Manga ‘Toge Oni’ weaves ancient legends with modern storytelling

© Kenji Tsurubuchi / KADOKAWA
Toge Oni (Touge Oni — Primal Gods in Ancient Times) by Kenji Tsurubuchi (Kadokawa)

Enno Ozuno (or Enno Ozunu), was a shaman who, with his two servant oni ogres, is said to have lived from the 7th century to the 8th century. Having trained on Mt. Katsuragi, which straddles what is now Osaka and Nara prefectures, he was later exiled to Izu-Oshima island by the Imperial court for creating mass confusion with his dire prophecies. However, legend has it that Ozuno became the first person to reach Mt. Fuji’s summit through the use of flight magic.

Ozuno, known by some as Enno Gyoja, is considered the founder of Shugendo, a religion originating from ancient Japanese mountain worship. Although he is considered a historical figure and is even mentioned in history books, various wondrous legends later associated with him as a way of increasing his fame depict him as superhuman. Because of this, understanding the person he truly was has become difficult.

While he has appeared in many different manga in the past, “Toge Oni” is probably his first time being cast as a protagonist and portrayed as though he were a mere human. This alone illustrates just how extremely ambitious this fantasy manga set in ancient Japan is.

The story begins with Miyo, an orphaned 12-year-old girl who has been chosen to be sacrificed to her village’s deity. Miyo resigns herself to her fate, fearing the consequences should she try to escape. Soon after, a young Taoist monk named Enno Ozuno visits the village along with his two disciples, Zenki and Goki. Zenki is a young boy whose name translates to the “anterior ogre,” while Goki is a mask-clad woman whose name translates to the “posterior ogre.” Despite being called ogres, neither of them has horns. When Goki learns of Miyo’s fate, she kindly offers her some advice: The deities of old are soon to perish as people’s faith has dwindled. As a result, they no longer have the power necessary to affect the world, either positively or negatively. Therefore, Miyo should decide her fate on her own.

Being taken to see the village deity for herself, Miyo discovers it to be a giant snake with multiple heads. Through the power of the deity’s sacred item, Miyo briefly flies through time and learns that Goki is actually Miyo’s future self. Soon after, Goki disappears, leaving Miyo to become Ozuno’s disciple and to begin her pilgrimage visiting the gods.

In Japanese mythology, Zenki and Goki are famous ogres that guard Ozuno from both the front and the rear. This manga depicts them in a bold and new way. Zenki, formerly known as Zen, became an ogre after consuming human flesh during a famine. While he usually takes human form, should the lock around his neck be removed, horns will appear on his head. Only Hitokotonushi, the high god of Mt. Katsuragi with the ability to perform miracles, can return him to human form. Meeting the god is also Ozuno’s goal, but it seems that a complicated fate dominates their past, so Ozuno’s journey to visit Hitokotonushi doesn’t go that smoothly.

This manga’s art style is simplistic and anime-like, and the character’s speech patterns are too modern for the setting. Even so, mangaka Kenji Tsurubuchi displays a real competence in weaving a creative and original story from elements extracted from various Enno Gyoja legends. The local deities shrink and become pitiful as people’s reverence and respect toward them wane. Such a woeful situation is an amusing satirical take.

In the olden times, the deities lived in the mountains and the oni ogres lived on the mountain ridges. In this story, Ozuno is a figure closely associated to oni legends, as he treks from mountain to mountain. This manga is noteworthy and serves as a unique example of the recent boom in manga featuring oni.

—By Kanta Ishida, Yomiuri Shimbun Senior Writer