I have written elsewhere about foxes and Japanese mythology. In popular myth, the fox in Japan is known as a mischievous spirit, ringing doorbells, sending telegrams and so on. There are other myths however in which the fox spirit is terribly evil and a manifestation of real terror and fear. None more so in the stories of two characters – in reality one – that of Lady Kayo and her alter ego, Tamamo no mae. It is obvious that these fox women are actually projections of male anxiety over losing their position to stronger, dominant women; even so, the mythologies live on in popular culture and the stories and the woodblock prints and kabuki plays that they inspired are terrific. There is also a persistence in western culture associating the fox with a particular type of imagined female. The popular song, Foxy Lady by Jimi Hendrix being one such example and it might be useful to bear in mind the lyric;
You know you’re a cute little heartbreaker
You know you’re a sweet little lovemaker
I wanna take you home
I won’t do you no harm, no
You’ve got to be all mine, all mine
Ooh, foxy lady
I see you, heh, on down on the scene
You make me wanna get up and scream
Ah, baby listen now
I’ve made up my mind
I’m tired of wasting all my precious time
You’ve got to be all mine, all mine
Here I come
There are lots of versions (as in most of these stories) of the tale of Tamamo no mae and Lady Kayo. The following account of the original kabuki play shows how the story weaves its way between the story of Lady Kayo and the legend of Tamamo no mae, in fact a different incarnation of the same character. In 1806, the play, Tamamonomae asahi no tamoto included the first Act in India, the second in China, and the third through fifth in Japan, while the illustrated book of 1804 puts all acts in Japan. An evil golden fox with nine tails tried to destroy the three countries. The fox transformed into Queen Kayou (Kayo), a wife of King Hansoku in India, Queen Dakki, a wife of King Chu in China, and Lady Tamamonomae, a concubine of Emperor Toba in Japan her plan being to seduce and kill the kings and emperor. But she was defeated by a sorcerer and chased away to the Kanto region. A stone called Sesshô-seki, literally meaning ‘a killing stone’, in Nasuno is said to be a transformation of this nine-tailed fox (pictured right). As a puppet play, it features acrobatic movement of puppets (see top of page).
The current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery is showing the best of Kuniyoshi’s depictions of the evil Kayo. Lady Kayo is pictured in the air in her true form as a nine tailed fox. King Hansoku looks on aghast as the evil spirit escapes his grasp. This series by Kuniyoshi pairs famous Japanese tales and myths with the fifty-four chapters of the Tale of Genji (Genji monogatari). The Indian story can be traced to an early Buddhist tale that appears in various forms in sutras that were used to teach religious doctrine. The tale follows the story of King Hanzoku, who ruled in India. Among other deeds, Kayo successfully convinced the king to kill a thousand of his subjects. Kayo has been linked to a famous poem by So jo Henjo (816-90), one of the celebrated six poets. The poem is included in the imperial poetry anthology Collection of Old and New Japanese Poems.
The wicked fox re-emerges in Japan both as part of the threefold story (from 1806) and as a separate story in which Emperor Toba (1103 – 56), who in retirement, takes Tamamo no Mae as a mistress. The emperor begins to sicken and fall gravely ill, and it is discovered through magic that Tamamo is in reality a nine tailed fox (kitsune) who is bewitching the old Emperor. The picture above, also by Kuniyoshi, shows a very different aspect of the demon. It is taken from the series, A Comparison of the Ogura One Hundred Poets, a collaborative venture of outstanding quality with prints by Kuniyoshi, Kunisada and Hiroshige. In this magnificent print Kuniyoshi shows the evil spirit as elegant, exotic and wholly
Japanese. In other prints of the same character, Kuniyoshi has tended to portray her in western style. By drawing her in traditional robes and with the manner of a woman of courtly sophistication, Kuniyoshi references the equally common trope (and the real subject of the story), that of the castle toppler – the woman whose beauty and charm destroy men’s fortunes and lay waste to whole dynasties.
Tamamo, or Kayo live on in contemporary culture as the subject of various anime and video games. Her putative grip on weak minded men lives on in popular music in her latest manifestation as the Foxy Lady.