Review: Spirituality and Femininity Shine In Yoruba Epic “Beast of Two Worlds (Ajakaju)”

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Yoruba religion accounts for the existence of at least three worlds: the living which is the abode of humans; the dead, which is the afterlife inhabited by ancestors or souls of the deceased (and may house those who, upon death as despicable humans, metamorphose into evil spirits that can be possessed and controlled at will by other humans); and the unborn, which is perhaps the most ambivalent and evasive world where beings are known to exist before coming to life as humans. The concept of abiku, a child who dies and is reborn as many times as possible to the same family or household, is encapsulated in the unborn universe. But more importantly, as Eniola Ajao’s Beast of Two World reimagines, these worlds are often more conflicted, with humans and non-humans intermingling either for benevolent or malignant reasons.

The entire basis of spirituality itself is unimaginable without the existence of human beings who mostly take the first step of seeking the intervention or inciting the actions of these otherworldly creatures. Nollywood Yoruba language films have proven this, even right from the times of Ajileye’s horror-esque classics like Koto Orun, Koto Aye and Eran Iya Osogbo. In these stories, humans adopt witchcraft and evil spirits to unleash malevolence on their communities. Most of the diabolical characters, including ones with counter-evil intentions like the “white” witches of Koto Orun and Abija in Koto Aye, are fuelled by the deeds of the villains. Even New Nollywood films such as King of Thieves, Anikulapo: Rise of the Specter and Kesari the King, driven by Yoruba spirituality and worldview, account for the nuances of interactions between the three worlds. Ageshinkole, the belligerent protagonist in King of Thieves, is a reincarnated human-deity on a revenge mission for the atrocity committed against him by the previous generation. In Anikulapo: Rise of the Specter, a dead Saro is regenerated with attributes that qualify as both human and spirit, navigating both worlds on a new mission as messenger of death. This phenomenon of reincarnation is called akudaaya, the belief that any human who dies without having fulfilled his destiny may be given a second chance to exist in the land of the living. In such cases, the human-spirit being possesses the ability to meddle in the business of the living and the dead, and he may disappear completely when his time is up or his true identity is prematurely exposed to mortals around him. 

Beast of Two Worlds is a microcosmic representation of the fluidity of the Yoruba multiverse, projecting a protagonist that identifies as an animal, an anthropomorphic forest spirit and a human being. The film, laid on the foundation of a myth recounted by an unseen narrator, explores fate, witchcraft, the human struggle for survival, power tussle and female agency against a male-centered society. It follows the story of Oba Towogbola, a powerful king who faces the possibility of dethronement and banishment at the end of a ten-year period of unsuccessfully trying to get a son and heir from his three wives. Out of desperation, he liaises with a vengeful anthropomorphic creature Ajakaju, described as seranko seniyan, whom he marries as a fourth wife with the hope of having a male offspring. This union leads to the revelation of powerful secrets that implicate the king’s mother and wives.

Ajao’s film is perhaps even a bit more arresting than New Nollywood predecessors like King of Thieves for its representation of female characters as powerful and central to the politics of a male-dominated society. This, in turn, creates an illusion of patriarchy. Important  women figures in the  king’s life  hold the key to his regal longevity. While the presentation of such women as potentially toxic and cruel people may not sit well with the feminist viewer, the women’s ability to take charge of childbirth and motherhood makes an interesting case for female emancipation and acknowledges the role of femininity in the orchestration of patriarchy. In most Nollywood stories, women are blamed and risk losing their marriages when unable to have male children. But in Beast of Two Worlds, societal pressure and stigma falls on Oba Towogbola as he risks losing his leadership and identity. 

Directed by Odunlade Adekola and Adebayo Tijani, Beasts of Two Worlds centralizes a traditional female superhero with complex moral identity. As a ruthless beastly creature that claims the lives of innocent people, particularly hunters, in the community forests, making them pay for betrayal of trust and bereavement, she is Ajakaju. As a concerned wife and mother who protects the royal sons from harm and the king from everlasting shame, she is Adaralewa. Ajakaju and Adaralewa, both wings of the same character played by the film’s producer and executive producer Eniola Ajao, refuse to showcase their weaknesses, demonstrating strength and astute judgment in the face of adversity. While the film does not live up to the daredevilry of the King of Boys franchise where a contemporary female force on the quest for political power proves too tactical for her masculine contemporaries to outshine, it forges a passable identity for the female in a traditional society. One argument is that Eniola Ajao has her subtle agenda of women empowerment in patrilineal circumstances accomplished in the film. Being vulnerable, it appears for her, is not necessarily a symptom of femininity.