ByCiarán Ainsworth, writer at
Postgraduate researcher of Japanese Mythology and Cinema at the University of Exeter. 妖怪と怪談の熱狂者.
Ciarán Ainsworth
‘Gremlins can’t survive in bright light. Under dim lights is where Yōkai exist. The Edo period is when the gremlins flourished. In the Japan of today, with so many lights everywhere, they can’t survive. That’s why after the Edo period they didn’t flourish. And I think it’s due to the bright lights of modern Japan.’ (Mizuki Shigeru, 2011)

Cinema Is An Art Steeped In Tradition.

As a format still in relative infancy, film is profoundly influenced by the myriad art forms that came before it: literature, theatre, fine arts, sculpting, oratory, musical performance, etc. ad infinitum. Since each culture has its own take on the different forms of artistic expression that went on to influence their adaptation of the filmic form, each culture has a very different idea of what exactly cinema is, how it should be presented, and which stories it should be responsible for telling.

In the case of Japan, the cinema became known early on as an ideal place for the restaging of classical theatrical pieces from the catalogues of Kabuki and theatre, as well as tales of mysterious happenings known as Kaidan (怪談, strange stories) (Hand 22-23).

A popular theme for these Kaidan is the inclusion of Japanese creatures known as Yōkai (妖怪, mysterious occurrence), folkloric creatures who peaked in the public’s consciousness during the Edo period (1603-1867).

This period brought with it the popular adoption of the printing press, and the Tokugawa Shogunate enthusiastically encouraged a literate population (Davisson 36) – leading to a surge in popularity of Yōkai as things to be enjoyed as thrilling or amusing. The Ukiyo (floating world) in which these creatures thrived was one of mystery, intrigue, and playfulness comprising Kabuki shows, woodblock paintings, and illustrated works written for popular consumption (Foster, Pandemonium 49).

A Brief History of Yōkai

The Meiji restoration of 1868 saw society turn away from the mystery and intrigue of the fushigi (不思議, that which cannot be grasped in thought) that shrouded the Yōkai’s terrain, and instead find a new fushigi in the marvels of modern science – particularly electricity (112-113).

This fascination with modern scientific advancement had an enormous impact upon the popularity of Yōkai. Suddenly, what had once been a source of entertainment and fun became something almost gauche; démodé in the eyes of the intelligentsia. The public did not immediately let go of their folk beliefs, however, and games such as the Ouija-like Kokkuri-sama (狐狗狸, meaning fox, dog, raccoon dog) was imbued with references to the traditional Yōkai of yesteryear.

In spite of this resistance, the landscape in Japan had shifted to one in line with Western scientific theories, and therefore much of the spiritual and superstitious that had been so popular during the Edo period was quickly replaced with a deep fascination for new advancements, new imports, and nothing more than a feeling of nostalgia for the creatures who dwelled in the hinterland of Japan’s history (94-108).

As such, many traditional Yōkai were relegated to icons of traditionalism. In this way, they were mostly used as historical reminders of Japan’s “backwards” past: a period the more enlightened public could look back upon with a sense of intellectual superiority.

The fushigi and Yōkai were now seemingly separated; the mysteries of the natural world were no longer blamed on the mischievous Tanuki (狸, a raccoon-dog native to Japan) or foxes – both of whom folklorically had a predisposition to transform and cause mischief or misfortune – but instead on theories more in line with modern science (158-159).

However, modern media – in particular the medium of film – has brought with it a newfound interest in Yōkai both in Japan and among international viewers. Many famous creatures of Japanese folklore have found themselves in the spotlight of movie enthusiasts’ attention, most notably creatures such as the Yūrei (幽霊, dim spirit) and its more vengeful cousin, the Onryō (怨霊, vengeful spirit).

With the rise to popularity of Japanese horror movies in the late 1990s and early 2000s came a sort of Yūrei boom (Hantke 54-55) that saw famous examples of these creatures being updated and adapted from their Kaidan origins for the modern international audience (Foster, Pandemonium 206-207).

You have beautiful eyes...
You have beautiful eyes...

But while the Yūrei has flourished on flickering screens around the world, other traditional Yōkai have struggled to find a footing. Certainly, films featuring these strange creatures have continued to be released in Japan to some success – sometimes even dwarfing huge releases, such as the children’s film Yo-Kai Watch: Enma Daiō to Itsutsu no Monogatari da Nyan! outselling the blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens domestically (Schilling).

Nevertheless, these domestic successes have not been replicated around the world, and besides a few breakout cinematic appearances they have failed to achieve the iconic status that comparable Western monsters have. This may seem odd, as Yōkai are not – in their original form – too far different from the monsters that frequent the Western horror scene.

Indeed, the difference lies in a generational gap: a removal of Yōkai from their mysterious roots that has taken them from being manifestations of the unknown and the fearsome and has instead rendered them as culturally specific characters. It is this mysterious gap which has seen film as a medium take up the role of Ukiyo-eiga: the cinema of the floating world. Yōkai continue to haunt the dim light of the cinema screen as an otherworld in which they can flourish as they can no longer in the real world.

Yōkai as Fushigi

‘…When all possibilities in the known world are exhausted, you might venture into the unknown. Maybe something is trying to contact you?... The possibilities are endless, and disconcerting, and along with the sounds themselves they keep you awake at night’ (Foster and Kijin, Book of Yōkai 25)

You see a figure standing in the darkness. You call out to it, demanding it identify itself. It makes no move, but simply stands there menacingly in the shadows. Every urge in you is telling you to run, and in your mind this strange apparition takes on a monstrous form: red of face, sharp of teeth, herculean of build. With nowhere to run, you decide to fight, and with a charge you find yourself piling into a tall basket of dirty laundry. Congratulations! You have just had a brief encounter with the Fushigi.

Yōkai, like many mythological and folkloric creations, have their root in logic and cognitivism. A Yōkai is not simply created for the sake of publishing pictures nor selling merchandise, but rather because there is a sensation or phenomenon it is used to explain.

As an example, Michael Dylan Foster describes the creation of the Yōkai Nurikabe (ぬりかべ, plaster wall)– a physical wall that would often halt the progress of woodcutters and travellers who were suffering severe fatigue. In this example, Foster notes that the nurikabe is a physical realisation of a phenomenon that is well known and documented in scientific circles - as well as among runners - as “hitting the wall”.

Of course, modern science can explain this phenomenon as glycogen depletion, but back in Edo period Japan such an explanation was beyond the grasp of science. Instead, a visage was invented in order to satiate the need for explanation. This creation of a concrete image (pun fully intended) to explain phenomena is central to the formulation of Yōkai (Book of Yōkai 26-28).

Nurikabe by Mizuki Shigeru
Nurikabe by Mizuki Shigeru

Foster further goes on to explain that Yōkai existed not only to describe phenomena, but rather as a part of the natural order of things. He attributes three states of being to Yōkai (originally prescribed by famous Yōkai academic Komatsu Kazuhiko): event, presence, and object.

The former two states are used to explain exactly whence Yōkai originated: the need to explain the world around us, the need to explain events and feelings of unease (28-30). But it is the latter state that is perhaps most interesting. Yōkai as object is the state in which Yōkai are given a definite form; it is the process by which the supernatural becomes manifest in the world of the natural. Indeed, Yōkai exist to give form to the Fushigi.

While Yōkai were given shape often in the minds of those who experienced the phenomena attributed to them, they were eventually assigned famous forms by artists for the purposes of recreation (30). This means that over time the creature itself eventually becomes separated in the public consciousness from their origins, and instead becomes a character of its own, coming to represent – in many cases – the comically mischievous as well as the mysterious and terrifying (49-50).

Yōkai, then, have their roots in a specific cognitive process. They exist as an explanation and description of the unexplainable, as well as the deepest subconscious fears of the general population. Indeed, this kind of association is noted by Torben Grodal in his book Embodied Visions: Evolution, Emotion, Culture and Film.

He notes that perceiving causal links between phenomena, the natural world, and the invented supernatural world is a process that is shared across cultures (98). The supernatural has many different forms - each specific to the culture in which it is coded - but at its root it exists to differentiate that which can be recognised as real from that which cannot be grasped in the mind (99).

Similarly, the notion of causality – or event – is something that is found throughout human history. Just like the sound of the falling tree can be attributed to the Yōkai of which the listener later hears, so too can incidents and occurrences be attributed to anything that deviates from the norm. In this way, Yōkai fit fairly well with worldly superstitions and mythological belief. The act of creation to pacify the need to search for explanation is one that can be found across borders (98).

Fear of the dead
Fear of the dead

Grodal’s reasoning is that there are dispositions which exist regardless of culture: dispositions which have emerged as humans have evolved and are rooted much deeper than the more superficial culturally specific dispositions.

The fear of death, the fear of the abject (112-113), the fear of vengeance and judgement from beyond the grave: these are all universal terrors whose influences can be felt in fantasy media the world over (120-121). Indeed, death and fear of death is a major theme in Japanese history and mythology, dating all the way back to Japan’s creation myths (Ashkenazi 77). These universals are embodied well by the ghostly Yūrei and Onryō, and this may well go a long way towards explaining their broader international appeal (Hantke 61).

However, what of the other Yōkai to whom this does not so easily apply? Certainly, the act of creation is a common feature, but as Theodore Schatzki notes: universal commonalities are not the be-all and end-all of understanding. Indeed, they are only the foundation for an understanding which must be found between the interpreter and the interpreted (11-12).

Yōkai as National Nostalgia

The Tanuki crowd around a television set
The Tanuki crowd around a television set
‘In the wake of progress, it seems, there is always a dead body, and the tanuki’s corpse becomes a metonym for those things - nature, tradition, magic – that the narrative of modernity destroys.’ (Foster, Haunting Modernity 14)

Over time, the role of Yōkai in Japan began to change. As Japan started a wide-scale modernisation process during the Meiji period, the landscape of Yōkai began to disappear.

The old hours they used to haunt were suddenly replaced by the cold, precise, mechanical 24-hour clock; the months of the lunar calendar were shifted to that of the brighter sun. Science started to fascinate people more and more, and while Yōkai were not completely abandoned at this time, their referential landscape was altered permanently (Foster, Pandemonium 77-78). From this point onward, there is a trend towards modernisation which begins to illuminate every twilit corner in which Yōkai typically flourished (Foster and Kijin, Book of Yōkai 88-90).

But Yōkai Are Not Forgotten.

While people no longer blame nurikabe for standing in their way, nor blame Yōkai for the sound of falling trees, these creatures are nonetheless very present in the everyday lives of the Japanese population.

Just as with the Ukiyo of the Edo period, art and media have continued to reproduce famous images and depictions of Yōkai all the way through from children’s anime to the aforementioned J-horror cinema. The inclusion of Yōkai in such media can range from subliminal cameos and references to entire franchises being based off of them.

Some of these media choose to recreate Yōkai or simply keep common factors – such as the ever popular Pokémon franchise, which makes use of a similar taxonomical mode of collection to the one employed by Yōkai enthusiasts in the Edo period (Foster, Pandemonium 213-214) – while others still choose to make direct historical reference to works of art and literature which came before. One of the most notable examples of the latter is Isao Takahata’s Pom Poko, release by Studio Ghibli in 1994.

The Pokémon Mawile and Futakuchi-Onna
The Pokémon Mawile and Futakuchi-Onna

Pom Poko tells the story of a group of Tanuki living in a rural area outside of 1960s Tokyo who – upon seeing their native habitat being destroyed by humans in order to make way for a housing development – take it upon themselves to learn the long unused art of shapeshifting in order to drive out the intrusive human force. For the most part, these transformations are small in scale, with individual Tanuki transforming themselves into humans or objects, or small groups carrying out coordinated attacks.

However, as the film progresses and the Tanuki become more desperate, their transformations grow all the more ambitious and all the larger in scale. They begin to use their abilities to haunt the nearby humans with malice, attempting to warn them that they are encroaching on territory that belongs to the old world of Yōkai. After a last-ditch effort fails to save their habitat, the Tanuki band together to transform the entire landscape of their home one last time before resigning themselves to living as humans.

Tanuki: animal and character
Tanuki: animal and character

What makes Pom Poko such a fascinating case study is the fact that it is, at its root, a film for children. Yet despite this fact, the film makes extensive reference to art and stories that are centuries old and arguably outside of children’s maturity range.

Nevertheless, the shapeshifting protagonists of Pom Poko are seen frequently taking on the shape of creatures and characters from Japan’s rich artistic heritage. The film’s every frame is oozing with a cultural nostalgia; Japan’s old-world art and monsters are shown desperately trying to halt the rapid expansion of Japan’s modern world (Foster, Haunting Modernity 21-22).

As the Tanuki get more desperate, so too do their references to art and culture become more overt. Nowhere are these references clearer than during the giant, last-ditch effort made by the Tanuki to convince humans of their existence: a huge parade called “Operation Yōkai”.

The Tanuki start setting up a huge operation, with each Tanuki and elder taking part in a huge show of fire and lightning, dragons and smoke. The shapeshifters take flight, and then we cut to a modern-day city street. Shadows of ghostly figures rise against buildings, and children stare aghast at the shapes as graves materialise behind them. Festival music springs up, and rows of foxes and other creatures flood the streets to the applause of the nearby crowds. Children excitedly chase after foxes walking in step with one another, when before them a ghoulish lantern materialises out of thin air.

The ghostly Oiwa-san
The ghostly Oiwa-san

The lantern is distinctly familiar, and the crowd reacts with astonishment. As more and more recognisable creatures spring forth, so too does the delight of the spectators grow. Famous images of thunder gods and foxes strut upon the street, and the people gaze on with wonderment. Each frame of this Hyakki-Yagyō (百鬼夜行, Night procession of a hundred demons) is packed full of references to famous Yōkai artwork and tales, and the overall upbeat feel of the scene reeks of nostalgic celebration.

The fact of the matter is that these images should be frightening. The lantern represents Oiwa-san, the ghost of Tōkaidō Yotsuya Kaidan (東海道四谷怪談, The strange story of Yotsuya on the Eastern seafront), whose fearsome countenance haunts the Kabuki stage to this day. Nevertheless, the reaction from the crowd is one of glee. After all, this is nothing new to them. This terrifying visage is something so commonplace that it is frequently replicated by children at the mention of the name (Davisson 92)


As the parade of goblins and gods proceeds, two middle aged men sit eating and drinking saké, commenting on the furore occurring behind them. “I used to see stuff like that too, way back when. You know, foxes with lanterns. That kind of thing,” one says. The two chuckle for a while and joke about the things they used to imagine when they were younger, with the ghoulish parade playing out behind them all the while.

The reply from the second man, however, is a striking one: “It must be your mind playing tricks on you. A fox wedding. Foxes with lanterns. It’s already in your head. So it’s like… your brain plays tricks on you. You can see them walking in your head.” This suggestion is one that particularly resonates with the idea of Yōkai as nostalgic symbols. The creature is not being created in response to phenomena any more, but rather recalled from the myriad portrayals that saturate the everyday.

The parade reaches its climax with a crashing wave that washes people down the street, followed by a fiery display of flying animals. The exertion of the display kills one of the grand elders, and the Tanuki quickly realise that their charade is over. Afterwards, a child asks “Aw, is that the end?” His mother then tells him it is time for bed, to which he responds “oh, okay.” Just as suddenly as it appeared, the mysticism and pandemonium of the Yōkai’s world disappears and is replaced once more by the mundanity of the everyday (Foster, Pandemonium 209).

The rest of the film follows suit; the Tanuki eventually lose their battle and are forced to join the ranks of the modern working human. All of the magical powers of the world could not save them from their fate. But the rapidity of the onset of modernity in Japan from the Meiji period onwards is – arguably – precisely what was needed to preserve Yōkai as they are.

A famous story is often told of a Tanuki who imitated a train, only to be run over when a driver decided to push ahead rather than stopping. This story is often seen as an allegory for the death of the supernatural at the hands of modernity (Foster, Haunting Modernity 16-17). But this is not necessarily true. Certainly, the Tanuki is killed by the oncoming train, but we are left with its body. With its power to shapeshift gone, we are left with only a physical manifestation – a symbol - of what we once knew.

This nostalgic image is precisely that to which Yōkai have arguably been relegated in films such as Pom Poko. They are immortal in their nostalgic portrayal, despite the fact that they now lack the power to haunt the modern world. Due to the somewhat dismissive way in which Yōkai were treated following the Meiji restoration, the images created during the Edo period were the ones which survived and were passed down (Suzuki 232). The dead Tanuki: stuffed and put on display to save it from the ravages of change and time.

They seem a little too happy about this
They seem a little too happy about this

Much like the Leprechaun of Irish mythology, Yōkai have predominantly been relegated to characters that represent a nostalgic idea of culture and history, rather than a symbol of supernatural mischief and wonder as once they did. These ideas are kept alive by stories, illustrations, and – of course – films. Nevertheless, the ideas are maintained in such a manner that they have become a long way divorced from their cognitive roots.

The Kappa no longer acts as a warning to children and ox drivers to stay away from fast-flowing water as once it did, but now instead has become a national character: often a cute and playful creation (Foster, Pandemonium 207). It is to this idea of Yōkai as characters that I now wish to turn my attention.

Yōkai as Characters

‘Although carrying an ominous nature, several Yōkai monsters … also take on amicable and humorous attributes, which invite the readers to develop affective relationships with [them].’ (Suzuki 233)
The Yōkai of Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare
The Yōkai of Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare

Perhaps the most influential figure in Yōkai media is the late, great Mizuki Shigeru. His work – in particular his famous GeGeGe no Kitarō series – has brought Yōkai to the forefront of Japanese media. The Kitarō series is one that particularly targets small children, and as such makes use of the more ludic and personable elements of Yōkai in order to present them not as monsters, but as characters.

As noted previously, this is something that is actually commonplace in contemporary Japan; indeed, many depictions of Yōkai are now so far removed from their original meaning as to be completely unrecognisable. This trend is one that creates an odd divide within the concept of Yōkai. An almost complete separation of appearance and behaviour which drastically changes the impact of Yōkai as monsters.

Of course, Yōkai have always had names and faces (Foster and Kijin, Book of Yōkai 93). In fact, this is one of the major factors that differentiates Yōkai from more generic creatures of folklore (Davisson 22). However, recent treatments of Yōkai have acted to personalise them, rather than to animalise them.

In Western cinema, monsters are often animalised in order to allow them to more effectively play upon an innate sense of fear that would not be played upon were the animalisms not recognised (Baird 97-98). The Yōkai as character paradigm, however, subverts this need to make the monster ‘monstrous’, and instead focuses upon turning that which was once fearsome and fushigi into a personable character and often even protagonist.

This is something that comes more easily to the Yōkai than to the Western monster (Foster, Pandemonium 48), and indeed has almost become the norm with contemporary Yōkai media. The aforementioned GeGeGe no Kitarō series places Yōkai and humans alongside one another as good characters, highlighting their likeability and ludic manner (Foster, Otherworlds 14).

Don't you pull that face at me!
Don't you pull that face at me!

A prime example of this can be found in Yoshiyuki Kuroda’s 1968 film Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare. The film concerns a group of Yōkai who are forced to band together in order to expel an evil Babylonian vampire – Daimon – who has invaded their homeland and taken control of a local samurai.

The film is reminiscent of the Japanese folk tale of Momotarō: a young boy who gathers together animals native to Japan and leads them in an attack to restore ownership of Kikaigashima after it is taken over by demons. As such, the Yōkai used in this film are used precisely because they are Yōkai, which is to say that they are used not because of their distinctive powers, but because of their role as identifiably Japanese creatures (Papp 225).

But quite apart from this, the characters are all stripped of their threatening and monstrous ways. As Zilia Papp identifies, the Yōkai who take centre stage in Yokai Monsters “consist of comical creatures with childlike features” who contrast with the “male adult character” of Daimon (231). In short, the creatures go from being the creatures that stalked the near darkness of rural Japan to being akin to the stars of an after-school special.

To highlight this further, the film starts out with Daimon awakening and flying to Japan directly. After arriving in the country he takes over the body of a local samurai and begins plotting his next move. After easily defeating the Kappa – who resides in a river near the samurai’s abode – Daimon summons a group of retainers to go out on a rampage.

Upon breaking into the house of a nearby family, Daimon (as the samurai) proceeds to kill the parents while the two children escape. Pursued by the retainers, the children run through the forest before coming upon the Yōkai pack. Despite the Yōkai’s frightening appearance, however, the children are completely undeterred and immediately beseech that the Yōkai assist them in their escape. The Yōkai reluctantly agree after the Kappa tells them of Daimon and his actions. Throughout this sequence, the Yōkai speak directly to the children as peers, and the children seem entirely comfortable with the situation.

In this moment, all of the menace of the costumes and setting vanishes completely, and is replaced instead with a feeling of allegiance to these characters (Smith 84). At this point the Yōkai cease to be harrowing figures of yesteryear, and instead are simply the protagonists of the film.

You said it, Kappa!
You said it, Kappa!

Indeed, another important factor of the interaction between the children and the Yōkai in Yokai Monsters is precisely the fact that there seems to be no barrier between them. In the past, Yōkai were never truly beheld, nor interacted with. They existed in the misrecognition of a face in the darkness (Foster, Pandemonium 81), or in the creaking of a house when you’re trying to sleep.

However, with Yokai Monsters the worlds of humans and Yōkai have no barrier between them. The Yōkai are not haunting nor playing tricks on the children, but simply talking to them. This would become a common feature in much Yōkai media to follow, particularly since it was the direction taken by Mizuki Shigeru in his work.

When Yōkai are used as characters rather than symbols of national nostalgia or symbols of fear, the worlds of the fantastic and the mundane merge, leaving a world in which the traditional Yōkai live harmoniously among humans as characters, rather than as spectres.

The New Media Landscape

Yōkai films: now with CGI!
Yōkai films: now with CGI!
‘In short, experiences of the weird and mysterious in the abstract are undoubtedly universal, but at least in the popular imagination, Yōkai are always already imbedded [sic] in the referential landscape of the Japanese nation,’ (Foster, Pandemonium 212)

Cinema is one of many “new media” adopted by Yōkai. Permeating it from the bottom up, seeping their way into it through their connections to existing media and the public consciousness of Japan. Once again, the shapeshifters of old have had to adapt in order to survive.

Originally, Yōkai represented the world around their creators. But that world has changed, and with it the relevance of the old Yōkai has somewhat diminished. These creatures have been relegated to symbols, mascots, and fond public figures which nod to a time and presence long past. In the new media, however, Yōkai continue to evolve and grow.

Despite the lacklustre international performance of Pom Poko (Napier 491), production company Studio Ghibli has produced arguably some of the most popular cinematic creatures to come out of the country in its history. Specifically, Hayao Miyazaki’s treatment of his creations as universal from the start is key. While Takahata’s work is greatly influenced by traditional art and theatre from Japan, as well as the contemporaneous work of artists such as Mizuki Shigeru, Miyazaki makes much more use of internationally recognisable folkloric traits (Foster, Pandemonium 256-257).

It is for this reason that the Yōkai-like creatures found in the works of Miyazaki are so much more widely accepted than Mizuki’s renderings of Yōkai. Well, that and the fact that Miyazaki’s creatures are invariably cuter.

Seriously. So. Much. Cuter.
Seriously. So. Much. Cuter.

Whilst modern-day Japan no longer allows for the hinterland of mystery from which new Yōkai can emerge, there is nonetheless a residual fondness for these creations of yesteryear. This nostalgia has allowed Yōkai to carry on evolving, changing, and ultimately has kept them in the public consciousness long after their cognitive origins were explained away.

Existing Yōkai are represented in cinema as symbols of a past not to be forgotten, and as friendly faces to be enjoyed, and indeed fans of Yōkai and Japanese culture continue to go out of their way to bring these creatures to the attention of the wider population (Shamoon 276).

In 2005, Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare saw something of a spiritual sequel with Miike Takashi’s Yōkai Daisensō, which tried to make more effective use of contemporary horror techniques than its predecessor, while also remaining true to the ‘Yōkai as character’ motif set about by the original film and the work of Mizuki Shigeru (who, interestingly, has a cameo appearance as the Grand Elder Yōkai at the end of the film).

The combination of Miike’s star status (following the enormous international success of Audition in 2000 (Hantke 54-55)), the increased availability of foreign media allowed by the Internet, and the increasing fan culture surrounding obscure Japanese media at the time (Hills 161-162) meant that Yōkai Daisensō was more successful at reaching an international audience than Yokai Monsters. While not a commercial success outside of Japan, Yōkai Daisensō is a strong indicator that Yōkai live on in the haunted landscapes of digital film files and celluloid.


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