Management: This essay is meant to be less of a review and more of analysis of the show being examined. It contains plot spoilers for the Dororo anime, specifically Episode 7’s “The Story of the Jorogumo Silk Spider.”
If I’m not already on the public record for this, I guess I’ll make it here: I like Spider Girls. I like Spider Girls a lot, and I don’t mean the Marvel variety. I mean the monster-kind: half-carapace and arachnid appendages, top hair and human flesh. Hell, I wrote a fan fic about Spider Girls and Dark Souls once, but never mind that. I like Spider Girls for reasons other than the suggestive ones you’d might suspect. I like them for ways that set them apart from the other popular monster girls.
I like Spider Girls for their baggage. People fear spiders, after all. People loathe them. They see the multiple eyes, multitude legs, mandibles, cuticles. They see spiders and other features related to them, and their foremost instincts to them, their gut reactions to the critters, are to jerk away immediately or smash them into paste. People will recoil or lash out at spiders, their fight-and-flight mechanisms on the fritz, even if they’re non-venomous or really quite harmless. I don’t necessarily blame folks for doing that. It’d be hypocritical if I did. I’m guilty of one and the other, many times over, paths less frequently tread, blood on my shoes’ soles.
That terror and fury isn’t an unusual condition of the mind, because your brain rationalizes it as being better safe than sorry. People aren’t born with discriminating eyes, after all. They need to be trained on the details. They need to be taught what means danger. In the light of this perspective, phobias are shortcuts — they have their uses. Yet even then, it’s not as though the more dangerous spiders mean anything spiteful or cruel when they bite you or brush up against you or find themselves in their way. Everyone finds themselves in the wrong place and time. No one really knows any better when first contact is made.
Buddhism builds on this empathetic logic to approaching life. From the strongest human to the smallest spider, every life is subject to the cycle of samsara, or reincarnation. Every entity is subject to the pain of existence. Every existence is a precious thing. Life reincarnates into higher or lower forms of existence when they die. A spider may have once been human, and a human may yet arise from a spider. In the light of this perspective, Buddhism asks us to have pity and compassion for living things, regardless of their past misdeeds or current station. Buddhism is a deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, and spider encounters are a common Japanese experience. It’s no surprise then the country is home to all kinds of tales combining spiders with Buddhism, from a Ryunosuke Akutagawa short story to a Spider Girl in Dororo.
Hyakkimaru and Dororo near a village. Hyakkimaru’s looking for the next demon to slay. Dororo’s looking for the next opportunity to make a payday. They come across something big along the way, an enormous spider in the process of wrapping up and feeding off a man. Hyakkimaru sees red and springs into action. He cuts off some of its legs, and forces the massive arachnid to flee. Weakened from the skirmish, the giant creature shrinks down, shape shifts into a beautifully pale maiden, and lays about for some random sap to pick her up and take her home for the night.
The monstrous spider that our protagonists encounter is a jorogumo, a spider yokai of Japanese folk legend. It’s a memorably infamous one. The jorogumo is a Spider Girl who preys on young virile men. She does so by first shape-shifting into a stunning female siren. She lures them into a secluded place, unaware of her predatory designs for them. She snares them with silk thread when sufficiently far gone and feasts subsequently on her white trapped prizes. The most well known story concerning the jorogumo in Japanese myth that leaves room some room for positive interpretation is one where a woodsman falls in love with one. He grows weak the more time he spends in the area where she lives, hoping for a peak at her while plying his trade of gathering wood. A Buddhist cleric investigates, and saves the love-struck woodman from being abducted by her.
The Buddhist cleric speaks sutras whose power melts away approaching spider webs. The man asks the tengu of the mountain and chieftain over yokai to allow him to marry his belovedly parasitic jorogumo. The tengu refuses the man’s request for matrimonial approval, and the Buddhist cleric warns him to stay away. Figuratively deaf and far from daunted, the woodsman rushes toward the jorogumo‘s home. Her webs reach out for him once more and successfully. He’s caught and whisked out of sight, never to be seen again. In the least charitable of construances to Spider Girls, the folk legend makes her out to be a manipulative seamstress of men and an enemy of Buddhism. But like other stories surrounding the folk legend of the tengu, this story is just interpretation of the jorogumo. Other views, equally valid, reflect the Buddha’s wide mercy toward men and yokai.
Far from being the opportunistic lech like previous illustrations of men in Dororo, the random sap who finds her and takes her in turns out to be a very kindly man named Yajiro. He offers her his breakfast before work, going hungry in the process. Work turns out to be pretty hard labor for him and the rest of the village, double time at a rock quarry on the orders of a local lord. Villagers are dying due to the rushed mining project. Villagers are also mysteriously disappearing. The disappearances in potential mining hands threaten to affect the quarry’s productivity quotas, and the local authorities post a bounty for the information and arrest of whoever’s responsible. Dororo catches wind of the village’s commotion after entering through its walls looking for demons and money, and decides to spend the next few nights there with Hyakkimaru trying to catch the Spider Girl they think is responsible.
The very kindly man named Yajiro returns from work to check on resting yokai and serve her another meal. Lacking a name when he first found her, he offers her one he’s come up with: Ohagi. Ohagi doesn’t protest being given one, but she does inquire why Ohagi. Yajiro replies that it’s because he found her in a patch of hagi flowers. She’s been wondering about the man ever since he decided go hungry for her at a whim. She becomes doubly curious when he spots a cockroach eating bowl. He releases the critter outside, unharmed. She asks him why, since like spiders, most people would consider cockroaches to be pests that need to be exterminated. He replies that every life is equal to the other. She asks somewhat cheekily if his statement also applies to her. He doesn’t waver even with her beauty and pride looking on: her life, too, is equal to a cockroach’s.
As I mentioned in a previous article about about That Time I Got Reincarnated as a Slime Isekai, names can carry an underlying recognition of respect and equality between name giver and receiver. Whether or not respect and equality is evident, of course, is dependent on the power dynamics between the two parties: are names being forced onto people, or are they accepted by people with their consent? In the right contexts, names can signify a kind of egalitarianism between those who have them. One of these contexts is the Enlightenment era’s concept of individualism. Another one that’s arguable is the circumstance that led to the rise of historical Buddhism. Tenets meditated on in Buddhism and the period of when it was established point toward the religion being a reaction to the Indian caste system. This caste system was designed deliberately to be inequitable, a rigid hierarchy of social stratification, where social mobility was only made possible in samsara: in death and rebirth.
The system elected entitlements to and placed prohibitions on the groups it was comprised of and explicitly excluded (though mostly prohibitions on the latter). It justified its existence in the face of abuses by the higher castes toward the lower and untouchable by tying it to a karmic system that determined caste placement based on what people presumably did in their past lives. In contrast to how the Indian caste system told him how to live, the Historical Buddha, who was born of the ruler-warrior caste instead of the priestly-clerical one, accomplished spiritual feats up-to-and-including his recorded enlightenment. While some concept of enlightenment existed in India before the Historical Buddha’s time, his teachings reinterpeted enlightenment in a way that was a significant departure from his theological contemporaries. It made enlightenment more accessible to people, a kind of enlightenment that transcended castes and even karma.
Being compared to a cockroach might not be the flattering of pick-up lines for normal women, but Yajiro’s one-liner ends up impressing Ohagi. She begins to suspect that he didn’t take her in because she was especially beautiful in her human form. Maybe he was just that kind a person. Her original plans for draining the first man she meets would have to wait a night. Her growing reservations from attacking Yajiro, her decision to hold off from eating properly further weakens her strength and complexion. The meals Yajiro’s been offering to Ohagi haven’t been enough, her yokai nature and needs making them insufficient food. He tells her that he wants a doctor to look after her, but none live in the village to do so. He tells her of a way out that the local authorities’ aren’t aware of, and she agrees to the escape plot. It’s a hidden passage in the mountains that bypasses the walls and guards. Like a boddhisattva, he’s been using that pass to guide villagers suffering from their forced labor conditions into freedom.
Boddhisattva mean different things to different Buddhists, reflecting the diverse schools of thought that make up Buddhist practice. In the Japanese Buddhist tradition, however, largely influenced by the Mayahana approach to Buddhism (and its sectarian offshoots in Tendai, Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen), boddhisattva take on aspects of supernatural aid that you can coincidentally find in the Catholic saints of Christianity. They hear lamentations of the suffering and, moved to pity, postpone their complete transcendence from the physical realm to intercede on their behalf. The way they often do this is through living examples. They will impart aspects of themselves in people, who then spread the Buddha’s teachings through their words and actions. For example, the boddhisattva of compassion, known as Japan as Kannon, will imbue themselves in good wives. In being good wives to their husbands, Kannon helps men on their uneven paths toward enlightenment.
The reverse of boddhisattva in good husbands is also true, for as mentioned in a previous article on Land of the Lustrous, boddhisattva are beyond gender. Like with castes too, the mercy of the Buddha is not exclusive to humans. In Japanese Buddhism, kami and even yokai are candidates for enlightenment.
It turns out that it was Yajiro who was responsible for the village disappearances, and not Ohagi — despite what Dororo’s prejudices might say otherwise. The walls of the village were built as much to keep the villagers of the quarry in as to protect them from attackers from without. Hyakkimaru and Dororo don’t know this though, and they stop Yajiro and a weak Ohagi as they’re making their escape. Yajiro confesses that he’s the person they want, just in time for a local authorities on night patrol to walk in and overhear him admit it. Ohagi incapacitates Hyakkimaru and a nightsman with her webs. She drags the entrapped guard vitality close and sucks his vitality, gaining enough strength to flee with Yajiro in tow. Ohagi comes clean to Yajiro during their flight about her predatory-esque yokai nature. She’s the kind of yokai that feeds on the life energy of humans to survive though. She assures him though that guard she bit into earlier is alive and will recover in time. She drains the energy of men without killing them, ensuring that her food supply remains stable and sustainable.
The night patrol rounds up other guards to pursue Ohagi and Yajiro. The local authorities refuse to honor their bounty to Dororo despite contributing to the discovery of the culprit’s identity. It turns out they were never really serious about the bounty to begin with. Hyakkimaru saw red in the yokai though, just like earlier at the village’s outskirts, so both he and Dororo make their own chase after them. They converge at the mouth of the hidden passage just before Ohagi and Yajiro enter it. They could have passed through and slipped away minutes before. Instead, they stop to have a brief conversation. It starts with Ohagi saying that she no longer needs (and never really needed) a doctor.
The discussion then shifts to the Yajiro, who has every self-preserving reason to escape now that he’s compromised. She tells Yajiro as much, and he agrees with her reasoning. He adds something else though that surprises his pale and beautiful companion. He offers her the ultimate self-sustaining meal, his consent to be her life-long feasting partner. The point of their conversation concluded, they begin to head off, but not before arrows from the pursuing guardsmen strike and pin Yajiro down. Ohagi flies into a rage and shape shifts back into her monstrous form, holding every intent to suck their attackers beyond any hope of recovery.
Hyakkimaru then flies into the scene and, like previously, severs some of her legs and weakens the yokai. The jorogumo prepares for a desperate last clash, but Yajiro’s voice reaches out to her. Even in her more hideous and monstrous form, his kindness towards her has not waned. He reminds her that she’s not a killer and, head over heels for him by this point, she abandons her rage and pride. Ohagi relents from fighting and assures Yajiro that she’ll find a doctor for him, the tables being now turned doubly. Now at his mercy, Hyakkimaru notices the red from Ohagi slip away from his special vision, and Hyakkimaru himself lowers his weapons. With the other guardsmen strung up and not dead, Ohagi is saved. She carries Yajiro out through the passageway to find medical assistance and begin a new life.
Dororo and Hyakkimaru call the day a bust and it make out of the village themselves. While walking some path, Dororo walks into a spider. Dororo catches the spider prepares to smash it into paste. Dororo then stops, thinks better of killing it, and places it to rest on a leaf. Like Ohagi and Yajiro, the two of them journey on.
On cursory thought, the idea of a thoughtful story about Spider Girls may seem laughable to us. Anime and manga nowadays have reduced Spider Girls and other monster girls into an exotic novelty at best and fetish fuel at its less best. On deeper inspection though, the Spider Girl concept has always been a wellspring of potential for relatable and moving storytelling. Spiders, after all, have haunted and been alienated by humanity since time immemorial. So far, I’ve noticed two pieces of media have done that Spider Girl potential some justice. One is the unforgiving world of Dark Souls. The other are the Buddhist morality tales of Dororo.
Management: For more on Buddhism in anime, I’ve written another article about Buddhism in Dororo for Anime News Network/ANN. I’ve also written several essays about Buddhism in Land of the Lustrous, which there’s a handy directory to here.
For a short, sweet, and informative video about the jorogumo, check out Overly Sarcastic Production’s summary of it here.