Book Review: 

Mountain Witches: Yamauba, by Noriko Tsunoda Reider

Reviewed by Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr.

Loyola Marymount University 

Review of Noriko Tsunoda Reider's Mountain Witches: Yamauba, Utah State University Press, 2021. 238 pp. Paperback (ISBN: 978-1646420544). 

Noriko Tsunoda Reider offers a complex and comprehensive guide to the yamamba, also known as the yamauba or yamanba, marking changes in her multifaceted cultural production and reception across a variety of media and periods. In six chapters, an introduction, and critical apparatus, Reider performs a delicate scholarly balance, tracing the figure’s history and emergence through contemporary use, focusing both on the larger cultural understanding of yamauba through close readings of individual texts from noh plays through contemporary poetry and fiction, all the while keeping the figure grounded in cultural context and debunking some of the forces alleged to have created the figure in the first place. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of the yamauba, which allows for a detailed and profound reading of each element of the folkloric and literary figure. By volume’s end, the reader understands yamauba as the complex figure she is.

 Chapter one explores the duality of the mountain witch as both a natural, benevolent aspect of the mountain and an evil, cannibalistic oni-woman (demon). Using the noh plays Yamamba and Kurozoka, the author distinguishes between yamamba and oni, observing that both have the power of transformation, but yamauba’s benevolent aspect and her locale of the mountain distinguish her from other supernatural monsters. The second chapter explores yamauba as a mother of demon children. Reider carefully explicates how stories of yamauba engaging with motherhood, childbirth, nursing, and blood can be read as signifying the social limitations placed on women in the Edo Period (1600-1868). Of particular insight is the links Reider makes between weaving, women’s work, yamauba, and spiders both natural and supernatural.  The connection is not obvious until Reider convincingly outlines it.  Given the limitations placed on Edo-era women, however, the yamauba does not merely represent a kind of empowered wish-fulfillment but rather celebrates the procreative power of women, associated with both human and natural fecundity and symbolized by the yamauba being of both natural and supernatural origin.

The third and fourth chapters explore powers specifically attributed to the yamauba: mind-reading and divination in the former and flying in the latter.  The yamauba’s mind-reading and divination abilities make her especially horrific and beneficent.  She can predict, warn, and, with knowledge of the future and of others, better negotiate complex social realities. Reider traces the crone-as-mind-reader construction of yamauba in texts as varied as Ōba Minako’s short story “The Smile of a Mountain Witch” and Kurosawa Akira’s famous adaptation of Macbeth, Kumonosu-jō (“Castle of the Spider Web,” but released under the English title Throne of Blood). Reider argues, again convincingly, that Kurosawa’s single crone (in place of Shakespeare’s three witches) is actually a yamauba. The fourth chapter reviews ambivalent and ambiguous constructions of premodern crones as linked to the legend of Yamaburō Basa, an evil oni-baba, as well as showing the yamauba as flying. From noh plays to the paintings of Maruki Toshi, yamauba is frequently depicted as flying, often with children in her arms. The power of flight shows yamauba to be supernatural but also a symbol of freedom and possibility.  Flying again embodies yamauba’s ambiguous duality: it can be used for good, as in rescuing children, or for evil, as in stealing children. Thus flight also represents human desire in all its positive and negative connotations.

The fifth chapter is one of the best in the volume, exploring yamauba as symbol of the elderly. Reider tracks a rise in dementia in Japan, beginning in the 1920s, partly the result of a longer life span.  She sees in yamauba the potential for premodern mythologizing of age and dementia, as well as a means to measure how the elderly, women, and especially elderly women are regarded in Japanese culture throughout history. Again, the ambivalence of the yamauba is on full display; elderly women care for the home, help young mothers, and can help raise children, or can require care and attention themselves. Reider argues against the historic reality of the practice of obasute (abandoning the elderly on mountains when resources are scarce) but finds the myth of it contributing to the rise in belief of yamauba. The chapter is a fascinating exploration of modern shifts illuminating premodern beliefs.

The final chapter, equally fascinating, engages yamauba in contemporary society, from depictions in fiction, anime, manga, poetry, and other popular culture to the 1990s phenomenon of yamanba-gyaru, teenage girls in the streets of the Shibuya neighborhood of Tokyo dressing like anime yamauba as a means to “escape the mundane” and transform from an ordinary teen girl into “something special” (143). The movement was a form of female teen empowerment. As Reider observes, in all these premodern, modern, and postmodern incarnations, “With all her enigmatic and contradictory powers and qualities, a yamauba is always female” (155). The contemporary yamauba, whether fictional or fashion style, lives her life on her own terms.

Thoroughly documented and illustrated and eminently readable, the volume offers a fascinating analysis of a witch figure from outside the western tradition. Reider has given readers the first book-length study of the yamauba in English. Not only is it remarkable for being the first, but equally remarkable is how extensive and detailed it is. For readers interested in witches, folklore, Japanese culture, and female monsters, Mountain Witches: Yamauba belongs on your shelf.