Gegege no Kitaro header


Eyes On Yokai: An Introduction to Yokai in Anime

Photograph of Kunio Yanagita
Kunio Yanagita

In 1910, scholar Kunio Yanagata published published a collection of stories, entitled Tono Monogatari. This collection of folktales compiles myths from the city of Tono, located in Iwate Prefecture (found within the Tōhoku region of northeastern Honshu). He gathered these tales from Kizen Sasaki, a storyteller who resided in Tono and recited the tales for the scholar.

Each of the various cities and towns found throughout Japan have a rich heritage in folklore, which describe countless legendary beasts and monsters said to inhabit the country. Each of the stories within Tono Monogatari is a brief vignette, which describes an encounter with the unusual or supernatural. The collection alternates between accounts of Japanese mountain and country life, and the unique confrontations experienced by citizens of these regions. One section, for example, notes the practice of shrines dedicated to tutelary kami (deities of the Shinto tradition), with various rituals meant to receive the favor of each.

Tono Monogatari opens with a brief description of the town of Tono, segueing directly into the various tales recounted therein. Sasaki recollects a moment when he met a woman while hunting in the mountains, cutting some of her hair as a souvenir only to have it retrieved by a mysterious figure while he slept. Another entry tells of mysterious disappearances throughout Japan. For example, the anthology tells the tale of a girl who suddenly vanished, leaving a sandal underneath a tree. She would briefly reappear much older, only to announce her departure again. Such descriptions of mysterious events frequently appear in Japanese folklore. The tale of the missing girl illustrates the concept of kamikakushi, the “spiriting away” of children by angered deities.

Other selections from Tono Monogatari describe such phenomena as the aforementioned shrines dedicated to tutelary kami and encounters with yōkai. The specific sections in Tono Monogatari mentioning yōkai (legendary demons and monsters) feature tales like the mysterious Yama-haha, or “mountain mother.”

One of the most famous yōkai is the kappa: an implike demon residing in rivers that resembles a turtle. According to folklore accounts, kappa have a weakness: if one can manage to get a kappa to spill the water within the basin on its head, it would be weakened.

Drawing of a Kappa

Aside from Tono Monogatari, Other collections of folklore exist, which describe other yōkai present throughout Japan. Centuries of storytelling, from the 11th-century Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon to modern day animated depictions featured on television, frequently present supernatural encounters with these beasts. Some, such as the pillow-flipping makuragaeshi, may only appear at night as mischievous beings who assume human forms (typically a child, samurai, or similar) to inconvenience sleeping people. Other yōkai, such as the foxlike kitsune and tanuki, retain non-human characteristics. The kitsune, for example, can shapeshift, primarily as a means of tricking unsuspecting humans. but they have difficulty hiding their characteristic tails.

By circulating folktales in various forms, be it through oral accounts like with kamishibai or animation, storytellers help preserve such ephemeral cultural landmarks by passing it on to future generations. Subsequent storytellers may even adapt familiar tales that were recounted to them by their forebears into a new format, such as animation or video games. As a result, Japanese pop culture features copious amounts of explicit references to creatures and divine beings across the entire media spectrum.

Gegege no Kitaro Anime VisualKunio Yanagata and his colleagues in the early 20th century helped provide an impetus for later generations to explore such legendary figures as the kitsune and kappa in their own works, presenting them in new settings and old environments alike for younger audiences to experience and enjoy. The emergence of cinema, and animation in particular, in the early 20th century allowed filmmakers and television studios to illustrate yōkai in motion for the first time. Building upon their literary ancestors, productions such as Inuyasha and GeGeGe no Kitaro present the supernatural through the lens of animation, where yōkai can be shown to interact with the humans they share a world with.

Even video games like Atlus’ Persona franchise (which include a handful of yokai-based spirits known as Personas to summon and assist the player-character in battle) and Konami’s Ganbare Goemon games (which feature a common enemy based upon the umbrella yokai known as kasa-obake) feature these beings during the course of the story. Yokai serve as familiar characters in the games’ narratives, as they are depicted as part of the natural environment, with humans capable of encountering them during their daily lives. In contrast, anime helps contextualize yōkai as a more unusual, if still natural phenomena waiting to be discovered. Some characters, such as Kitaro and Inuyasha, even have a yōkai heritage, being derived from the union of a yōkai and a human. In the case of Inuyasha, he has a human mother, while his father is a powerful dog demon general.

This series of articles will explore the many ways that selected anime depict yōkai. From GeGeGe no Kitaro to Spirited Away, many productions include them as central characters who exhibit similar behavioral traits as humans. They can be playful or malevolent to humans, depending on their perceptions, but they are not unilaterally one or the other in temperament. A few works, such as Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, depict the protagonist as a member of both the human and yōkai worlds, thanks to their family connections, and they must navigate both worlds with diplomacy and tact. Others, such as Spirited Away, feature a human protagonist who interacts with the spirit world as a means of understanding the world around them and maturing through their experiences. The yōkai help connect the modern and ancient worlds, as they have been around long enough to see human civilization develop exponentially.

Spirited Away Still; Chihiro sits on a subway car with No Face
Spirited Away; © 2001 Studio Ghibli – NDDTM

The world can be a strange and occasionally frightening place, but the yōkai may not be as malicious as they initially appear. They may simply wish to protect their home from human encroachment, or establish a rapport with the human world through a shared interest in cultural exchange. The works I will focus on for this series will examine the risky nature of this relationship between the two societies. Centuries of interaction inform the behavior of each, and learning how to overcome misconceptions helps the characters tremendously in their desire to understand each other.

About the author

Anime Commentary

Alicia Graves is a mother, an award-winning writer, gamer and avid fan of music and anime alike. She writes on a wide range of subjects, from human experiences to pop culture. She believes in seeking out hidden gems in panned pieces, uniqueness in the mundane, and new outlooks on nuances. Follow her on Twitter @Ravens-Quill.

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