Variations: Nue-dori (Nue-bird)
Described as a “bird-beast”, the Nue lacks any avian physical features. It exists largely outside the Japanese yokai canon, best known from the Tale of the Heike (1371).
The kanji for the word nue are “night” and “bird”. It is likely that the legend of the nue started with a Chinese bird. When it appeared in the 8th-Century Kojiki and the Manyōshū it was a bird that sang mournfully in the forest at night. Purification rituals would be performed in the palace after its sad song. This is probably the White’s thrush or toratsugumi (Zoothera dauma).
In the Tale of the Heike the nue becomes a frightening hybrid creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a tanuki or badger, the limbs of a tiger, and a snake’s or viper’s tail. It makes a cry like that of the nue thrush and lives deep in the mountains. It would appear in the sky over the emperor’s palace every night, hidden in a foreboding black cloud.
The nue was shot out of the sky by Minamoto no Yorimasa with a single arrow. For this feat he was awarded the sword known as Shishiō, the “King of Lions”, which is still on display at the Tokyo National Museum. The event also established Yorimasa’s reputation as a slayer of monsters, and he killed a second nue during the reign of a later emperor.
A 15th-Century Noh drama by Zeami Motokiyo tells the tale of the nue’s slaying from the perspective of the nue. Its forlorn lament over its death hearkens back to its origin as a bird with a sad song.
Foster, M. D. (2015) The Book of Yokai. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Sekien, T.; Alt, M. and Yoda, H. eds. (2017) Japandemonium Illustrated: The Yokai Encyclopedias of Toriyama Sekien. Dover Publications, New York.