Taira no Masakado has been variously depicted as an iron giant, a rebellious demon worthy of divine retribution, a vengeful floating head, a cosmic deity, and the bellwether of Tokyo's fortunes. All of these fantastical descriptions speak to a grand personality of great importance, but what of the historical Masakado, the 10th century samurai? What exactly did he do to deserve such mythical aggrandizement?
And because of Masakado's prominence in Shin Megami Tensei, it's useful, even essential, to survey the beheaded samurai's biography and the superstitions that quickly surrounded his posthumous image. Though not meant to be comprehensive, the following examination of his fabled life nonetheless reveals where the lines are drawn between Masakado the man and Masakado the angry spirit of folklore and SMT--plus a little "extra," let's say. Bottom line: You just can't keep a good samurai lich down.
Masakado in the Historical Record
The information for the following two sections comes from the only English-language biography of Masakado, The First Samurai: The Life and Legend of the Warrior Rebel Taira Masakado, by Karl Friday (any direct quotes in this article are from Friday's book and are italicized). As the only readily available treatise on Masakado in English, it's somewhat of a default recommendation if you are interested in learning more about his life and times. That said, I can personally give it thumbs up for greatly expanding my previously narrow perspective on Tokyo's favorite guardian. Here's a bullet-point rundown of the essentials:
- Masakado was of the Taira warrior clan, who were scions of the noble class; Masakado himself was a fifth-generation descendant of Emperor Kanmu. Kanmu's mother was a 10th-generation descendant of Korean king Muryeong of Baekje.
- No records exist of his birth, but he was probably born around the year 900. He served in the Kyoto imperial court as a youth, but did not climb up the ranks despite the influence of his wealthy noble father. He then married a cousin and "settled down to the life of a country gentleman" around the historical Shimosa Province, located in the Kanto region just to the northeast of where Tokyo stands today.
- Shimosa and its neighboring provinces are the
Shimosa and its surroundings; "Yedo"/Edo is
of course where Tokyo stands today
- The best records of the events leading up to Masakado's insurrection (the period between 935-940) are in a text called the Shomonki ("The Masakado Records"). It was probably written shortly after the insurrection and does not paint a favorable picture of Masakado, even going so far as to describe him suffering in Buddhist hell. The Shomonki was translated into English in 1986, but given its narrow academic specialist interest, good luck finding it unless you can access a university library!
- In 935, Masakado became involved in a conflict with a regional chieftain, Minamoto no Mamoru, the latter's forces ambushing him for reasons unrecorded. Masakado and his forces fended off the attack and in response raided and razed the Minamoto lands, destroying fields and buildings and supposedly killing thousands. While the number of deaths is probably an exaggeration on the part of the court scribes, the destruction was a common tactic of the period.
- As a result of this skirmish, Masakado became the target of retaliation by Mamoru's sons-in-law: Taira no Yoshimasa, Masakado's uncle or cousin, and eventually Taira no Yoshikane, Masakado's uncle and father-in-law. Masakado spent the better part of 935 evading and feinting Yoshimasa's advances before finally routing his forces 8 months later. Yoshimasa then formed an alliance with Yoshikane, the both of them brothers, the latter of whom had taken umbrage with Masakado in the past. Another Masakado relative, cousin Taira no Sadamori, also joined Yoshikane after Yoshimasa effectively retired once the campaign was in his brother's hands.
- Masakado repelled the attacks of Yoshikane and Sadamori, then traveled to the imperial court in Kyoto to answer charges filed against him by Mamoru. By 937 he left the capital not only fully pardoned but had shifted criminal charges away from himself to the other Taira in the process, gaining a warrant to apprehend them. After returning home, Masakado would foil other attacks by Yoshikane, who then gave up the campaign and died a year and a half later. He would then begin feuding with Sadamori, who fled to Kyoto to clear his own name and implicate Masakado as a criminal, which he achieved, but returned to the northeast region only to hide from Masakado.
- According to the book, Masakado's
- Later in 938, fluke natural phenomena in Kyoto such as earthquakes and swarms of butterflies (the butterfly was the emblem of the Taira clan) were afforded supernatural significance by diviners as portents of "warrior insurrections in the east and west," the east of which implicated Masakado, the west the pirate Fujiwara Sumitono.
- In the winter of 939, Masakado became a state criminal by capturing nine eastern provincial government offices in as many provinces and installing his own kin as governors. Explanations for Masakado's ultimate goal vary, but according to the embellished Shomonki account, Prince Okiyo is the one to suggest Masakado take the eastern provinces, to which Masakado agrees, noting his own imperial blood as justification. Then, an "Oracle of the Great Bodhisattva Hachiman" interrupts them to speak on behalf of the god, saying, "we confer imperial rank upon our child Taira Masakado .... The Great Bodhisattva Hachiman calls forth an army of eighty thousand and bestows this rank upon him." At this, Masakado's followers now refer to him as "The New Emperor," and plan to build him an imperial palace.
- However, "the title of New Emperor, the oracle proclaiming Masakado's ascension, the building of a new imperial palace, and the naming of new central government officials appear only in the Shomonki and texts derived from it." Of the Shomonki's account, the book says, "hitherto portrayed as the righteous hero of an unsought feud with uncles and cousins, Masakado is treated therefore as the villain of a scandalous rebellion against the divinely ordained order of the emperor's realm."
- A letter penned
by Masakado that appears in the
Hidesato (left) in combat with Masakado (right)
- Whatever Masakado's true motivations were, he was now an enemy of the state. In early 940, Masakado sought to eliminate Sadamori, who eluded him. Sadamori then allied with a warrior named Fujiwara no Hidesato, who may have only joined the battle for the imperial rewards.
- Masakado's weak forces clashed with the armies of Sadamori and Hidesato, where he found himself downwind of archers and met his end "struck by a divine arrow, shot blindly," according to the Shomonki. Masakado was beheaded, the head displayed in Kyoto hanging from a tree some months after the final battle. And so, in the words of the Shomonki, "in the end, [Masakado] was destroyed .... and bequeathed to posterity the name of a rebel."
Masakado in Folklore and Beyond
|Onlookers gawk at |
- The earliest tales seem to be about Masakado's displayed head in Kyoto. For three months afterward, the head was said to never close its eyes and constantly moan, asking where its body was. When someone finally told him where, the head "grinned wistfully," closed its eyes, and ceased making noise. Not long afterward, the head flew off towards Shimosa.
- However, it suffered a temporary setback over modern Gifu Prefecture when it was shot down with an arrow. The spot where it fell is now Mikubi Shrine, dedicated to Masakado's spirit and subsequently said to remedy ailments related to the head and neck.
- Also, of SMT interest, the abortive first child of Izanagi and Izanami, Hiruko, is also enshrined at Mikubi, which could possibly explain why Hiruko appears as Masakado's attendant in Shin Megami Tensei II (if they also aren't paired elsewhere).
The head apparently didn't mind getting shot and calmly continued on its way east, eventually landing in what is now Otemachi, Tokyo. It immediately caused trouble for the locals with earthquakes and an ominous sky; they "washed the head and buried it on the grounds of the Kanda Myojin shrine." This grave came to be known as the kubizuka (首塚), or "severed head burial mound," and has roughly existed in the same place up to the present day. A decade after the burial, in 950, "an eerie cry issued from this grave site, the darkness was rendered by a flash of light, and a strange warrior appeared--and then vanished." Attributed to Masakado's restless spirit, the locals began practicing rites to appease him. However, in the following centuries the condition of Kanda Shrine deteriorated and Masakado's fury was blamed for natural disasters and general bad fortune in the area, until a Buddhist monk repaired the shrine and gave Masakado a Buddhist name, Hasuamida-butsu.
Depiction of Masakado
and his shadows
- Legends of Masakado also began to circulate in literature. One Masakado story is in the otogizoshi Tawara Toda monogatari, Tawara Toda being the mythical name of Masakado-slayer Hidesato. In this legendary account, Hidesato joins Masakado's cause, but finds him a literal slob and regrets the decision. Masakado is described as "'over seven feet tall, his corporeal form was all of iron, and he had two pupils in his left eye.' What is more, he was accompanied on the field by six other warriors of identical appearance, 'and no one could discern which was the real Masakado.'" Though intimidated by Masakado's impressive form, while in his court Hidesato falls in love with one of Masakado's concubines, who tells him that Masakado has a weak point below the ear and that only "his true form casts a shadow." Hidesato of course fires an arrow at the weak point and the real Masakado is slain as the other "shadow Masakados" disappear.
- At the beginning of the Edo period in the 17th century, shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu moved Kanda Shrine to its present location in Chiyoda, near Akihabara, but left the Masakado kubizuka where it still stands. An estate of the Sakai clan was built next to the mound.
- Also in the Edo period (and into the Meiji), ukiyo-e prints circulated of Masakado-related stories including the famous work of his sorceress daughter Takiyasha summoning a gashadokuro.
- 1868 saw the beginning of the Meiji era and a new dawn for imperial rule in Japan. In 1871, the Sakai estate was razed to build offices for the new Ministry of Finance; the kubizuka was left untouched. But in 1874, right before the Meiji Emperor visited Kanda Shrine, Masakado was removed from the shrine's roster of deities due his rebellious actions against imperial authority during his lifetime. Oddly, he didn't seem to mind. In 1908 the kubizuka was described as "7 meters high and about 30 meters in circumference."
The kubizuka in the Edo period
- Masakado's modern legend begins with the 1923 Great Kanto earthquake. The Ministry of Finance offices were completely destroyed and the kubizuka damaged. Officials excavated the mound "but found only an empty stone chamber." Sure that Masakado's head was never there in the first place, the kubizuka was leveled and new buildings were built on top of its grounds.
- This was widely considered to be a bad move, as within two years fourteen people related to the construction had died, "including the minster of finance, Sasoku Seiji." Of course, "rumors spread that Masakado's vengeful spirit was being the troubles." In 1928 the buildings were torn down and the kubizuka restored (though now more a typical stone monument-style grave than a mound, see bottom image), along with the performance of a pacification ceremony.
- In June 1940, "very nearly a thousand years to the day following Masakado's death," a bolt of lightning hit the Communications Ministry offices and the subsequent fire burned much of Otemachi to the ground, the Ministry of Finance building included. More pacification rites were immediately attempted.
- During World War II, American bombing raids obliterated most of Tokyo, including Otemachi--but the kubizuka managed to escape the destruction. In 1945, during the Occupation of Japan, the kubizuka site was planned to be turned into an Allied parking garage. However, a bulldozer "struck the kubizuka foundation stone and overturned suddenly, killing its operator." Japanese officials pleaded to the Allied forces not to stir the pot any further, to which they agreed. This appears to have ended the modern era of Masakado's wrath.
- A 1976 NHK drama about Masakado's rebellion
Go Kato as Masakado
- Masakado's next appearance in Japanese pop culture has probably been his most influential: The mid-80s novel series Teito Monogatari by Hiroshi Aramata. Masakado appears in the story as a vengeful spirit invoked by villain and occultist Yasunori Kato to destroy Tokyo. In the 1988 film adaptation, the last quarter of the running time is devoted to supernatural events caused by Kato including disturbing the kubizuka mound (which looks identical to the illustration as seen above, including the tree).
My journey to find the "real" Masakado has been enlightening. While his supposed supernatural escapades are fascinating and it's easy to see how they continue to capture the Japanese imagination, reading the historical account of Masakado's life has helped to humanize him in my eyes, making him a more compelling character as a result. This is undoubtedly due to Shin Megami Tensei's biased filter providing most of my Masakado context; as usual, it's a bad idea to form an opinion of something multi-faceted from only a single source.
Shin Megami Tensei's Masakado
Following the influence of Teito Monogatari, SMT endorses the supernatural Masakado. However, in most cases he tends not to follow the vengeful spirit mold, and is instead typically depicted more favorably as a guardian of the city or the personification (or voice) of Tokyo itself. Here's a breakdown of his notable appearances and designs:
Megami Tensei II
|Megami Tensei II's|
Shin Megami Tensei
Little more than a cameo, SMT1's Masakado is found after the Flood on a newly-formed island made of the imperial palace and its grounds, where he bemoans the state of the city and bequeaths his sword to a Neutral protagonist. His presence a sprite edit of Momunofu/Sarutahiko, no Kaneko art of Masakado was produced for this game.
Shin Megami Tensei II
|Masakado in SMT2|
SMT2 provides the series' first lasting designs for Masakado. The "soulless" Masakado design shows parallels to the villainous, iron-bodied Masakado from the Tawara Toda myth, while the "Lord" Masakado transformation resembles a kabuki actor portraying a Japanese god. In fact, both designs wear kabuki stage makeup, called kumadori; the bright red stripes symbolize heroism. The Soulless Angryman version also appears in Raidou 2.
Soul Hackers / Shin Megami Tensei: Nocturne
Masakado doesn't make an appearance in Soul Hackers' narrative, but as one of the special Zoma fusions he's notable as the only demon capable of having all of his stats maxed out at 40 points with mitama doubling, as all of his parameters start at 20. But more interesting is his redesign, which evolves the "Lord" Masakado design from SMT2 into a full-fledged kabuki hero. He not only retains the red kumadori stripes on his face but gains a costume and wig to match. Compare the familiar Kaneko design to a portrayal of Masakado from an actual kabuki play in the image below; Kaneko's has some embellishments, but something like it is clearly the inspiration at play here.
|Soul Hackers' Masakado; Masakado in the kabuki production Onmyoji (陰陽師), upper left|
In Nocturne, this version of Masakado awaits not at Kanda Shrine but Bandou Shrine (坂東宮). This "Bandou" seems mysterious but it likely refers to modern Bando, Ibaraki which is located in what was the historical Shimosa Province, Masakado's home turf. Bando has its own Masakado Festival and its Kokuo Shrine dedicated to Masakado.
Anyway, after collecting all of the game's magatama, the Cathedral of Shadows minister gives you Masakado's sword, which is used at Masakado's kubizuka to whisk you away to Bandou. Inside, the Four Heavenly Kings each guard a cardinal pillar supporting Bandou's main hall. After all four are subjugated and the pillars are lowered, Masakado can be approached in the main hall, tasking you with the role of Tokyo guardian by giving you the practically invulnerable Masakados magatama.
Shin Megami Tensei IV / Apocalypse
Merely calling Masakado's role in the SMT4 duology the "guardian of Tokyo" would be a massive understatement; he's practically the most powerful being in its whole universe. In the games' past, Flynn's former self allows Masakado to take over his body, growing to gargantuan proportions in response to an ICBM threat that threatens the city, his colossal frame forming a dome that protects the city, but isolates it from the rest of the world; over time, the Law faction builds the Eastern Kingdom of Mikado on his back as Tokyo languishes underground in decelerated dilated time ostensibly produced by Masakado himself. A huge boulder resting in the main Ginza intersection is all that remains of Masakado's body.
In the Neutral ending to SMT4, the weakened Masakado, awakened by his own sword, requires various incredibly contrived plot devices (hey, I am the guy who wrote Identity Crisis, after all) to regain his strength; he initially appears only as disembodied head, which is still powerful enough to overcome barriers set by the angels and demons guardian the entrances of their respective realms. Once the plot devices are acquired, Masakado regains his full size and strength and removes the Tokyo dome, destroying Mikado in the process but saving his apparently precious Tokyo Goddess. In SMT4A, Masakado doesn't actually appear beyond his boulder form (outside of a flashback cutscene), though he does transform into a 2001-style black monolith once he "interfaces" with seven pillars gained from the gods of the Cosmic Egg, opening up the way to YHVH's Universe.
|Nirasawa's Masakado designs|
Until I laid out these side-by-side comparisons, I wasn't aware of just how minor most of Masakado's roles are throughout the series. He's still no small fry, but he's not as plot-crucial as demons like Michael, Lilith, Izanami, Cerberus, or Thor, to say nothing of Lucifer or YHVH. That's why it's so striking that, compared to the previous games and even to the figure of folklore, Masakado in the SMT4 universe is both more important and more powerful by several magnitudes, to an extent that it feels like his portrayal was inspired more by an invented "fan perception" of him (stemming from the almighty near-invulnerability of Nocturne's Masakados, the "perfect" Masakado that can be created in Soul Hackers, etc.) than any actual source or connection to tradition. But the Maniacs Team's all-in bet on Masakado would backfire, for reasons that will be explored in the next article.
Masakado and Me (and C.C.)
My own opinion of SMT's use of Masakado has waxed and waned over the years, but, as I said previously, my recent familiarization with the historical Masakado gave me my first genuine appreciation for him, as it characterizes the man as simply an ambitious, if not hubristic, warrior who may have only failed, and thus become a figure of legend, because of some bad luck. This is in contrast to SMT, where at "worst" he is portrayed as something of an invincible deity who thrives off the series' tiresome Tokyo solipsism and at "best" he just seems to be rubbing shoulders with deities far out of his league. For example, why, oh why is Masakado the second-highest level demon in Strange Journey behind only the Demiurge, specifically in the Schwarzwelt, a place that is intentionally not Tokyo? Perhaps the answer lies not in his role as megalopolis protector, but as a god of superstition.
|Bottles of C.C. Lemon|
Of course, I didn't go through with it. It was a much less juvenile plan living as a flight of fancy rather than how it reads in writing as a sad, pathetic admission of meaningless rebellion. Being 31 at the time and not 13 probably had something to do with it, too (hopefully). I never even bought a C.C. Lemon during the Tokyo stay, I don't think--the whole idea was in shambles from the moment I stepped in the city. The reason why? Despite my agnostic lack of belief in anything supernatural, I still fall prey to superstitious behavior from time to time. During my lifetime, I have experienced what I have unavoidably internalized as "meaningful coincidences" (Jung called them "synchronicities") revolving around certain dates of the year and numbers, to the point that they sometimes alter my behavior if I notice them. That silly, unrelated cognitive bias aside, I didn't go through with my grand Masakado plan mostly because I have a fear of flying and didn't want to draw any bad mojo my way; I would be leaving the country out of Narita International the next day, after all. Like the American superstitions of building houses on Indian burial grounds, the best way to win a battle of wills with Masakado would be to avoid one entirely. [And another coincidence I only just realized: Mere months before my Tokyo stay, I visited a friend in Gifu who lived only blocks away from Mikubi Shrine; I probably walked right by it, completely unaware!]
|My picture of Masakado's kubizuka|
Some additional Masakado links:
Next: Exposing Shin Megami Tensei's controversial underlying theory