dressed as Hyottoko.

In a mad farandole, they danced and danced across the forest path. Everywhere people drank and laughed and sang.

Then, the princess finally found herself side to side with a young samurai.

– Oh, what a beautiful costume!

She smiled at him and the Hyottoko happily agreed:

– It is! And do you see how well this fellow move?

And everyone to praise the young samurai, how gracefully he moved his hands and how well he followed the drumbeat.

Finally, the celebration came to end. The procession had arrived to the shrine grounds.

The drums stopped and the dancers sat on the ground, panting and sweating. All around them, lanterns shone brightly keeping the dark night away.

The flower girl gleefully sighed:

– What a night! This party was the best!

The red oni smiled under his thick make up:

– It was my dear!

Then his smile turned to a smirk:

– But now we must vote! Tell me friends, who was the best dancer of us all?

Villagers started to shout. The princess was popular, as was the Yakko-san. But, most of voices went to the young samurai.

– You were simply splendid! You truly have earned your price!

Barrels of sake were brought and placed before him. The red oni took his shoulder:

– Come on, let’s celebrate! Drink, drink, drink!

The young samurai, pleased to be the center of all attention, kept emptying his cup. Soon completely drunk, he fell to the ground.

A long and bushy tail came out of his pants. The red oni and the Yakko-san quickly sprang:

– At last we’ve got you!

They tied Okon with solid ropes then throw icy water at him. The fox opened wide eyes and pretended to cry:

– Wh-what are you doing? I am but a young man!

The seething villagers simply answered:

– Oh no fox, you will not trick us this time! We’re going to cut your tail, that will teach you a good lesson!

Shocked, the animal started to cry in earnest:

– Have mercy good folks, I beg you! Please, forgive me!

The red oni stood near him, scissors in hand:

–  You will stop your mischiefs?

– Yes, yes! I promise! Just leave my tail alone!

The villagers bursted out laughing and the flower girl and the princess untied the crying fox.

Okon swiftly jumped and disappeared in the bushed, his tail between his legs. And he never tricked anyone ever again.


Notes:

Obon is a Japanese festival of the Dead. Celebrations are hold in different times of the year depending of the calendar used. Obon was first a Chinese festival hold every year on the 15th day of 7th lunar month (the “Ghost Month”).

Obon is renowned for its joyful dances, the Bon Odori. Every area of Japan has its own special music and moves. Some favoured circle dances, other straight lines processions but all shared a very popular and relaxed atmosphere.

The carnival-like procession of today’s tale is quite similar of folk stories depicting spirits night parades (such as the hyakki yagyo). In the past, people thought that ghost fire (kitsune bi) were foxes parading at the light of lanterns. But for once in our tale, it’s the youkai who is tricked and not the humans!

The use of sake is also interesting. Many folk stories stress the purifying properties of this alcohol -which is partly why you still see sake barrels offerings in Japanese shrines.

You can find the most famous use of sake in the legend of Yamata-no-Orochi, an eight-headed dragon slayed by storm god Susanoo… when the beast was drunk! (Orochi is one of my favourite kabuki plays. You can watch Tamasaburo Bando’s version on youtube. The third part, where he dances as the drunk dragon, is the most impressive)

The name of our fox, Okon, is a play on the fox’s sound: in Japanese the fox says “kon” 😉

[pictures sources :  1 / 2 / 3]

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