July was a month I decided to take a break from my usual DC writing in order to revisit an old favourite character from a manga (and subsequent anime) series that was an important part of my adolescence. With the announcement of said series getting a sequel in a few months, I felt the time was right to revisit both the manga and anime, especially the story arcs that are actually relevant to my favourite character. That series happens to be Inuyasha with Kikyou being my all-time favourite character from that series.
For readers unfamiliar with Kikyou or Inuyasha, Kikyou is the central character the entire Inuyasha series is built on. She is the powerful miko (shrine maiden) from the Sengoku jidai (1467–1615) who was originally responsible for purifying the shikon no tama (a powerful jewel that can grant wishes to humans and youkai alike), and is the original love interest of the series male protagonist, Inuyasha. She is additionally the lust object of the series antagonist Onigumo/Naraku, the latter of whom is responsible for her brutal murder.
Kikyou’s storyline follows the tragic narrative of so many young women who fall victim to a toxic man in their lives. While Kikyou did have a loving relationship with Inuyasha with the two even planning to marry, Kikyou also had the misfortune of coming across a criminal named Onigumo who was severely burnt and injured when she met him. Being the compassionate person that she is, she nursed Onigumo back to health instead of leaving him to die–a decision that ultimately proved fatal to Kikyou.
While Kikyou was completely unaware of Onigumo’s lust for her, Onigumo sold his soul to hundreds of youkai (demons) in exchange for a new body, becoming the hanyou (half-demon) named Naraku. As Naraku, Onigumo sought to break up Inuyasha and Kikyou by tricking them both into thinking they betrayed one another. He also mortally wounded Kikyou expecting her to use the shikon no tama to save herself. Things didn’t go as planned as Kikyou chose to follow Inuyasha in death, taking the shikon no tama with her to the afterlife, the latter of which triggered her reincarnation as Kagome Higurashi.
Kikyou is eventually resurrected by forcefully extracting her soul from Kagome’s body into a new body made with her bones and graveyard soil by a demonic sorceress named Urasue. Her narrative from that point forward becomes a storyline about seeking justice for her own death and completing her original task of purifying the shikon no tama and purging it from the world.
Given the character’s backstory, her characterisation, and relationships, I can’t help but think Kikyou deserved a way better storyline than the one she actually got. With all the potential Kikyou has as a character, she easily could’ve been the protagonist of her own story rather than a plot device in someone else’s.
Just what exactly is special about Kikyou as a character, and why does she deserve to be the hero of her own story? Let me count the ways!
1. Kikyou takes direct inspiration from historical miko
This is actually the first thing that appeals to me about Kikyou as a character. In contrast with the miko of today who primarily work as assistants to priests at Shinto shrines throughout Japan, historical miko were actually women in positions of power and status.
Literally meaning ‘female shaman’ (an alternative kanji spelling for miko also means ‘divine child’), historical miko actually had political and religious authority in their respective communities as they were believed to possess strong spiritual powers that allowed them to interact with the kami (gods/spirits) they served. In addition to serving their community’s kami, they also relayed messages from the kami to the people in their villages through a trance-like dance known as kagura or miko mai.
Historically, miko were believed to be the descendents of Ame-no-Uzume, the shinto kami of dawn, humour, and dance. To become a miko, girls were chosen based on their spiritual strength or on the basis of them being the daughters of shamans themselves. They typically trained from a very young age (some sources say on their first menstruation) to become miko and underwent purification rituals such as bathing in cold water and practising abstinence as part of that training. Training to become a miko was known to be pretty intense and took anywhere from three to seven years to fully learn their craft.
Upon completion of their training, a ceremony would be held to symbolise the bond between the miko and the kami they would serve, which is also the reason miko had to remain virgins and could not marry. Though there were exceptions when miko did marry (usually to Shinto priests), this was incredibly rare as the whole point of them becoming miko was that they were essentially married to the kami they served. As such, maintaining their purity (including sexual purity) was an important part of their occupation.
In practise, historical miko did everything from divinations to allowing themselves to be possessed by kami, which is how the kami were believed to interact with humans. While possessing the miko’s body, the kami would convey their messages via the trance-like dance that today is known as kagura and miko mai. Historical miko were also known to purify evil and perform exorcisms. The historical miko’s tools of trade included an azusa yumi (a sacred bow used in Shinto rituals), kagura suzu (the bells used in kagura dance), and tamagushi (a sakaki tree branch typically used in Shinto ceremonies).
The history of miko in Japan very strongly informs Kikyou’s narrative in both the manga and anime, as well as her character development. The training historical miko underwent is even strongly implied in Kikyou’s backstory. The anime further elaborates on this idea by establishing that she trained with Tsubaki under the same Shinto priest, with Kikyou possessing the stronger spiritual powers. Kikyou, however, was only able to maintain her spiritual strength through her purity, which her sexual awakening later compromised. This is a major theme in Kikyou’s storyline I will get to later.
2. Kikyou’s narrative parallels that of the series’ ancient miko Midoriko
When it comes to the story’s connective tissue, Inuyasha series creator Rumiko Takahashi loves drawing parallels between her various characters, and Kikyou is no exception. One of the more compelling details of her character is that her life directly parallels that of the series’ ancient miko, Midoriko, who is responsible for the shikon no tama’s existence.
Like Kikyou, Midoriko was also a powerful miko with immense spiritual abilities that youkai feared. Per Sango’s narration in the manga, miko were believed to have the strength of 100 samurai, and Midoriko was known to be able to purify and vanquish as many as 10 youkai at once. Her spiritual power was so strong, youkai couldn’t even touch her without being purified in the process.
In addition to being able to purify youkai, Midoriko had also mastered the ability to purify the shikon (four souls) central to Shinto: aramitama (courage), nigimitama (kinship), kushimitama (wisdom) sakimitama (love) in humans, animals, trees, and rocks alike. Sango’s narration further elaborates that these four souls form one spirit that is then said to reside within the heart which drives human nature. As such, souls can become good and evil.
Midoriko’s mastery of purifying the shikon made her a fearful figure amongst youkai. They therefore conspired to destroy her by merging together into one single powerful youkai with a demonic power strong enough to neutralise her immense spiritual power. They converged themselves onto the evil heart of a man who secretly loved Midoriko and became the single youkai necessary to kill her in battle.
Though the youkai succeeded in exhausting Midoriko of her strength, she also performed one final spell that allowed her to seize control of the youkai’s soul and merged it with her own. This resulted in the creation of the shikon no tama (jewel of four souls), which she then expelled from her body resulting in both her death and the death of the youkai. The shikon no tama was then entrusted to Kikyou hundreds of years later by the taijya (demon slayers) from Sango’s village, which also sealed Kikyou’s fate.
Like Midoriko before her, Kikyou had also become a strong, powerful miko in her own right, whose spiritual powers were also gravely feared by youkai. Like the youkai who conspired together to destroy Midoriko, another group of youkai did the same with the goal to destroy Kikyou. They too exploited Onigumo’s lust for Kikyou in order to bind themselves to his corrupted heart and become a youkai powerful enough to kill her.
3. Kikyou’s spiritual powers are equal in strength to Midoriko
To add to the point about Kikyou’s narrative paralleling directly with Midoriko’s, Kikyou’s spiritual powers are also equal to Midoriko’s in terms of strength. While Midoriko’s weapon of choice was a katana (sword) for channelling her spiritual power, Kikyou is a highly skilled kyudoka (archer) who channels her spiritual power through her azusa yumi (catalpa bow). As such, she can shoot hama ya (exorcism arrows) capable of purifying and vanquishing numerous youkai in one shot.
In addition to purifying and vanquishing youkai, Kikyou is also skilled at breaking powerful demonic barriers with her hama ya, and can even destroy demonic artefacts like a zushinezumi (a shrine containing demonic rats). When confronted with a youkai she cannot defeat, Kikyou can also use her hama ya to put them into an eternal sleep with a spell she calls fuuin no ya (arrow of sealing). Under fuuin no ya, no one can disturb nor awaken the affected youkai except for the person who cast the spell.
While her azusa yumi is Kikyou’s preferred tool for channelling her spiritual power, she is also capable of using her spiritual powers without it. Amongst Kikyou’s skill sets as a powerful miko include her ability to put up barriers no one else can penetrate, except for her reincarnation and those she actually wishes to see. She can also rebound the spells of other miko and Buddhist priests and can also generate fatal energy blasts.
Kikyou’s immense spiritual power also allows her to perform powerful spells like a mayose, which is used to lure swarms of youkai to a specific location where they are subsequently exorcised. Per Miroku (a Buddhist monk), this is a high level spell that can only be performed by a highly experienced sorcerer. Kikyou is also highly skilled at summoning and controlling her own shikigami (spiritual servants), and can even create and control her own youkai in the form of soul-snatching shinidamachuu (dead soul insects). She can also detect the presence of various auras (demonic, pure, and dead), and can even recognise different types of spells, which allows her to foil those spells with little effort on her part.
While Kikyou is highly feared by youkai for her immense spiritual power, it is by no means Kikyou’s only dangerous weapon. Just as sharp and powerful as her spiritual energy is her brilliant mind as she is one of the most intelligent characters in the series. Though Kikyou is skilled at reacting to situations quickly and efficiently, when Kikyou is actually in control of situations, she tends to fight strategically.
Kikyou is never the type to walk into a situation blindly and always meticulously investigates her cases before taking action. She always prioritises getting to know her enemies first and discovering any weaknesses she can use to her advantage. When conducting her own investigations, Kikyou always asks the right questions, carefully plans her attacks, and when necessary, can even carefully plan her escapes when captured.
When she especially wants to create a weakness in an enemy, Kikyou accomplishes this by using deception to confuse her enemies and put them on edge so that she can predict their behaviour. Even when she does become aware of their presence, she doesn’t make her knowledge known until she feels the moment is right. While Kikyou is a character who yearns for meaningful relationships with other people, at the same time she also thrives on having others (especially enemies) distrust her as a way of maintaining a level of control over them.
Off the battlefield, Kikyou is also a highly skilled herbalist with an immense knowledge of medicinal herbs. She is able to identify various plants and their medicinal properties, and is often seen treating wounds and other illnesses. Between her spiritual abilities, battle tactics, and healing talents, Kikyou can truly give Midoriko a fight for the title of most powerful and resourceful miko.
4. Kikyou has a compelling villain in the form of Tsubaki
One of my favourite villains from Inuyasha is the dark miko Tsubaki who is a perfect foil for Kikyou. In fact, she works better as a villain for Kikyou than as a villain for Inuyasha and his group of friends because of how much her narrative both parallels and differs from that of Kikyou.
Like Kikyou, Tsubaki also trained from a very young age to become a miko, and (in the anime only) even travelled alongside Kikyou during their training together. Tsubaki is also equally skilled in her use of her spiritual power, but unlike Kikyou, her powers are a lot weaker. A lot of that is due to Tsubaki’s own personality and motivations being entirely at odds with the necessity to maintain herself pure, which is incredibly important to Shinto. The fact that Tsubaki is incapable of increasing her own spiritual strength is also one of the reasons she is intensely jealous of Kikyou.
The strength of Kikyou’s spiritual power is her kindness, compassion, and selflessness, all of which are indicative of her pure heart. She is therefore seen as incorruptible by those who interact with her, and is the reason the shikon no tama is entrusted to her. Tsubaki, by contrast, is a miko who is entirely self-serving, and is driven by negative emotions like jealousy, vanity, and hatred.
This stark difference in personalities and character motivations even reflects in the way both Kikyou and Tsubaki use their spiritual powers. Whereas Kikyou uses her powers to purify evil and help other people, Tsubaki uses her powers for personal gain. She tends to curse people she doesn’t like, and has even sold her soul to youkai as a way to increase her powers and get what she wants.
At one point in both the manga and anime, Tsubaki attempted to exploit Kikyou’s sexual awakening to unleash a curse on her and take the shikon no tama away from her. Kikyou, however, is not a fool and easily rebounded Tsubaki’s curse, causing the latter to fall victim to her own spell. Though Kikyou forgave Tsubaki for her attempt to curse her, this only strengthened Tsubaki’s hatred of Kikyou.
In the anime only, Tsubaki attempted to curse Kikyou much earlier when the two were training together. Being envious of Kikyou’s immense spiritual power, she attempted to weaken Kikyou by placing a curse on her that would cause her to fall in love and die a violent death.
Whether or not Kikyou would’ve still fallen in love without Tsubaki’s curse is up to viewer interpretation. But I believe there is enough evidence to suggest Kikyou fell in love entirely on her own. What is possible, however, is Tsubaki being involved in the youkai conspiracy to destroy Kikyou in some capacity given what we know about her character. Since she eventually sold her soul to youkai as a way of increasing her powers, it’s not beyond Tsubaki to have conspired with that one spider youkai to exploit Kikyou’s weakness and facilitate her violent demise.
5. Kikyou’s sexual awakening explores her more human side
This is perhaps the one major event in Kikyou’s life that led to her more interesting development as a character. It is also the major event that facilitated her brutal murder way more than being the guardian of the shikon no tama ever did. When Kikyou only tasked herself with purifying the jewel, she was able to successfully prevent the jewel’s corruption due to her strong spiritual power and her pure heart. When something (or rather someone) came along to compromise that, that was when things went downhill for Kikyou.
As the guardian of the shikon no tama, Kikyou did not actually struggle to keep the jewel safe from corruption. Youkai that came for the jewel were youkai she quickly and effortlessly vanquished. That was until she one day came across a youkai-like being she couldn’t bring herself to kill. The one responsible for opening the Pandora’s Box of Kikyou’s repressed emotions, causing the young powerful miko to realise something important about herself: she is a human being after all, complete with human desires and human emotions. The object of Kikyou’s affection? A young hanyou named Inuyasha.
One of the major themes we see explored with Kikyou’s character is whether or not she can be an ordinary woman and a powerful miko at the same time. This theme actually goes back to the concept of the historical miko committing herself to serving the kami of her village–a responsibility that also required the miko to maintain her purity, including sexual purity. Consistent with this concept, Kikyou is in fact respected and revered as a divine, almost god-like figure by the people of her village. While admirable, it is also a position that robs Kikyou of her own humanity–something she herself isn’t aware of until she meets Inuyasha.
As stated in both the manga and anime, as a living, breathing, fully alive miko, Kikyou does try to live without doubts and without mistakes. After meeting Inuyasha, however, she acknowledges (perhaps for the first time) that she doesn’t actually want to be perfect. Like other 17-year-old girls, she too wants more varied life experiences and yearns for more meaningful relationships with other people. She wants to express herself more freely.
The first time Kikyou invited Inuyasha to meaningfully converse with her, Kikyou expressed her first complaint about the restrictive nature of her responsibilities as a miko, which prevented her from acknowledging her humanity. She felt she had to hide so much of herself in order to be a viable threat to youkai, which was also the source of her loneliness. During this discourse, Kikyou allowed herself to be vulnerable for the first time, which didn’t go unnoticed by Inuyasha. Feeling sympathetic towards her, Inuyasha starts spending more time with Kikyou, with their friendship eventually blossoming into a full-blown romance.
We learn through Kikyou’s romantic relationship with Inuyasha how much she desires to experience love and sexuality freely, which unfortunately facilitates her downfall. As previously mentioned, purity is extremely important in Shinto. This in turn required historical miko to maintain their purity (including sexual purity) in order to maintain the strength of their spiritual power.
Consistent with this belief, by becoming romantically involved with Inuyasha, Kikyou began experiencing sexual feelings for the first time, which compromised her sexual purity, and her spiritual powers started to weaken. In the one hour anime special titled ‘Fateful Love Song Before We Met’ (translated in English as ‘Tragic Love Song of Destiny’), Kikyou even acted on those feelings when she shared her first romantic kiss with Inuyasha the day before she scheduled to meet with him to give him the shikon no tama. Anything else that happened between that late afternoon kiss and when Inuyasha walked Kikyou back home late that night is left to the imagination of the viewer.
Considering what happened afterwards, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that a lot more happened in those in-between hours as Kikyou did not at all detect a different aura from Naraku when he posed as Inuyasha later that night to change the meeting time. This is unusual when you consider that Kikyou has never struggled to detect Naraku’s distinct presence post-resurrection. Add the fact that Kikyou genuinely believed it was the real Inuyasha who attacked her the following morning, and there’s enough to suggest that her spiritual power was significantly weakened by that point, again consistent with the idea of her compromised sexual purity.
With her sexual purity compromised, corruption of her pure mind and heart soon followed when Naraku took advantage of Kikyou’s weakened state to arouse feelings of anger and hatred when he attacked her in the guise of her lover, causing her to think she had been betrayed. Those feelings of anger and hatred are what later fuel Kikyou’s resurrected existence as a mononoke (vengeful spirit), which then puts her on a path to purge those feelings from her soul so that she can achieve peace in death.
While as a huge Kikyou fan I would’ve preferred seeing Kikyou get her ‘happily ever after’ and continue exploring the human side of her character, at the end of the day, her story is meant to detail the rise and fall of a powerful miko. In the end, her romantic relationship with Inuyasha is meant to both humanise Kikyou and explore her sexuality, as well as depict the consequences of a miko choosing to abandon her commitments. This admittedly makes her story more complex and more interesting. (I just wish those consequences could’ve been explored without actually killing her.)
In addition to romance, the last detail in Kikyou’s narrative that humanises her character is her love of children, which explores her more maternal traits. This is more easily seen with her younger sister Kaede, whom she raised in place of their actual parents, as well as the villagers’ children, who are all very fond of her. Not only does Kikyou play with the children of her village, but she also teaches them how to identify medicinal herbs and how to use them to treat wounds and illnesses. With her sister Kaede, she does all of this, as well as teach her how to use an azusa yumi, presumably as part of her miko training.
6. Kikyou becomes a legend in her own right decades after her death
The last significant development that occurs with Kikyou’s character after her death is that she becomes a legend in her own right. In the 50 years since her demise, Kikyou is fondly remembered by various people for her immense spiritual power as well as her tragic undoing. Even another young miko by the name Hitomiko is aware of Kikyou’s powerful legacy. In the anime, it is even implied that Hitomiko looked up to Kikyou as a miko herself who matched the latter in spiritual strength.
The character, of course, who is most affected by Kikyou’s legacy is Kagome Higurashi who is Kikyou’s reincarnation. While Kagome is powerful in her own right, as a young Tokyo girl from the 21st century, Kagome is completely unaware of her spiritual strength and knows little about her spiritual power. Whereas Kikyou trained from a young age to master her spiritual powers, Kagome by contrast never received such training and tends to learn about her powers through trial and error. As such, she hates being compared to Kikyou, and especially feels inadequate whenever she sees the more experienced Kikyou in action.
While Kagome has always had the ability to detect auras, purify evil energies, and eventually learned how to channel her spiritual energy with a bow and arrow, she also doesn’t know how to use her powers beyond that. Unlike Kikyou, she’s not able to summon nor control her own shikigami, nor does she know how to perform powerful spells like a mayose. Even when it comes to using an azusa yumi (which she eventually inherits from Kikyou), she still doesn’t know how to harness the bow’s full spiritual power as Hitomiko pointed out.
Make no mistake that as a Japanese horror fan, I still enjoyed the idea of a pure, powerful miko becoming a mononoke as part of Kikyou’s storyline post-resurrection. At the same time, however, I can’t help but feel that Kikyou’s legacy could’ve been utilised in a better capacity that actually helped Kagome grow as a character rather than hinder it.
Rather than literally resurrect Kikyou as a way of creating unnecessary conflict for Inuyasha and Kagome’s budding romance, becoming aware of Kikyou’s legacy could’ve instead motivated Kagome to learn as much about her past self as possible in order to become a more efficient fighter in the main storyline. This is actually where the character of Kaede could’ve fulfilled a more important role for Kagome.
As Kikyou’s younger sister and a miko in her own right, Kaede could’ve told Kagome about Kikyou’s past and could’ve even helped Kagome get in touch with the soul of Kikyou that resided within herself. Since Kaede is not powerful enough to properly mentor Kagome on her immense spiritual power, Kikyou could’ve actually fulfilled that role for her. This not only would’ve allowed Kagome to learn how to harness her spiritual power more effectively, but could’ve even learned different ways to use it. This would’ve in turn enriched Kagome’s character development in a way that more strongly cemented her bond with Kikyou and would’ve left her in a better position to truly live up to Kikyou’s legacy, perhaps even exceed it.
It’s unfortunate that Inuyasha series creator Rumiko Takahashi didn’t see a need to devote an entire story arc to exploring Kikyou’s origins and life more in-depth as a way of building Kagome’s character in the main storyline. At the same time, however, it is also not too late to do a prequel miniseries that does exactly that. While the anime kind of (sort of?) gave us a prequel episode that explored Kikyou’s past prior to her death, at the same time the prequel episode didn’t reveal much new information as much as it streamlined all the bits and pieces of her past we already knew from the main storyline.
With all the potential Kikyou has as a character based on how she was developed in the main series, there is definitely a lot more story to tell. Between Kikyou being a historical miko with a compelling origin, villain, romance, character development, and especially a rich legacy, she definitely has all of the makings of an epic heroine quite deserving of fronting her own story.
Special thanks to Kai (@RedFreakinArrow) for their help with the historical miko details.