Kodama

Kodama

Jeremy Bell

In Japanese folklore, kodama were spirits that inhabited trees.  The word kodama comes from the kangji 木 “ko” meaning tree and 霊 “dama” meaning spirit, but throughout history, the spelling and interpretation of kodama has changed multiple times.  Another kanji used for kodama, 谺, means “echo,” as it was believed that kodama were also echoes that reverberated through the mountains and valleys.  In ancient times, kodama were said to be kami, nature deities that dwelled in trees, similar to the dryads of Greek mythology. Some believed that kodama were not linked to a single tree but could move nimbly through the forest, traveling freely from tree to tree, while others believed that kodama were rooted like the trees themselves and looked no different from other trees in the forest.  In an alternate version, it was said that anyone who chopped into a kodama would be cursed; so knowledge of which trees were inhabited by kodama was passed down through the generations by elders. 

Japanese spirits, gods, and demons collectively are known as yōkai and stem from a combination of folklore and Shintoism, which is the ethnic religion of Japan. Shintoism is an animistic religion, which believes that everything, from pebbles, animals, and plants, to forces of nature like the wind or a river, contains a distinct spiritual essence or kami.  Yōkai are often believed to be malevolent or mischievous spirits, and in some stories and depictions are quite terrifying, while other yōkai called obake were animals such as foxes (kitsune), raccoon dogs (tanuki), badgers (mujina), and cats (bakeneko) that historically were known to shapeshift into human form and play tricks on people.  Some yōkai were signs of good fortune, though, and were considered a benevolent presence while some were also protective spirits. 

Yōkai were used to explain natural phenomenon and, as part of Shintoism, were also used to teach lessons, particularly of respect for everything in the natural world.  In Aogashima, for example, people place small shrines at the base of cryptomeria trees where they still worship and pray to them, and in Mitsune village, a festival is held every year giving thanks and respect to the “kodama-san” as a way to ask for forgiveness and blessing for cutting down trees for the logging industry.  Stories were told of household items and tools that were neglected or discarded that acquired a kami and turned into a type of yōkai called tsukumogami.  

One of the most popular representations of this is the kasa-obake, which is an umbrella, often depicted with one eye and one leg, that would jump around and usually inhabited haunted houses.

Japanese folklore maintains a strong presence even in modern-day Japan.  A large portion of Japanese anime and manga include yōkai in their story and pull from the Shinto mythos, including the animes Naruto, InuYasha, Natsume’s Book of Friends, Sarazanmai as well as Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro, and Princess Mononoke, the last of which is where part of the inspiration for this piece came from.  In the film Princess Mononoke, the kodama are represented as small, white humanoid-type apparitions with heads (see below) that make a rattling noise when they shake and is represented by the rain stick and temple blocks.  

In this piece, I wanted to create a sense of serenity and imbues a sense of respect towards nature that Shintoism teaches. For that, I researched and listened to a lot of traditional Japanese music and tried to adapt that for the concert  band  instrumentation, and as a result, Kodama predominantly uses versions of the pentatonic scale that are characteristic to Japanese music.  With kodamas being forest spirits, the piece uses the woodwinds for the melodic material and “airy/breathy/wood”-sounding percussion extensively, while the brass forms a warm foundation, and since one interpretation of kodama is “echo,” a lot of the material is repeated as an echo while smaller motives bounce throughout the ensemble.

Kodama is set to be published by C. L. Barnhouse for its 2021 catalog.

Copyright © 2018 by Jeremy Bell