When I visited Japan several years ago I had a strange encounter. I saw a mysterious creature, a yokai.
It was during a walking tour. My sister and I were climbing up a long set of stairs toward a temple gate. Ahead of us we noticed some Japanese girls taking photos and exclaiming excitedly. What was this about? We climbed faster. In the bushes just off to the side, less than three feet away, we glimpsed a Japanese tanuki.
What are yokai? I like using the word yokai rather than trying to translate it. We can’t quite do it justice in translation: “a monster, spirit, goblin, ghost, demon, phantom, specter, fantastic being… or any unexplainable experience.” (Foster)
What’s a tanuki? They’re a raccoon dog, more closely related to a wolves or dogs than raccoon. Folklore calls them tricksters who can transform themselves.
Pom Poko is a Ghibli movie about tanuki. It’s a pseudo-documentary-style story about a group of tanuki whose homes are being threatened by human development. They decide to fight back using their mystical powers of transformation and deception. Operation Spectre is their grand plan to scare the humans, but everyone who sees them thinks it’s just a parade. They stand around wide-eyed in fascination rather than being afraid. So, the tanuki are faced with a harder choice – learn to live as humans in the human world, or live like animals wherever they can in the city.
Japanese yokai are so much fun. They can be scary, but these next two stories the yokai are mostly weird looking, and often times deceptively cute.
Natsume’s Book of Friends
My favorite manga about Japanese yokai is Natsume’s Book of Friends by Yuki Midorikawa.
It’s about a young boy who can see these mysterious creatures that no one else can. He gets into all sorts of trouble, because of his ability. People used to call him a liar for talking about weird-scary things, and he had to learn to lie and pretend to not see them.
So, at first Natsume just wants a normal kind of life, but he slowly realizes he cares about both worlds, the human and the yokai. It’s a gentle story about the ongoing encounters between Natsume and the yokai.
There are sweet stories, sad stories, and scary stories all mixed together. The artwork is delicate and little bit rough around the edges, but I like that about it.
The Morose Mononokean
More recently, I’m reading about yokai in The Morose Mononokean by Kiri Wazawa.
A young man named Hanae Ashiya encounters a fuzzy yokai and picks it up, thinking its a stuffed animal. Afterward, the fuzzy-ball gloms onto him and he suffers from its affections.
Do you see the fluffy white fur-ball in the panel below?
In the beginning Fuzzy is a scary yokai, because he’s making Ashiya sick. He’s an unknown. A strangeness. As Ashiya gets weaker, Fuzzy gets larger and larger. Then Ashiya finds a flyer for an exorcist, and wanders into a strange room called the Mononokean. There he meets Itsuki.
When Ashiya discovers the truth about Fuzzy, suddenly the yokai isn’t as scary. Fuzzy is the spirit of a dog, and just wanted someone to play with him again.
And so, Ashiya ends up working for Itsuki and he encounters all kinds of yokai: scary ones and sweet ones. There’s even a yokai who can’t express emotions except by using masks. He has different ones for crying and rage. But his laughing mask is missing and Ashiya must get it back for him. That’s easier said than done, because the mask is stuck on someone’s face. The man is a priest at a temple and bedridden from exhaustion due to laughing all the time. The only way to get the mask off is to have someone cry in front of him. Ashiya attempts to do this, but eventually’s the old man’s daughter ends up crying and frees him.
The human world and yokai world interact in really interesting ways in both this story. Should someone relatively normal like Ashiya be allowed to see yokai? Or is it too dangerous? There are some powerful monsters in the underworld that believe Ashiya’s ability to see is dangerous to them and they want to get rid of him.
Both Natsume and The Mononokean are bittersweet stories. They’re about seeing the world differently from most people, yet trying to make the world a better place for everyone.
Both tell stories about strange creatures, but the emotions present are so very familiar. How do we connect with someone so different from us? Why do we yearn for those connections? It’s never easy.
“There is an important relationship between that which cannot be seen (because it is invisible, indescribable, or numinous) and that which must not be seen (because it is terrible to look upon, frightening, or dangerous.)”
* Quotes from — Pandemonium and Parade: Japanese monsters and the culture of Yokai by Michael Dylan Foster
I’m always looking for more stories about yokai. If you know any, share in the comments.
Currently reading: First Grave on the Right by Darynda Jones
On my Kindle: nothing? (what’s wrong with me.)
Currently playing (and loving): No Man’s Sky