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Gods And Monsters: The Weird World of Japanese Yokai

You may not know their name, but if you've seen or read any supernatural Japanese fiction then you've probably come across Yokai. As stars of Japanese folklore these creepy creatures have been scaring the good people of Japan since days of old. Hayao Miyazaki's classic Spirited Away is the best known but it is just one in a long line of anime and manga that feature such creatures. But what exactly is a Yokai?

Yokai- sometimes romanized as youkai- is frequently translated as Japanese ghosts but this is something of an oversimplification. In most western legend ghosts are thought to be the souls of those who have departed this world. Although such spirits (know in Japan as Yūrei ) do exist in Japanese mythology, this is a long way from the whole picture. Yokai are a whole class of supernatural creature that, as well as yūrei, encompasses goblins, gods, demons, and almost any kind of monster you can imagine. They crop up frequently in the world of anime, film and manga, in everything from Spirited Away to Shiki. If you've come across something that goes bump in the night in Japanese pop culture, then it's a good bet it's a Yokai.

As well as the more conventional ogres, trolls and vengeful spirits, the bizarre world of Yokai also includes shape-shifting animals and inanimate objects that come to life on their one-hundredth anniversary. Sometimes malevolent, sometimes mischievous, there's many kinds of Yokai out there. It's little wonder that it's inspired artists, authors and filmmakers alike.

Japan has a long and storied folklore tradition that has been around since before the country as we know it existed, passed down from generation to generation. Intrinsically linked to Japan's Shinto and Buddhist religious traditions the ghouls and monsters of Japan are quite unlike any others. More recently they have also been fused with influences from foreign (mainly western) cultures, to create a unique hybrid. Anime and Manga like Nura: Rise Of The Yokai Clan suggest a whole other world of Yokai exists in the shadows and this idea has captured the public imagination in Japan time and time again.

Yokai in manga

Yokai really began to popularised once again by the huge success of Shigeru Mizuki's 1958 Manga GeGeGe no Kitaro. It followed a Yokai boy named Kitaro born in a graveyard. Along with his yokai friends (including his dad, now a talking eyeball) he protects humans from the rest of his kind. The manga ran for ten years and inspired numerous anime series and a 2007 live-action movie. Yokai also had a prominent role in Dororo, a significant 1967 work from “God Of Manga” Osamu Tezuka that was released in English by Vertical Inc. a few years ago. Although nowhere near as monumental as Kitaro, Dororo was also adapted in anime and live-action and was turned into the PS2 video game from Sega known in the West as Blood Will Tell. A new anime adaptation of Dororo aired in 2019.

Virtually every supernatural manga (except those based entirely on western influences, such as Hellsing) at least touches on Yokai mythology. Manga is often a more effective medium for out-an-out horror than the animated medium, and many Yokai tales take this form. From the cartoonish but creepy works of Hideshi Hino to the nightmarish visions of Uzumaki and Gyo, yokai-based manga takes many forms. On the lighter end of the spectrum, Yokai often appear, both as heroes and villains, in fantasy and adventure manga such as InuYasha or xxxHolic.

Yokai in anime.

Many of the works of the one and only Studio Ghibli are steeped in Japanese myth. Perhaps it's at its most obvious in Spirited Away, where Chihiro finds herself alone and lost in the supernatural world. Virtually the whole supporting cast can be classified as Yokai, with a mix of creatures based on traditional mythology and creations of Miyazaki's own. Princess Mononoke is similarly born from legends, with forest spirits and vengeful ancient gods. Even, fuzzy and loveable protector of the forest Totoro qualifies- and he's about as far from the western idea of a spirit as you can get. Not quite so well known is the brilliantly bizarre eco-fable Pom Poko which follows the trials of a group of shapeshifting Tanuki ( Japanese raccoon dogs) as humanity threatens their habitat, in what has to be Ghibli's most unapologetically Japanese work.

Outside the work of those masters of animation, yokai remain commonplace. Spooky ghost stories like Requiem from the Darkness, Japanese Ghost Stories and Ghost Hunt, harem comedies like Tenchi Muyo and action series like Ushio and Tora; Yokai are everywhere. Madhouse's Devil Hunter Yohko OAV series smartly combined Yokai-busting with the ever-popular Magical Girl genre to great effect. Even outside the obvious the influence of yokai can be seen- there's a definite link between Wolf Rain's shape-shifting wolves and the ancient legends of its home country.

They even appear in anime aimed at ankle-biters- most notably the hugely successful Yokai Watch franchise (which started as a video game).

Devil Hunter Yokho

Yokai in Movies

Ghost stories have long been a mainstay of Japanese cinema. The world at large first became aware of them with Hideo Nakata's classic 2002 The Ring (A.k.a Ringu) it's subsequent sequels. With their slowly building atmosphere of brooding menace and some unforgettable imagery, they spearheaded a J-Horror boom that defined the horror genre for much of the early 2000s. Their influence also spread as far as Hollywood, when remakes of Ringu and Ju-on hit it big at a time when audiences had grown tired of blood-soaked slasher flicks. Although the craze fizzled out before long, the influence of J-horror still can be felt in Hollywood and European horror films to this day.

They've also appeared in western animated movies. Disney even borrowed the name Yokai for the masked villain in their 2014 Japanese influenced Big Hero 6. The name was a good match for his dark and sinister appearance (his mask showed Japanese influence as well) even if the reference went over most of its audience's head. Meanwhile, LAIKA's masterpiece Kubo and The Two Strings is thoroughly entrenched in Japan's folklore.

In recent years several popular Yokai manga have been adapted for live-action including GeGeGe No Kitaro, Uzimaki and Dororo- all of which have seen release in the west. The 2001 movie Onmyoji and its sequel following the eponymous figure (essentially an exorcist crossed with a monster hunter) was a box-office smash showing interest in the supernatural remained high. Even Takashi Miike, the insanely prolific director best known for 13 Assassins and Audition turned his hand to the genre with the family-friendly Great Yokai War in 2005.

It just wouldn't be right to talk about monsters and Japanese movies without mentioning the Big Guy himself- Godzilla. After all, the Kaiju monster movies are just the latest in the long line of monster tales that have captivated Japan for so long.

The Yokai Files:

Yūrei . Translated as “Spirit” or “soul” these are what we westerners think of when you say ghost. Generally, these are depicted as dressed in the white garb of Japanese funeral rites, and often with the long, lank hair you've seen in a million J-horror flicks. They come in various different varieties including Funayūrei (the spirits of those lost as sea) and Zashiki warashi (the ghosts of children).

As seen in: The Ring (2002), Ju-On

Kappa These slimy turtle-like yokai are said to inhabit the rivers and lakes of Japan. The subject of legends for centuries they've been blamed for drownings, kidnappings and robbery and are infamous for their seriously powerful farting prowess. Legend has it that the only food kappa prefer to human children is cucumbers- good to know if you're going swimming in Japan any time soon. Some believe Kappa inspired the creation of Super Mario's most famous enemies the Koopas.

As seen in: InuYasha, Gintama

Tengu Sometimes depicted as bird-like creatures (such as in Nura) and sometimes as a humanoid creature with red faces and a long-nose (as in the Dead or Alive videogames) they have a long history in Japanese myths. While they were initially regarded as troublesome demons,over time the perception of them has changed to that of noble guardians of the mountains.

As seen in: Tactics, Nura: rise of the Yokai Clan.

Obake. Translated as “A thing that changes”, obake are the shapeshifters so common in Japanese folklore. Legend has it that certain animals; including foxes, tanuki (Japanese Raccoon Dogs) and snakes have the power to adopt human form or the form of other types of Yokai. Often used to trick humans, these creatures are said to be extremely cunning, and are best avoided.

As seen in: Pom Poko, Yu Yu Hakushu

Shikigami not to be confused with Shinigami (gods of death) these are spirits summoned and controlled by Onmyōji . Often represented as paper cranes or dolls.

As seen in: Spirited Away, InuYasha

Oni Hulking great beasts with sharp claws, horns and often a taste for human flesh, they are perhaps the very last Yokai you'd want to encounter. Generally translated as ogre or demon, they are infamously fierce and often depicted as carrying a formidable looking iron club, and sporting a tigerskin loincloth. They were also the inspiration for the decidedly less threatening race of aliens of the same name from the classic Urusei Yatsura.

As seen in: Ogre Slayer, Rave Master

Akaname This delightful chap's name translates as “filth licker”. Appearing in unclean bathrooms at night, he licks up the dirt left behind, in one of the strangest Yokai legends of all. Charming.

As seen in: The Gents at your local