Yokai (Japanese spirits) and mythical creatures of Japanese lore have inspired artists, writers and poets for millennia. However, as the Japanese culture has changed, so have depictions of the legendary creatures with the creatures changing from a source of fear and fascination to more diverse and playful depictions. Nowhere is this truer than in pop culture where generations of young Japanese take these classic tales and subvert them in exciting new ways.
In this article, we look at some notable interpretations of yokai and mythical creatures in modern anime and manga and how different they are from their contemporary equivalents.
The shinigami (death gods) have undergone huge changes with the increasing influence of Western media. Although shinigami do appear in traditional Japanese stories as creatures that guide the dead, there was not one entity like the Reaper that did the job but rather a variety of entities.
As a more Westernized image of life and death entered Japan, so did the idea of there being a specific spirit that functioned exclusively as a god of death. So the more modern version of shinigami seen in manga/anime like Death Note – mysterious goblin-like creatures at the beck and call of whoever writes their victims’ name in a mysterious book – are more modern takes influenced by the West.
This has allowed for some very creative takes on the creatures, such as the shinigami in Noragami who lives a slovenly life seemingly uninterested in its important role and in Bleach where even part-humans like Ichigo can ascend to shinigami status.
If you watch anime like Pom Pom or With You and the Rain (Ame to Kimi to), you could be forgiven for thinking that tanuki (sometimes called Bakedanuki to distinguish them from the animal) must be lovable scraps that like nothing more than to play with you. However, the tanuki of legend were not quite so friendly and would often delight in mean jokes at the victim’s expense.
A particular favorite prank of the tanuki was to transform something valueless, like leaves, into money and then turn it back at an inopportune moment. Although this is still found in contemporary anime, their transformation abilities are extended to serve the story. So, in Omae, Tanuki ni Naranee ka? we see tanuki transforming suicidal people and in Tamamo-chan’s A Fox! we get tanuki teaching their transformation skills to other animals.
The role of cats in Japanese society has changed from rat-catching workers to beloved members of the family, such as seen in Ghibli’s whimsical The Cat Returns. So, when you first hear about nekomata, the mythical version of the cat, you may imagine something like the versions appearing in GeGeGe no Kitaro or Jibanyan in Yokai Watch, cute lovable characters popular characters with young children. However, its folkloric equivalent is more likely to turn you into breakfast than play with you as it was considered one of Japan’s most terrifying yokai.
Kitsune (fox spirits) have been depicted in various ways in popular culture, sometimes in strange ways that deviate from their traditional folklore representations that are known for toying with humans, turning into beautiful maidens to lead good men astray or even possessing people for various ends.
This is contrasted with more modern depictions that see them as noble and caring guardians (Gugure! Kokkuri-san) and comfort and help (The Helpful Fox Senko-san; Sewayaki Kitsune no Senko-san), displaying a more caring and responsible side compared to traditional kitsune folklore.
Appropriately for such a common character, the folkloric kappa (turtle-like creatures) vary in their characteristics, so unsurprisingly their contemporary versions do too. In traditional folklore, kappa were seen as unhuman-like in their depictions, similar to their depiction in Super Mario Brothers, albeit with their weakness being the water on their heads rather than Italian plumbers stomping on their shells.
In more modern adaptations, writers have started to sympathize with the Kappa and even give them human traits. In Summer Days with Coo (Kappa no Coo to Natsuyasumi), a kappa named Coo is found and adopted by a human family where the story explores Coo’s integration into modern human society. Similarly, they become pets in How to Breed Kappa (Kappa no Kaikata), where the protagonist attempts to treat the mythical creatures like a regular pet to humorous effect.
Oni (ogres) are usually the bad guys of traditional stories with heroes like Momotaro having to battle them to save entire villages. In modern depictions, perhaps thanks to the popularity of boke (foolish characters in comedy), oni-inspired characters are seen as less scary and more comical or absurd. In anime, like Gintama and Crayon Shin Chan, the difference between the fearsome appearance and their actual abilities is used for comedy. Similarly, Anpanman created an Onion Oni who was more likely to cry than go on a rampage.
Tengu, are bird-like supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore. Their depictions in traditional folklore can vary a lot, generally, they consider themselves too important to interact much with humans, but may serve as mentors and teachers of martial arts to particularly skilled individuals.
In modern depictions, their more subhuman and monstrous nature is often emphasized with the Karasu Tengu (crow-like Tengu) in Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan and the monstrous Tengu of Onmyoji, showing the darker side of these creatures. This is perhaps most clear in the Black Bird story in the Fragments of Horror stories, which has a twist so diabolical that we can’t print it here.
Komainu, the guardian lion-dog statues often found at the entrances of shrines and temples in Japan, are generally depicted traditionally in popular culture, but with their protective nature ramped up. So, in One Piece they appear as a comical protector or Rin-ne: Circle of Reincarnation that imagines them as dog-like protectors.
Overall, the differences between the folklore versions and pop culture versions of kami (god) and yokai stem from the creative reinterpretation and adaptation of these traditional concepts to suit the needs of storytelling in modern media. While some elements and characteristics remain consistent with their folklore origins, the flexibility of these concepts allows for a broad spectrum of interpretations in anime and pop culture.
Have any contemporary versions surprised you? Let us know in the comments.