This post is written for those who have already read Shinigami and know very well what’s happening in Chapter 39 – Yūrei: Ghost.
Spoiler – This is your chance to turn back and not be spoiled.
Every month, I’ll dedicate one post to an inspiration element used in the Takamagahara Monogatari. Today’s post is about a sad little story called “The Chrysanthemum Pledge”.
I first read this story in A Japanese Miscellany by Lafcadio Hearn published in 1901. The story was named “Of A Promise Kept” and was a retelling of another story published in 1776 by Ueda Akinari in the Ugetsu Monogatari, called “The Chrysanthemum Pledge”.
However, Ueda Akinari’s story was a retelling as well, adapted from the Chinese story “Fan Chu-ch’ing: A Meal of Chicken and Millet, A Friendship of Life and Death”, from the anthology Yu-shih Ming-yen.
There are two major differences between the Chinese and Japanese stories: 1. in the Chinese story the protagonist was a merchant, in Ueda’s story, it was a warrior; 2. the reason the protagonist did not keep the promise was different as well.
Below, I summarized the story as related in the Ugetsu Monogatari and then in A Japanese Miscellany.
Several hundred years ago, on a spring morning in the village of Kanto in the province of Harima, two best friends were bidding goodbye. Akana, a samurai from Izumo, wanted to visit his birthplace. His best friend and sworn brother, Hasébé, would remain home waiting for him.
They agreed to meet again in spring on the ninth day of the ninth month of the year, on the day of the Chrysanthemum Festival.
Time passed and autumn came. Early on the morning of the appointed day, Hasébé prepared a feast to welcome his friend. He bought wine, decorated the guest room and filled the vases of the alcove with chrysanthemums.
Hasébé waited the entire day for his friend, yet no sign of him. Night came and still no sign of Akana.
Hasébé refused his mother’s plea to go to sleep and kept on waiting. Close to daybreak, he began to fear and doubt that his friend would ever come. Just as he was about to enter the house, he saw a tall man approaching very lightly and quickly in the distance. In the next moment, he recognized Akana.
Happy that his friend was back, Hasébé brought Akana into the house and offered him food and wine, yet Akana wouldn’t touch any of it.
He told his friend a cruel lord had imprisoned him for a long time, for not accepting to enter his service, and explained he had tried in vain to escape his prison until that morning.
Shocked, Hasébé asked how could Akana have travelled the distance from Izumo in a day. It was more than a hundred ri away (1 ri = ~4Km = 2.44 miles).
To this, Akana answered, “Yes, no living man can travel on foot a hundred ri in one day.” But he didn’t want his friend to think less of him for not keeping his promise, and he remembered an ancient proverb that said, “The soul of a man can journey a thousand ri in a day”.
Akana said, “Fortunately I had been allowed to keep my sword; thus only was I able to come to you… Be good to our mother.” (He said ‘our mother’ because they had adopted him into the family as he was Hasébé’s best friend and sworn brother).
With these words, Akana stood up and disappeared.
Hasébé left the next day for Izumo. Reaching the province, he learned from the people that his friend had committed harakiri in the lord’s castle where he had been imprisoned.
Hasébé went to the lord’s castle and killed him.
Ryū’s death in Shinigami was a combination of both Hasébé and Akana, the waiting for three days and the suicide by allowing himself to freeze to death to reach Hiro as a ghost and be with him on their anniversary.
I cannot explain why, but I love the story of “The Chrysanthemum Pledge”. I first read about it in 2006 as a seminary assignment in my second year of university, when I was studying Japanese Culture at the Bucharest University of Foreign Languages. It made such an impact that it stayed with me for 16 years.
Perhaps this chapter might have seemed melodramatic to many readers. Whatever Shinigami was in the early drafts, there were two scenes that I always imagined in the book even before Shinigami was meant to be full novel. The death of Ryū’s and the end of Chapter 13.
In the post from December I’ll talk about how the musical Notre Dame de Paris inspired a certain paragraph in Shinigami.
Take care of yourselves,
Of A Promise Kept by Lafcadio Hearn “A Japanese Miscellany”, page 11.