As the world braces itself for the unleashing later this year of another surge of comic-book sequels and spinoffs – from fresh instalments of Hellboy and The Avengers in the spring to a new chapter of the Spider-Man saga in the summer – an exhibition of Japanese scrolls in Tokyo’s Nezu Museum has me wondering just how far back the endless rebooting of superhero (and super villain) stories can be traced. A Tale of Expelling the Demon: The Shuten-dôji Picture Scroll is devoted to a popular medieval legend that for the ensuing centuries gripped the Japanese imagination – a myth whose graphic novel-like plot has all the makings of a Hollywood blockbuster.
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The tale begins with news that young women are going missing from the streets of what was then the capital city, Kyoto. As the abductions accelerate, frustration mounts at the lack of evidence that might unmask the mysterious perpetrator. Desperate for answers, authorities turn to a shadowy mystic who conjures the identity of the villain responsible for the string of kidnappings: a fearsome demon (or ‘oni’) known as ‘Shuten-Dôji’ whose castle lair is hidden in a dark and forbidding mountain. The task of slaying the demon and freeing his countless captives is made all the more perilous, if not impossible, by the ogre’s ability to fly and assume the shape of any object or animal. The kingdom’s only hope is to enlist the agile mind and limber muscles of a fabled warrior, Minamoto no Yorimitsu, and his crack squad of skilled swordsmen known as the Four Guardian Kings. But can they succeed?
Visitors to the Nezu Museum display, open until 17 February, are able to mark the visual evolution of the Shuten-Dôji legend (which originated in the 14th Century), from a colourful medieval handscroll to a sprawling eight-scroll illustrated epic made in the 19th Century that has never before been shown in its entirety. Anticipating our modern-day fascination with prequels and the origin tales of our hero’s fiercest foes, the Victorian-era creators of this expansive saga delve into the back story of the powerful antagonist, who began his days mildly enough (save for an addiction to sake from the age of three) as the grandson of a local politician. When, by chance, our future villain dons a demon costume at a carnival, the disguise awakens in him a deep-seated malevolence that intensifies when he indulges in his favourite tipple.
Drunk and disorderly
By the time Minamoto no Yorimitsu and his league of extraordinary samurai are summoned to find the demon and rescue his victims before more of them are eaten (did I mention he devours his female captives?), Shuten-Dôji has swollen in stature to over 50 feet (15m) in height. Monstrous in appearance, he sprouts 15 eyes that bulge beneath a cranium studded with five horns, while each of his four limbs glisten grotesquely with a different colour: yellow, blue, black and white.
Aided by a sake-like elixir spiked with poison that Yorimitsu had been given by a trio of gods to whom his posse has prayed, our heroes are able to subdue and decapitate the oni. In a last moment of devilishness by the defeated demon, tailor-made for the gasps of modern-day audiences gawping through 3D lenses, Shuten-Dôji’s disembodied skull whizzes about his infiltrated castle, taking flying chomps at Yorimitsu, whose own head has been protected by a succession of helmets supplied by his resilient retinue.
Anticipating our own era’s insatiable obsession with serials, the legend of Yorimitsu quickly licensed itself into other popular myths and offshoot franchises beyond the narrative of Shuten-Dôji
Many of our own postmodern superheroes are forged from the fame of real-life figures – ‘Bruce Wayne’, aka Batman, is famously a conflation of the 14th-Century Scots warrior Robert the Bruce and the 18th-Century American Revolutionary officer ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne. And Yorimitsu is himself fashioned after an actual 10th-Century folk hero of the same name: a fearless warrior celebrated for his battlefield prowess. Yorimitsu’s reputation for having defeated the many marauders who once menaced Mount Ōe – where, according to some versions of the ensuing legend, Shuten-Dôji sets up shop – doubtless helped shape the popular myth.
Anticipating our own era’s insatiable obsession with serials, the legend of Yorimitsu quickly licensed itself into other popular myths and offshoot franchises beyond the narrative of Shuten-Dôji. Among the more thrilling of the fables associated with him is one that finds the warrior once again in chase of an airborne skull, which leads the reader through a mountain forest to the doorstep of another ferocious oni, Tsuchigumo: a Godzilla-sized spider with a tiger-like torso and striped furry legs.
As with any great superhero, Yorimitsu was faithfully flanked by loyal sidekicks with their own remarkable powers. Perhaps the most memorable and endearing of his back-up band the Four Guardian Kings is the baby-faced child-wonder Kintarō, or ‘Golden Boy’, who nurtures a fellowship with the woodland creatures of Mount Ōe. Fitted since infancy with a Thor-like hatchet, Kintarō went about his derring-do with an eye to helpful forest management, assisting locals in the felling of trees. His invincible moral and physical strength of character continues to this day to serve as an inspiration to Japanese children.
The urge to tell and retell the Yorimitsu adventures and those of his courageous crew has, over the centuries, yielded countless dazzling scrolls, screens and woodblock prints that enrich the collections of museums around the world. An elaborate handscroll from the 18th Century, believed to be based on an exquisite work by the late 15th-Century master illustrator Kanō Motonobu, resides in The British Museum. A swashbuckling scene from the 19th Century by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, a renowned master of woodblock prints, imagines the suspenseful moment when Yorimitsu confronts the eight-legged Tsuchigumo and is exemplary of the ukiyo-e style. Taken together, these far-flung visions of the celebrated warrior and his team the Four Guardian Kings, now scattered across centuries and continents, is a storyboard waiting to be assembled; a time-tested classic ripe for a Hollywood reboot.
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