Megijima island, which floats in the Seto Inland Sea just off of the port city of Takamatsu, is the home of demons. The island is associated with the mythical Onigashima (鬼ヶ島 – Demon Island) because of a series of man-made caves hidden away on the island’s sole mountain peak. According to several versions of the Momotaro story, after he was born from the peach Momotaro came to Onigashima with his three companions – a dog, a pheasant, and a monkey – and drove the demons away. Whether or not Megijima is the actual Demon Island is up for grabs; in his book The Seto Inland Sea, Donald Richie speculates that the caves on Megijima may once have been a hideout for sea pirates and that this is the origin of all the fearsome rumors about demons.
Whatever the case may be, you can still visit the caves and there are still demons, enormous demons, made from plaster, plastic, and painted board. From the island port you take a bus up the mountain and are greeted by an enormous statue of the demon king, who gazes out across the ocean. After paying a small fee you can proceed up the path, past a couple of delightful but really not so menacing fellows, and then into the cave proper, which is guarded by a funky blue demon. As you might guess from a tourist attraction geared primarily toward children – and one that has seen better days, no less – the demons inside the caves are goofy good fun, but not much more than that. Even the demon king himself, perhaps twice as a large as a human, isn’t so much menacing as kind of cutely abiding with his pals, perhaps slightly embarrassed by all the attention that he’s getting.
That was, at least, the situation the first time I visited the caves. The next time I visited was during the second installment of the Setouchi Triennale, and the caves and surrounding environs were filled with demon-faced clay tiles. These tiles, called onigawara (鬼瓦) in Japanese, are a commonplace on traditional tile-roofed Japanese houses and buildings. The tiles at the demon caves were made by volunteers as part of the Oninoko Tile Project, a featured event of the Triennale that still seems to be going strong in 2016.
These demon tiles, with their highly individuated faces, create an entirely different aesthetic effect than that of the funky demon figures that come stock with the caves. Some are abstract, almost cubist riffs on Picasso’s oeuvre, while others are more traditional in form. Several are quite goofy, others genuinely threatening, and all created in their own distinct idiom. These tiles, especially when lit by the artificial lighting in the cave, create the sense of a kind of shaded babbling presence, a kind of psychic imprint of all the imaginings possible of whatever beings once inhabited these caves.
Note: Oni (鬼) is most often translated as ‘ogre,’ but somehow I prefer ‘demon’ a bit more. Perhaps it’s because of the horns, or perhaps it’s because on Setsubun it somehow sounds more natural to my ear to ‘drive the demons out,’ rather than ‘drive the ogres out.’
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Tags: art, オニノコ 瓦プロジェクト, ceramics, clay, 瀬戸内国際芸術祭, demon caves, demon faces, demons, 鬼, 鬼ヶ島, 鬼ヶ島大洞窟, 鬼瓦, Megijima, Momotaro, ogres, Onigashima, onigawara, Oninoko Tile Project, roof tiles, Setouchi Triennale, 女木島, 桃太郎