Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yōkai in the fantastic medieval Japan - Part 1

Yōkai in the fantastic medieval Japan

Japan has faced, as we know, a great tragedy in recent days, with the earthquakes followed by tsunamis, since 11/03/2011.

The images and the consequences, as we can read in the news, are heart breaking.

But Japanese are tough to beat, as history has proven, and also extremely disciplined. It is no wonder that samurai and ninja originated in feudal Japan, warriors with impressive skills, bordering on the supernatural; warriors that have inhabited our fantasies and pop culture for decades. As a fervent admirer of these people, I have full confidence that they will recover impressively, with the same stoicism, honor and discipline of a samurai, as they did rise from the rubble of World War II to become a technological and economic power.

In honor of this people, I decided to talk about their captivating folklore in the feudal period. In other words, now let's talk fantasy in medieval Japan.

Let's start with an infamous creature from Japanese myth, one that features in legends from the feudal period to the present day: the yōkai.

The yōkai can be defined as a monster, spirit or demon. Actually it can be considered a class of Japanese monsters, since not every monster from feudal Japanese culture is (generally) considered a yōkai - for example the oni, kappa and Yurei. In some sources, however, these monsters will be considered yōkai, like in Inuyasha, a manga / anime which will be further explored in our posts about yōkai. In this manga / anime, all the supernatural creatures, including the three I mentioned above, are considered yokai.


  As a rule, what defines a yōkai is some kind of supernatural or spiritual power. Yōkai with ability to shape change are called obake. Obake examples are:

    * Tanuki (raccoon dog)
    * Kitsune (Fox)
    * Hebi (snake)
    * Mujin (Badgers)
    * Bakeneko (cats)
    * Ōkami (wolf)
    * Tsuchigumo and jorōgumo (spiders)
    * Inugami (dogs)

Stories of tanuki disguised as members of society (priests, for example) are common through the Kamakura period. Other stories are more sinister. In a story called "Kachi-Kachi Yama", a tanuki kills an old lady and serves her as a soup to her unsuspecting husband. A tanuki is also a character in InuYasha, acting as a servant of the monk Miroku.

Kitsune by ~who-stole-MY-name

 While the tanuki is portrayed as a prankster and joker, kitsune stories tend to be more serious, portraying these yōkai as intelligent beings, whose magical abilities increase with age. Kitsune have several tails, up to nine. The more tails a kitsune has, more wise, venerable and powerful it is. In the manga / anime Naruto, a fox of nine tails features heavily in the plot. The protagonist Naruto has one of these creatures within. Here, the creature is portrayed as demonic and destructive, and also a source of power coveted by the villains of the series. Traditionally, however, the kitsune were generally portrayed as Zenko (literally, "good foxes) or yako, malicious and harmful. In folk tales, they acquire a tail every 100 years. By acquiring the ninth tail, they became omniscient and their fur became white or gold. Commonly, they shapechanged into beautiful and seductive women.

Nine-Tailed Fox, from Naruto
Ōkami, bakeneko and especially inugami are prominently portrayed in InuYasha. InuYasha himself is the son of an Inugami, and a Ōkami named Koga is a rival as well a reluctant ally of InuYasha.

An interesting class of yōkai are obake tsukumogami, household objects that come to life by completing 100 years of existence. Common tsukumogami can be sandals, umbrellas, jars of sake and teapots. These yokai are also portrayed as pranksters, although they can also gather in droves to avenge those who have spent them or throw them in the trash, without consideration for their feelings. An interesting detail is that, according to the folklore, modern objects can not become tsukumogami, since these spirits are repelled by electricity. Moreover, few modern object last long enough to earn a "soul."

Yu Yu Hakusho. Hiei (left) and Kurama (red hair) are yōkai

  Besides the aforementioned InuYasha, yokai are often portrayed in modern and contemporary popular culture. Examples are also manga / anime YuYu Hakusho. Here we have Youko Kurama, a kitsune, and Hiei, a fire yōkai, born from yuki-onna (snow yōkai). In games, we have the Felicia from Darkstalkers, a bakeneko. Nor must we forget Ōkami, an action-adventure game by Capcom, which is worth being checked for any fan of yōkai and Japanese folklore and culture in general.

Felicia of Darkstalkers: yōkai bakeneko

And last but not least, RPG players, especially Dungeons & Dragons, who are also fans of yōkai and always imagined what would it be like playing one, check out Oriental Adventures, a supplement that provides the option of hengeyokai character (similar to obake).

Coming Soon, Yōkai in the fantastic medieval Japan - Part 2