Once upon a time, in a remote mountain village, lived two men named Rokuro and Shichiro who were inseparable since childhood.
Their homes were so far away from everything and the land so harsh they both had a hard time making ends meet. Everyday, they would work side by side in their steep fields, and every night they would come home bent and broken.
One evening, both men had enough. They got their families together and said:
– This farming life will never get us rich. Tomorrow, we will go to town and search fortune there. We’re sure good jobs await us!
And the two friends did as said. They left before dawn and walk and walk through the forest until they reach the closest city.
With its refined mansions and peaceful canals, it was indeed a magical place compared to their remote hometown. And true to their hopes, they both quickly found decent jobs.
Rokuro was serious and hard working. Soon he had saved a lot of money. But Shichiro gave in to the city’s many temptations. And all his pay disappeared drunk and gambled. When it was time to return home, he didn’t have any coin to bring back to his family.
Rokuro put a friendly hand on his shoulder:
– Don’t worry Shichiro-chan, I’ll lend your family some money. That’s what friends do!
And the two men took the road back to their hometown. They walked and they walked and after long hours of travel, they finally reached the narrow log bridge which stood over their village’s tumultuous river.
– Rokuro-chan, you seem tired. Just go ahead and leave me your bags, I’ll carry your things across!
His friend shot him a thankful smile. He gave the man his satchels, heavy with his savings, and went on to cross the slippery bridge, closely followed by Shichiro.
But, arrived in the middle, Rokuro suddenly felt himself fall straight to the gushing waters.
Shichiro watched Rokuro drowned with a harsh face, clutching the money bag tightly, muttering madly:
– Mine, it’s all mine now.
And when he arrived at the village, the man shed fake tears:
– Oh it’s a tragedy! Rokuro fell from the bridge! I have not been able to save him!
A year passed and Shichiro, missing the city’s pleasures dearly, decided to return there. He took his bags, bade his family goodbye and went on his way.
He was just crossing the bridge when a rattling sound rose, echoing in the mountain air.
The man paled: something was walking behind him. Gulping he turned.
A pure white skeleton, with pretty polished bones, stood on the slippery logs. It raised a clattering hand:
– Oh Shichiro-chan, I am so happy to see you again! I have missed you so much old-pal!
Shichiro’s heart was beating madly but he thought quickly:
~For a ghost, he sure seems friendly, that idiot probably has not realised I killed him!~
The murderer throw a tentative smile. Dead Rokuro added with chattering teeth:
– You are returning to the city, isn’t? Please, please take me with you! I am sure we’ll make a lot of gold there! After all, it’s not everyday people will encountered a talking skeleton!
And he let out a strange laugh, whistling like mountain winds.
Shichiro’s eyes had lightened up at the mere mention of a fortune easily made. He hungrily agreed to Rokuro’s plan. He put the bones in a bag and nearly ran to the city.
During months, the greedy man put on a great show by the sanctuary. He would stir up the crowd before revealing the pile of bones.
– Come one, come all! You’ve never seen anything like this in your life! I present you… The Marvelous Dancing Skeleton!
And magically, Rokuro would rise like a puppet and dance erratically to the rhythm of its own jiggling bones. Seeing this strange show, children as adults laughed and laughed:
– This puppeteer is so good!
Everyday, copper and even sometimes silver coins were raining, and even all the gambling and drinking of Shichiro was not enough to make his new fortune ran dry.
Yet, one evening after a successful show, the man sighted:
– I miss the quiet of the village. I guess it’s time to go home.
Rokuro’s skull clattered:
– I miss it to, let’s leave tomorrow.
And at the first ray of dawn, they hit the road.
When he entered the village, Shichiro was welcome like a hero. All came admiring his fine clothes and refined hairstyle. The man strutted around like a peacock, saying with is booming carnie talker voice:
– Yes, I’ve finally become rich! And would you like to know how? I present you… the most peculiar puppet show! The most amazing music number you’ll ever see in your life! Come admire… the Spectacular Dancing Skeleton!
And with great emphasis, he unveiled Rokuro’s bones. As usual, the skeleton magically rose, bones clicking marvelously into place. Its skull rose, jawbone chattering, and like a puppet, it started to dance, swinging to its own music.
The whole village was here in circle, gaping and letting amazed « oh » and « ah ». Shichiro stood high, very pleased with himself, when the skeleton at last stopped.
The crowd started to applaud but it held up a bony hand, silencing them. Then, surprising everybody, it spoke in an otherworldly chilling voice:
– Remember me! For I am Rokuro, thrown off the bridge by a fake friend!
Everyone turned wide eyes to Shichiro. The man swiftly tried to wind a lie up :
– It’s just bones tied up with strings! Come on, if it’s a joke it’s not funny!
But dead Rokuro had not finished:
– Oh so funny indeed dear, dear Shichiro: the one I loved like a brother murdered me over money!
A distressed cry shattered the crowd as Rokuro’s widow sprang unto her husband’s murderer. Her furious hands had just touched the man that the skeleton crumbled down, appeased.
And, as the whole ville shouted about turning the greedy man to the local official, the skull sighted pleasantly:
– There is no place like home!
Street performers named kairaishi were pretty common in old Japan. They were mostly poor people on the road to search fortune (or at least a better life) and would offer small show with jugglers, slapstick comedies, puppets, etc. They were loved by people but also looked down : traveling was highly regulated in Japanese society and so pretty uncommon.
The bridge this story is about is an ipponbashi or log bridge (see example made of planks here). Those make-shift bridges with no guardrails were very narrow and the wet wood slippery. One’s had to be careful not to trip while crossing !
The dead-seeking-revenge motif of this tale is a pretty classic one. I find interesting that the “bone-singer” (and dancer in our case) denouncing its murderer can be found in several stories across the world (like in this famous song).