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Culture

Japanese Folklore in Studio Ghibli Animation

Traditional creatures, classic fairy tales and so much more inspire the iconic studio’s films. Here are seven examples of influences from Japanese culture and folklore.

By 5 min read

Studio Ghibli and its most famous director, Hayao Miyazaki, need no introduction. So beloved is this studio that its 2023 film, The Boy and the Heron, became a box office hit in Japan and North America despite minimal promotion upon initial release.

Ghibli movies feel refreshingly original yet familiar to international audiences because their stories draw inspiration from history, folklore, children’s literature and real-life settings from around the world. Naturally, Japan is a heavy influence. Here are just seven examples of Japanese folklore in Ghibli movies.

1. Otherworldly Herons (The Boy and the Heron, 2023)

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This ambiguous portrayal of gray herons is nothing new in Japan.

This film’s titular talking heron is an unsettling presence with his foreboding appearance and creepy voice. Even so, he is a catalyst for necessary change. This ambiguous portrayal of gray herons is nothing new in Japan.

Japan’s classic authors such as Sei Shonagon (author of The Pillow Book) and Murasaki Shikibu (author of The Tale of Genji) record mixed views on gray herons. The former wrote that gray herons have a disagreeable appearance, while the latter remarked on their beauty.

Meanwhile, Japanese folklore associates gray herons—among other birds—with a phenomenon called aosagibi (gray heron fire). Allegedly, when a gray heron grows old enough, its feathers become iridescent and it gains the ability to breathe fireballs. Aosagibi are reportedly frightening, but not dangerous because the herons’ breath can’t catch anything on fire.

2. Traditional Merfolk (Ponyo, 2008)

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Ponyo’s character design, however, evokes Japan’s traditional merfolk.

Hayao Miyazaki stated that Ponyo was loosely based on The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Anderson. Ponyo’s character design, however, evokes Japan’s traditional merfolk.

Called various names, including ningyo (human fish) and himeuo (princess fish), Japan’s mermaids are usually depicted as fish with women’s faces. Depending on individual legends, these creatures can be anything from bad omens, to mixed blessings or saviors—sometimes playing more than one role in the same story.

Ponyo’s fishy body and humanlike face more closely resemble Japanese merfolk than Anderson’s mermaid. Also, like her traditional predecessors, Ponyo is complex—displaying healing abilities while also preceding a natural disaster.

3. Children and the Spirit World (My Neighbor Totoro, 1988)

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Japanese folklore claims that children are closer to the spirit world than adults.

Both adults and children in the movie My Neighbor Totoro believe in the divine and otherworldly, but the young sisters Satsuki and Mei have the most supernatural encounters. Perhaps this is because Japanese folklore claims that children are closer to the spirit world than adults.

One traditional saying claims that until children turn 7, they are in the gods’ domain. In Ghibli’s film, Mei is younger than 7 and she is the first to encounter the forest spirit, Totoro. Satsuki, meanwhile, is older than 7 and takes longer to meet Totoro. In contrast, the girls’ parents never encounter the forest spirit.

4. The Power of Words (Spirited Away, 2001)

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Spirited Away demonstrates kotodama in one of its main plot points.

Written with kanji characters that mean “speech” and “soul,” kotodama (ことだま) refers to Japan’s traditional idea that words spoken aloud have the power to magically influence the world around us.

Spirited Away demonstrates kotodama in one of its main plot points. When the young protagonist Chihiro signs a contract to work for the spirit Yubaba, she is required to answer to a new name, Sen. Later, Chihiro learns that she must not forget her real name or she will be stuck as Yubaba’s worker, unable to return to the life she led as Chihiro.

5. The Source of Evil (Princess Mononoke, 1997)

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Princess Mononoke is an exploration of how destruction begets more destruction.

The beginning of Princess Mononoke introduces Nago—a boar god who has transformed into a spider-like monster—or tatarigami (curse god) according to the original Japanese script.

Tatarigami of legend take on different forms. Some are simply powerful entities that bring destruction, but others are wronged spirits seeking vengeance. Princess Mononoke’s Nago belongs to the latter category of tatarigami. After humans destroyed his forest and waged war on the spirits of nature, Nago was consumed by his thirst for revenge.

As a tatarigami, Nago spreads a curse of hatred, which either slowly kills its victims or turns them into a tatarigami. Introducing Nago this way shows Princess Mononoke is not a battle between good and evil, but an exploration of how destruction begets more destruction.

6. Ghosts in Summer (When Marnie Was There, 2014)

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In Japan, they say the barrier between the world of the living and the dead is thinner during the summer.

This film follows 12-year-old, Anna, who spends the summer with her foster family’s relatives in the countryside of Hokkaido (Japan’s northernmost prefecture). Soon after arriving, Anna begins seeing visions of a girl living in a local abandoned mansion—which the townsfolk believe to be haunted.

The book by Joan G. Robinson that inspired this movie was set in England, but Ghibli’s choice to change the setting to Japan infuses the story with extra cultural significance. Japanese tradition claims that the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinner during the summer, making it possible for spirits to return. The reason for Anna’s ghostly visions is shrouded in mystery, but perhaps the timing of her countryside visit is to blame.

7. Obligation Versus Gratitude (The Cat Returns, 2002)

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Would you live in a cat kingdom?

After a high school girl named Haru rescues a cat from being hit by a car, she discovers this cat is a prince. In thanks for her actions, Haru is offered the cat prince’s hand (paw?) in marriage, which she accidentally accepts and then is not allowed to refuse.

Daily life in Japan is full of gratitude, as seen in words of thanks, the depth of one’s bow and several gift-giving customs. With so many expectations of giving thanks, however, how does one know if they are receiving real gratitude or simple obligation?

The Cat Returns’ Japanese title: Neko no Ongaeshi (“The Cat Returns a Kindness”) makes it clear the movie is an exploration of gratitude and obligation. This title echoes that of a classic Japanese tale, Tsuru no Ongaeshi (“The Crane Returns a Kindness”), a story in which a crane shows gratitude to a man by marrying him and weaving beautiful cloth for him from her own feathers. Perhaps The Cat Returns is Ghibli’s interpretation of this classic for modern audiences.

What is your favorite Ghibli movie? What other folkloric and cultural influences have you noticed in these films? Let us know in the comments!

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