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Japanese Horror Folklore in Anime

Japanese Horror Folklore in Anime

-Written by: Matt


Halloween week is finally here! Get ready for ghosts, vampires, mummies, hockey masks, and enough candy to make you feel like you just ate a baseball! While these infamous monsters are certifiably creepy (excluding baseball-sized candy hauls), we here at Right Stuf Anime wanted to shake things up this year and cover a different assortment of traumatizing spirits: Yōkai, a term for Japanese monsters and demons. We’ll be covering the most commonly seen members of the roster that Japanese anime and manga artists draw inspiration from (pardon the pun).


Oni

Kicking off our list is the monstrous oni. These Yōkai are traditionally depicted as large, ogre-like brutes equipped with razor-sharp teeth and horns. If that wasn’t frightening enough, these savage beasts often carry kanobō, a type of spiked iron club, which they can use to brutal effect. Due to their barbaric appearance and nature, they are often featured as villains in Japanese folklore, myths, and legends – as well as some of your favorite anime and manga!


Find them in Ushio & Tora, Dragon Ball Z, Urusei Yatsura


Tengu

It wouldn’t be a list of yōkai without the infamous tengu. Illustrations of tengu vary from being large birds of prey to anthropomorphized bird men, usually displaying elements of both human and avian characteristics in either form. The tengu can trace their origins to Chinese folklore and later to Japanese Buddhism and Shintoism, the latter two describing these winged demons as malevolent spirits attempting to guide priests off the righteous path. Their long history as part of Japanese culture and tradition has understandably earned them a place as frightening opponents in countless manga and anime.


Find them in Samurai Champloo, Yo-Kai Watch, Black Bird


Zashiki-Warashi

The next yōkai on our list are decidedly less physical, literally. While legends differ through time and region, the zashiki-warashi (“guest room child”) are said to be ghosts of children that were crushed to death and buried under their own homes by either their family or community. Yikes! Despite their ghastly origins, they tend to be more annoying than dangerous, causing mischief and pulling mild pranks. If you can get past the infanticide, these restless apparitions have a protective side to them: a household haunted by a zashiki-warashi will supposedly be blessed with good times and prosperity.


Find them in Princess Mononoke, Mononoke, Yuuna and the Haunted Hot Springs


Inugami & Kitsune

Both inugami (“dog god”) and kitsune (“fox”) are animal spirits that have taken on a multitude of appearances throughout the centuries. Inugami were dog spirits that could possess the body of mortals and cause them to bark like dogs, while kitsune were typically seen as wise and associated with the Shinto spirit. Conversely, they at times were also viewed as untrustworthy goblins. Better to keep one’s distance! Luckily for us, inugami and kitsune typically manifest themselves as human-like characters in popular culture.


Find them in Inuyasha, Okami, Kamisama Kiss


Tanuki

You may be thinking to yourself that the tanuki isn’t a ghost or myth, but that it is a very real animal. You would be correct. You would also be incorrect. While the tanuki is a very real animal native to Japan, the tanuki also finds itself as a supernatural spirit within Japanese folklore. Powers wielded by these Japanese raccoon dogs include the ability to shapeshift and cast illusions. Unlike most of the other entities on this list, and in Japanese mythology as a whole, they are mostly harmless pranksters that can come off as absentminded and silly.


Find them in Animal Crossing, Pom Poko, The Eccentric Family


Kappa

You knew this was coming. Long before the word “kappa” was used to describe a famous internet emoticon, the inhabitants of Japan knew the kappa as a turtle-like water monster that supposedly had a taste for cucumbers. While not entirely evil – legends claim kappa help irrigate farmer’s fields and bring fresh fish to fishermen – the aquatic yōkai frequently assault humans who find themselves in or near bodies of water. Kappa can be defeated by being bested in their favorite pastime, sumo wrestling, or by bowing, which forces the kappa to bow in return and dump the water supply in their dish-like heads, rendering them near-powerless.


Find them in Natsume's Book of Friends, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan, Kakuriyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits


Rokurokubi

The rokurokubi are yōkai that look identical to human women but with one exception: their necks either extend like that of a snake, or their heads detach from their bodies entirely and fly around the room they are haunting! This bizarre monster seems to have first appeared sometime in the 1600s during the Edo period. One origin explains that rokurokubi are humans whose souls are leaving their bodies, while another claims it is simply a type of illness. Either way, the idea of waking up in the middle of the night to a floating head is sufficiently frightening!


Find them in Yokai Watch, Kitaro, Rosario + Vampire


Kasa-Obake

Kasa-obake literally translates to “Umbrella Ghost,” and it is a fitting name indeed. The kasa-obake are umbrella fiends with one eye that hop around on a single leg. These creatures gained life after inanimate umbrellas became so old that they died and became apparitions. The concept is admittedly more puzzling than scary, yet the living umbrellas seem to have struck a chord within their native culture. They can often be found in Japanese legends, literature, and on children’s homework in doodle form!


Find them in Kitaro, Rosario + Vampire, The Morose Mononokean


Onryō

The next entry on our list is certified nightmare fuel! The murderous onryō are traditionally depicted as black-haired women that were betrayed by their unfaithful husbands. These vengeful spirits unleash their fury by maiming or killing their enemies; however, the onryō are not yet done with their victims after they have exacted their terrible revenge: once the specters take the life of the one that wronged it, the wrathful ghosts tear their victims’ souls from their dying corpse! Brutal! The onryō is perhaps the most famous of all Japanese ghosts, having appeared in countless stories and films, even managing to find their way into Western pop culture through their appearances as the primary antagonists in The Ring and The Grudge, both remakes of Japanese horror classics.


Find them in Dusk Maiden of Amnesia, Ghost Hunt, Ayakashi: Samurai Horror Tales


Gashadokoro

The final entry on our list is also the most recent: the gashadokoro. Although a monster resembling the gashadokoro was depicted in the 1800s, the spirit was first titled and used widely in the latter half of the 20th century. The evil yōkai is illustrated as being fifteen times the size of an average human skeleton, which makes a lot of sense considering they are an amalgamation of the bones of dead warriors and those who have starved to death. The massive spirit loves to wander past midnight in search of travelers. There’s no silver lining here; once a victim is captured, the gashadokoro bite their victim’s heads off and drink their blood. Ouch! There’s almost no stopping a gashadokoro, as their powers include invisibility and indestructibility. Better stay home tonight!


Find them in Pom Poko, Inu x Boku, Nura: Rise of the Yokai


This concludes our list of Japanese ghosts, goblins, specters, and spirits! There are many more yōkai than the ones we mentioned, so if you enjoyed the article, let us know which one you would like to learn more about; we might just feature it next year! From Right Stuf Anime, have a spooky Halloween!


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