Friday, January 29, 2010

Popular Yōkai Throughout History and In Modern Media

As you'll recall in the last entry, I started to talk about yōkai and explain a bit about them to you. This entry will go a bit more in depth into that, as well as the next one, which will explain more about certain types of yōkai. There will be quite a few entries in this series, but I won't do them all at once, because obviously there are a lot to talk about.  Of course, that's not even a full list, but my point basically is that I have a lot I can go into if I get bored or you want to hear about a specific one I haven't covered yet.  But I'll try not to be completely overpowering with massive amounts of yōkai information.  The main thing I want to do in the "Yōkai Info" series is

- To better explain exactly what and why these creatures are,
- Provide lots of pictures of the different types depicted from the Heian Period to modern-day anime, and everything in between,
- Share the stories and images behind many yōkai and cultural instances that are hard or impossible to find online in English, and
- To answer questions about yōkai as best I can.

First off I'll give you a basic dictionary paragraph about yōkai.

A yōkai can refer to a number of things, from a supernatural creature, being, ghost, demon, spirit, happening, monster, or even a human, animal, object or any worldly thing that exhibits or acquires supernatural power or appearance.  For the sake of clarity, I generally view supernatural Japanese things in three major categories: ghosts, gods/demons, and yōkai.  The 'ghost' category (yūrei) covers spirits, spectres, visions, dreams, or any sort of supernatural apparition involving a human.  Gods and demons refer to legends in Shinto, Buddhism, or any other religious belief or figure adapted into a moderately well-known cultural phenomenon.  These two categories I will go into with greater detail in the next Kagrra, installment.

The yōkai I am referring to are 'supernatural creatures'.  They will be vengeful, monstrous in appearance, or even just harmless animal-type-things playing tricks.  They also can include certain forms of ghosts or demonic presences, but this would involve the ghost or demon being formed by a human who had undergone such a legendary tale that it caused them to mutate into a very specific form of monster, instead of simply becoming a ghost or demon.

Yōkai are hard to explain in Western terms, if there is an equivalent, I'm afraid I don't know about it.  We view ghosts, demons and monsters differently in Japan, and I don't know any cultural significance in the West or America that would be a direct descendant or cousin of yōkai.  I could compare them to some sort of cryptozoology, like Bigfoot, Nessie, vampires, werewolves, or Robert Pattinson: something you know about, but never really see, despite having a vague idea of what it looks like, but you'd know basically where and how to find it if pressed.  Or you might compare it to supernatural or fairy tale creatures, like elves, fairies, goblins, talking animals, or any sort of distinctive imaginary creature found in local legend or lore, with their own distinct species and mannerisms between them.  I don't claim to know everything about this sort of comparison, but to me, yōkai seem to have their own little category, because I can't think of a real Western equivalent to the specific significance of yōkai in Japan.  If you can think of one after reading this, I'd be very appreciative to hear it.

Yōkai mainly revolve around cultural learnings and tales instilled in us, superstitions and rituals and fears about specific creatures that will come up in daily life, in a great number of movies, books, video games or popular media, even going so far as to be a mascot of a company selling anything you can think of, having food items named after it, or just to represent something about a specific person's store, personality, house, or interests.

You probably know about several yōkai without even having heard the term before.  These popular examples that are a bit more familiar to Western eyes include, but are not limited to: the kappa, the tanuki or kitsune, tengu, the chochinōbake or karakasa, and and the kodama, just to name a few.

I won't go into these specific yōkai because they are so well-known and there is much English-language information about them to be found online.  My next entry will focus on some of my favourite or hard-to-find yōkai, but this one will take the in-between road.  It's all about semi-popular yōkai you may have seen before but not known about, or will learn about and soon see often, as well as lots of photos of their most popular instances in the past and modern-day popular media.

If you're just starting to learn about yōkai, and would like to learn more, the best places I can recommend are as follows:

Search for "hyakkiyakou" or 百鬼夜行.  This being a Kagrra, song, I'll explain all the meanings of it in that next entry, but basically it refers to the Demon's Night Parade, a march of all types of demons throughout the streets of the Capital, or the entire country, depending on who you're listening to, which I mentioned in my last yōkai entry.  The origin of many yōkai are in these famous ukiyo-e, a vast amount of which was drawn by many different artists of varying popularity.  It was basically the "Madonna and Child" of the Edo Period; everybody was drawing it to get some sort of recognition or put their own imprint on the artwork.

Watch anime.  Kids love spooky or clever little creatures, and films by Studio Ghibli and Miyazaki Hayao are as good a place to start as any.  Spirited Away and Pon Poko are my favourites for this.

Read manga.  It's the same as above, but if you remember from my entry on Yoshitoshi, manga goes way, way back, even back before Urusei Yatsura, if you can believe that.  Lots of prints and drawings and stories about yōkai were extremely popular in the Edo period, which you'll see below.  Another great manga (and anime) is GeGeGe no Kitaro, by Mizuki Shigeru.  If Toriyama Sekien is the best-known artist, writer and creator of the past, Mizuki Shigeru is certainly his modern-day equivalent.  In addition to Kitaro, Mizuki writes many in-depth books on yōkai, and his home-town has a museum and road dedicated to him, with many statues of all of his yōkai lining the street.

Watch the movies that started "it all".  Back in the late 1960s, the film company Daiei made a trilogy of movies about yōkai for children, but it really started the interest in yōkai back up again, and they are in the process of being remade by Miike Takashi.  I haven't seen the new movies, but obviously the originals are a favourite of my yōkai-obsessed mother, whose constant screening of them for me as well as lectures have probably made these yōkai entries of mine make me sound like a little yōkai encyclopedia.  I place the blame on my mother entirely.  Regardless, the movies are classics in a classically bad way, and are a must-see for anybody who wants to learn about yōkai, watch a Neverending Story-style children's fantasy movie, or just watch really corny badly-costumed Japanese cinema.  They're available on Amazon for American/Canadian audiences with English subtitles as a three-film set or separately (the three films are titled Yokai Monsters and individually are Spook Warfare, One Hundred Monsters, and Along With Ghosts).

There are many different artists, media, films and products that feature yōkai, but my favourites are these, in addition to the ones I'll describe below, so let's get to it!

Yōkai In Legend, Ukiyo-e, and Modern Art