Japanese tale #34 – The Ogre’s Bridge

oni-bridge

Once upon a time, there was a village which stood near a big, flowing river.

Treacherous waters ran fast, whirlpools ready to catch imprudent people reckless enough to try swimming across.

The villagers had to walk miles and miles to ford and reach the other bank.

Many times, they had tried to build a bridge. Yet the river kept running wild and, at the first storm, burst untamed. Every bridges had been destroyed by the sheer rage of water.

People were weary:

– Our village is so isolated! We can’t keep going like that!

– We must find a way to build a bridge, strong enough to defy pouring rain and howling winds…

The villagers decided to try one last time. They gathered all their money and sent for a famous carpenter.

The man was a renown bridges builder. He had traveled far and wide across the whole province, yet when he discovered the village’s rabid river, he paled.

– I have never seen such fast flowing waters. How will I build a bridge sturdy enough to cross it…

The carpenter sat on the bank, lost in his thoughts.

Suddenly, all birds and insects quieted. The river’s whirlpools slowed. Water rippled as a dark shape emerged from the deep.

The man’s heart missed a beat.

In front of him now stood a huge ogre, with dark red skin glittering in the sun, and smooth black horns pointing up to the sky.

The monster smiled, showing large ivory fangs.

– My my, you seem troubled little man. You’re the one villagers have hired to build the bridge right?

The carpenter did not dare to move let alone open his mouth.

The ogre bent his immense body until he could look at the shaking human straight in the eyes. His fangy smile widened:

– You know, I am strong. I could build that bridge for you. Won’t you like me to help?

The man slurred:

– I-I… yes, o-of course.

The ogre barked a booming laugh and winked:

– Then it’s settled! I’ll build the bridge… and you’ll give me your eyeballs in exchange!

And before the man could say a word, the monster seemed to melt. A moment later, he had all but vanished back into the waters.

The carpenter ran to the village. Refusing to talk to anyone, he hid under his blankets thinking, as sleep eluded him:

– Oh God, why did I agreed? I am in big trouble now…

The next morning, joyful voices woke him up.

– The bridge! The bridge is done! That carpenter is a magician!

The man did not lose a moment, he packed his things and quickly ran to the mountains.

– I will not let that beast get me!

As he walked quickly up the path, a strange song suddenly echoed in the morning air:

♪ Oh six ogres, big, big, big!

♪ We love human eyes, human eyes in stew

♪ When will we eat? Soon, soon, soon!

The high pitched gleeful voices left no doubt:

– Those are little ogres singing. Oh dear, the ogre’s family must live in those mountains. I am in great danger even here!

The panicked carpenter took off running, as fast as he could.

But he could not flee very far. A huge hand seize the back of his kimono collar, lifting him up high.

– Here you are! And I thought you were trying to hide from me. In fact you went searching for my house, isn’t it? How delightful!

The ogre still had his wide toothy grin. The carpenter tried to kicked him:

– I won’t let you take my eyeballs you monster! Without eyes, how will I be able to do my job and feed my family?

The ogre smiled vanished and he knitted bushy eyebrows. The man felt cold sweat as a big clawed finger rose to touch his belly. The ogre grumbled:

– I have a family too you know, and they have to eat.

The demon sighed:

– Oh well, let’s make a deal, from father to father hum? If you guess my name, I’ll let you go. You have three tries.

The stunned carpenter stammered:

– Y-your name?

The man was no exorcist and did not know any demons’ name. He racked his brains and shouted the first one which came to his mind:

– Onitaro! You are so huge,  ‘Big ogre son’ suits you well!

– Wrong! Try again.

– Kiichiro! You are such a great beast, ‘First ogre’ sounds good!

– Wrong again! Last try little man!

The carpenter suddenly remember the strange little song:

– Oniroku! Yes, you’re the one your kind call Six-ogres, I am sure!

The ogre face felt as he shot the man a dumbfounded look:

– How- how did you…!

The carpenter closed his eyes and shouted:

– Oniroku! Oniroku! Oniroku!

And that was it. Like a bubble, the ogre disappeared in a loud pop!, never again to be seen.


Notes:

Japanese Oni are youkai which can be loosely associated with Western ogres, trolls or demons. Those humanoid creatures are tall, very strong and most of the times depicted as having red or blue skins and huge horns. They are often dressed with tigers or bears hides and carry big spiked clubs (named kanabo).

Oni are violent creatures who punish wicked people – and also eat innocent ones if they lingered to long in their territory. Yet, in many tales, oni are also depicted as fun loving monsters, fond of music and booze. Not very bright, they love puns and riddles, an occupation clever humans often turn against them to save their hide!

The motif of the devil’s bridge is extremely common in European folklore. As a French, I can tell you many small bridges in France are said to have been built by the Devil himself, tricked by a brave (and/or reckless!) soul. It was fun finding the same trope in Japan too! (On a side note, saying a creature true name three times seems to be an exorcism method shared worldwide too).

This tale relies on the kanji for oni (鬼) which can be found in many Japanese names (Onigoro, Onisaburo, etc.). I did my best to carry the pun in English too 🙂

[pictures sources: 1 / 2 / 3]

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