Tag Archives: monsters

Musings VIII: Monsters and Identity in “The Great Yōkai War”

Monsters – the Ultimate Adversary?

youkai yokai Japanese Monsters Mizuki shigeru

An assembly of yôkai.

It seems to be the most gripping kind of tale: The fight against a monster. Our heroes may confront it literally, as a demonic creature or a mad serial killer, or more symbolically, in the faceless grinding mechanisms of society, or the depths of their own subconscious.

The Japanese monsters categorized as yōkai are fascinating to me, not only because of their ever-changing appearance and narratives but also for their function in cultural discourse. A couple of years ago, I wrote an essay about the classic Yōkai daisensō, “Great Yōkai War”-chapter in Mizuki Shigeru’s manga Gegege no Kitarō, and while the material in doubtlessly somewhat dated now, I still consider it interesting enough to bear retelling in this blog.

The Father of Modern Monster Manga

Mizuki Mura Shigeru

Mizuki (Mura) Shigeru, 2010.

Mizuki Shigeru was one of the most influential mangaka of the 20th century. He was born as Mura Shigeru in 1924, most likely in Ōsaka,[1] and grew up in the remote town of Sakaiminato (“border harbour”) which faces the Sea of Japan. In his own autobiographical stories, he marks two eras of his life as most important: Firstly, his childhood, when an old woman told him stories about yōkai and thus built the foundation of his lifelong attention to them. Secondly, his war experiences, especially the time he spent convalescing in the village of Rabaul in Papua New Guinea after the loss of his left arm. In his works, he often idealizes the life of the natives: “as if I had somehow come upon a fairyland”[2]. Besides the spooky stories about Gegege no Kitarō, see below, Mizuki also illustrated numerous yōkai, some of which he invented or gave physical appearance for the first time. He also created a number of influential autobiographical narratives and the award-winning Showa: A History of Japan.[3] Mizuki was active as an artist far into old age; he died in November 2015. It is a great regret of mine that I never managed to visit the museum devoted to him during my stay in Japan.

Monsters and Japanese Identity

Gegege no Kitaro Kitarou

Kitarô being his usual caefree self.

In contrast to ever-raising action levels and expectation-driven heroes who developed from the model of Tezuka Osamu’s protagonists such as Astroboy, Mizuki’s Kitarō is a more ambiguous, more laid back figure.[4] And a decidedly uncanny one, of cause. As the last descendant of a spirit tribe, Kitarō usually functions as mediator between yōkai and humans.[5] In the story Yōkai daisensō, “The Great Yōkai War” (1966), however, Kitarō allies with a group of yōkai to liberate an island from an occupation by Western monsters. This story reflects two important moments of Japanese Post-War culture and politics: The American occupation and the re-emerging discourse of Japaneseness.

A Transformation of the historical situation

In Yōkai daisensō, Mizuki addresses the real conflict of the American occupation of Japan by shifting it into a fantastic otherworld. The “monstrous” concepts of American occupation and war itself take physical form as Western monsters and thus return to the public conscious, where they can be worked through and resolved. For, as Japanese studies scholar Fabio Gygi puts it, “[t]he only way to exorcise a monster […] is to conjure it, that is, paradoxically, to make it appear”.[6] Doubly distanced in the otherworld of monsters and the island of Kikaigashima, a fictitious location at the tip of Okinawa (the very edge of Japan), the trauma becomes safe to handle. In addition, criticism of the present situation, which might be a dangerous topic in realistic works, becomes possible in a fantastic scenario.

Western Monsters as Occupation Force

western monsters Kitarou Kitaro wolfman dracula Frankenstein

Three of the four western monsters.

Scholar of Japanese Media studies Zilia Papp analyses four approaches to the monster-war-theme in her 2009 article.[7] Regarding the Kitarō manga, she emphasizes the anti-American theme. In earlier narratives about monster wars, yōkai symbolized the alien Other, including foreigners, and were defeated by Japanese human characters.[8] By contrast, Kitarō and a band of yōkai depart to aid a child in markedly Asian dress (he is wearing a Vietnamese hat) against clearly western monsters. Thus, Mizuki uses Japanese monsters to represent the Self and “stereotypical western monsters” for the enemy. Namely, the antagonists are a witch, a wolfman, Dracula and Frankenstein’s monster, and the design of the latter two clearly alludes to American cinema.[9] In addition, “[a]nalogies to the Pacific War (1942-45), the Battle of Okinawa (1945) and the Vietnam War (1959-75) are articulated” in text and image.[10] As a result, a clear confrontation between Japanese and American representatives emerges.

Kitaro Sunakake Baba Medamoma Oyaji Konaki Jiji Nurikabe Yokai Youkai Daisenso Daisensou

The company departs.

Yōkai, Japanese Monsters, as icons of Japaneseness

In her analysis of the ikai (otherworld) motif in Japanese literature of the 1990s, professor for Japanese literature Lisette Gebhardt states that an otherworld may include aspects of the alien and the afterlife. It serves as construction site for new patterns of identification.[11] In the 1960s, new identification patterns were also certainly necessary after the collapse of the military system of wartime Japan. Moreover, the development from wartime shortages and destruction to the economic growth of the 50s and 60s necessitated a redefinition of what it meant to be Japanese. This definition often arises from texts of the nihon(jin)ron or “discourse of (the) Japan(ese)”. Cultural Anthropologist Aoki Tamotsu proposes a subdivision of modern Japanese history according to the prevalent type of nihonjinron. Kitarō would fall into the early third phase, in which Japanese cultural traditions were revalidated. Fittingly, Michal Dylan Foster in his epochal study Pandemonium and Parade (2009) describes Mizuki’s works as “(re)discovery of the yōkai as pop-culture icon”.[12] Kitarō assembles yōkai from all over Japan to assist the child from the occupied island, thus his group comes to represent Japan as a whole. With their roots in local myth and folklore, yōkai are symbols of Japan in its perceived cultural uniqueness.

Monstrous Self

It is not only their clear-cut confrontation of American monster villains and Japanese yōkai which marks the latter as representatives of the Japanese (reader him/her) self. Mizuki also uses visual techniques to encourage identification with the yōkai boy Kitarō. Initially overpowered by the Western monsters, Kitarō faces the chief villain, a tentacle-sprouting, floating, one-eyed creature named Beādo.[13] In this scene, Kitarō’s pitiful state is evident in the loss of this hair and his ancestral vest Chanchanko, two of his usually effective weapons. This alone activates the reader’s sympathy and thus identification.

kitaro Kitarou Beado back panel

Kitarô faced with the main villain.

Moreover, he is positioned with his back to the reader in a pose used to provoke identification at least since Caspar David Friedrich’s romantic landscape paintings. We look over his shoulder and share his perception. The well-known manga Akira (Ōtomo Katsuhiro, 1982-90) also uses this method, as manga scholar Miriam Brunner describes. “His body protrudes […] into the picture and invites the viewer’s identification […]. Passing beyond his upper body, the recipient’s eye is guided”[14] toward the panel focus, in this case the looming figure of Beādo. Mizuki is usually very conventional with his panel designs. Therefore, it is noteworthy that this panel is the only instance in Yōkai daisensō where a character stands completely outside his panel and as close as possible to the reader. Mizuki thereby emphasizes the equation of yōkai and Japanese reader in this moment of failure and helplessness before an overpowering Western force. This of course makes the final triumph of the yōkai all the sweeter.

Nostalgia for a phantom

Mizuki reworks past trauma and present distress in a fantastic realm. His reference to ancient yōkai folklore is an emphasis of cultural tradition which can be contextualized in the search for a new identity after defeat and rapid economic growth. In so doing, he also gives form to a yearning for a less complex, less globalized world; a ‘truly Japanese’ world untainted by both war and westernization. Foster describes this emotional state as one of melancholy desire: “nostalgia might be characterized as a longing for a past (time, place, self) that is impossible to (re)claim because it no longer exists or, more likely, never did.”[15] The fantasy of a magical Japan populated by yōkai satisfies this yearning for an unalienated home.

Final Remarks

The manga confronts and works through past and present political and cultural crises, while at the same time it supports the formation of a positive consciousness of Japaneseness through fantastic nostalgia. In this way, the Great Yōkai War illustrates a specific moment in Japanese cultural history and history of thought.

Notes and References

[1] Foster, Michael Dylan (2008): “The Otherworlds of Mizuki Shigeru”. In: Mechademia 3, 8–28. 12.

[2] Mizuki Shigeru, Musume ni kataru otōsan no senki, 148-149, as quoted in Foster 2008:21.

[3] Since the original writing of this essay, an English translation in 4 volumes by Zach Davisson has appeared, which ranks high on my To-Read-list. As an introduction, see his own blog about the publication of the first volume: https://hyakumonogatari.com/2013/11/04/countdown-to-mizuki-shigerus-showa-1926-1939-a-history-of-japan/

[4] The most influential German manga scholar, Jaqueline Berndt, discusses this contrast. See Berndt, Jaqueline (1995): Phänomen Manga. Comic-Kultur in Japan. Berlin: Ed. q (Japan-Edition).63-65.

[5] Some of his adventures are available in English translation, also courtesy of Mr. Davisson. When I originally wrote my essay, though, I had to work exclusively with Japanese-language material since the only available translation was a French one.

[6] Gygi, Fabio (2008): “Mnemonic Monsters. Memory, Oblivion and Continuity in Japanese Popular Culture”. In: Minikomi 75, 5-12. 6.

[7] Papp, Zilia (2009): “Monsters at War. The Great Yōkai Wars, 1968-2005”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 225–239.

[8] Papp 2009:226-7.

[9] Papp 2009:227.

[10] Papp 2009:227.

[11] Gebhardt, Lisette (1999): “Ikai. Der Diskurs zur ‘Anderen Welt’ als Manifestation der japanischen Selbstfindungs-Debatte”. In: Irmela Hijiya-Kirschnereit (ed.): Überwindung der Moderne? Japan am Ende des zwanzigsten Jahrhunderts. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, S. 146–171. 147.

[12] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009a): Pandemonium and Parade. Japanese Monsters and the Culture of Yōkai. Berkeley, Los Angeles: University of California Press. 164.

[13] This enigmatic name might refer to the pirate Blackbeard, so that the tentacle-like appendices become a beard. Alternatively, Beādo may actually be a bugbear, a folktale creature whose main purpose seems to be to frighten children. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/bugbear

[14] Brunner, Miriam (2009): Manga – die Faszination der Bilder. Darstellungsmittel und Motive. Dissertation. München: Fink. 94-5, my translation.

[15] Foster, Michael Dylan (2009b): “Haunted Travelogue. Hometowns, Ghost Towns, and Memories of War”. In: Mechademia 4, S. 164–181.176.

Manga images taken from:

Mizuki Shigeru (1996[1959-67]): Gegege no Kitarō. Complete new edition. Tōkyō: Komikkusu. (“Yōkai daisensō”, Vol. 2, 119-171.)

Other images:

Portrait of Mizuki Shigeru: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/Shigeru_Mura_201011.jpg


Influenced By – I: Daoism and Onmyōdō

Influenced by: Daoism and Onmyōdō

With this post, I’d like to start a new series in which I want to consider the use of religious tropes and images in either well-known or current Anime. Since I am a self-confessed lover of monsters and magic, this first blog contemplates the fascinating hybrid known as onmyōdō 陰陽道, and its portrayal in Sōsei no Onmyōji (2016, currently airing).

The Way of Yin and Yang

…is what a literal translation of the word onmyōdō amounts to. The hybrid nature of this (for lack of a better term) religion is already apparent from its name, which mixes Chinese and Japanese concepts.

Yin Yang Symbol

Yin Yang Symbol

In‘yō, as the kanji陰陽 can also be read, is the combination of yin and yang energy. These two opposites, each containing the seed of the other, and each in the process of transforming into the other, are the components and the manifestation of dao 道 (jp. dō… but more on that later). The dao is something which resists definition but amounts to a kind of world energy. Or so the ancient Chinese religion of Daoism teaches us. Its circular symbol is probably familiar to everyone, though the explanation might not be. More on the Daoist influence on onmyōdō later.

The second part of the name, 道, literally means way or path. It alludes to religion only in so far as that two other religions in Japan, which were also influenced by Daoism, use the same character: the indigenous Shintō (神道, Way of the Gods) and the syncretistic Buddhist sect of Shugendō (修験道, something like Way of Practice). However, 道 also designates various arts, from tea ceremony to sword fighting to incense-smelling to karate. It indicates a discipline which demands faithful practise over a long time in order to achieve various grades of mastery.  Therefore, we can understand onmyōdō as ‘the (religious) discipline of mastering yin and yang’, and that already gives us some idea of what it (originally) entailed.

Some Background on Daoism


One cannot pinpoint a founding date for Daoism and even the existence of a founding figure is debatable.

Lao^tsu Lao-tzû statue China

Ancient statue of Lao-tzû. Curtesy of wikipedia.

Concepts of an all-encompassing force (not one involving lightsabres) probably predate the oftentimes quoted sage Lao-tzû and the ancient Book of Changes (I Ching). The more magico-religious strand of Daoism even claims the mystical Yellow Emperor as its founder. However, definitions usually fall back to the works of Lao-tzû, since he is the closest thing to a reliable source 😉


“Lao-tzû tells us that Tao (Way) is just a convenient term for what had best be called the Nameless. Nothing can be said of it that does not detract from its fullness. To say that it exists is to exclude what does not exist, although void is the very nature of the Tao. To say that it does not exist is to exclude the Tao-permeated plenum. Away with dualistic categories.”[i]

Five Elements


five phases elements dao tao relation transform destroy fire water earth wood metal

The Five Phases or Elements and their relations.

Another important aspect is the idea of constant change occurring in repeating patterns, such as the seasons in nature. Here another concept bears introduction: namely, the five phases or elements. Wood feeds Fire, Fire’s ash fertilizes Earth, Earth contains Metal, Metal attracts Water (as in condensation), and Water nourishes plants, that is, Wood. In this fashion, the elements form a circle. If you now consider which element conquers or destroys another, you get diagonal lines crossing the circle: A Wood plough conquers Earth, Earthen dikes beat Water, Water extinguishes Fire, Fire melts Metal, Metal chops Wood.[ii] A pentacle appears inside the circle, and this pentacle still appears in places associated with onmyōdō in Japan, such as the Shrine of the most famous Japanese yin-yang magician, whom we’ll discuss later.


Daoists’ goals and means

So, what did Daoists want? Superficially, magical powers seem valid objectives, and feats such as invulnerability, prolonged life and youth or the ability to expel demons or foretell the future all have been attributed to Daoist adapt of the ancient and recent past. These powers, however, are only secondary to the true believer, who aims to become one with the Dao and, for example, simply needs to live a very long life in order to achieve this.[iii]

Meditation and Outer Alchemy

Several methods to prolong life existed. Once could make use of breathing techniques and meditation to manipulate the energies within one’s own body, so that drops of a mystical essence ascended to one’s crown. Alternatively, one could experiment in a more commonly alchemical way with specific (often toxic) ingredients to create the ‘Golden Pill’ or ‘pure essence of spirit’, which would not only confer immortality but also transform base metals into gold… so yes, Daoism has its own philosopher’s stone.

Sexual Alchemy

One can read some alchemist texts, such as the Ts’an T’ung Ch’i mentioned by Blofeld, as tantric manuals, where the union of yin and yang means sexual union.[iv] This type of ritual involves careful control of movement, breathing and rhythm. It also hinges on the male adept avoiding ejaculation since that amounts to a loss of precious yang energy, the “ultimate goal [being] the production of an embryo of a perfect being” through the union of yin and yang inside one’s body.[v] This perfect embryo seems to me to be just another image, like of the golden pill of outer alchemy or the holy drops of mysterious essence produced by meditation and energy control. It seems merely a symbol of perfection attained by religious practice. However, the series Sōsei no Onmyōji may be taking this a bit more literally, as I will discuss below.

Onmyōdō isn’t Japanese Daoism

One additional, astonishing aspect of Daoism I would like to mention: as recounted by Blofeld, an intense pacifism permeates of the whole exorcism business. “One does not like to destroy genuine demons except as a last resort. They love their lives as much as we do and have the same rights to existence”, he let one of his characters say.[vi] In many portrayals of Japanese onmyōji, by contrast, they do not treat demons this kindly. However, even in Daoism, curse-created sprites are an exception. They have “no life to lose, being a mere extension of the magician’s mind.”[vii] Such a creature born of evil intent is a curse taking physical form; and this concept is a staple of onmyōji lore – mostly presented as shikigami, which we’ll come back to later.

Indian and Chinese religion and philosophy entered Japan via the Korean kingdoms from the fifth century AD. But whereas Buddhism became prominent in the country’s power struggles, and experts, texts and statues were imported from China to furnish Japanese Buddhist monasteries, there is no clear evidence for any attempt to install organized Daoist religion in Japan. Instead, its texts and concepts, methods and deities were appropriated in Buddhist and Shintō contexts.[viii] Thus evolved the Japanese magical religion called onmyōdō, with onmyōji as its practitioners and “priests”.[ix] In the medieval Japanese state, these specialists had a well-defined set of tasks to perform; they were courtiers and officials in addition to their quasi-priest role.[x]

The “Golden Age”: Court Onmyōji and the Divination Office

Shikiban divination board onmyoudou

Shikiban divination board

The Japanese government of the Heian era – the “high middle ages” of Japan, origin of much of its classical literature – was built to resemble Chinese models and employed complex ranking systems. It is thanks to these rankings and the lists needed to keep track of them that we know about the organization of the official court onmyōji.[xi] The Yin-Yang-Office (onmyōryō) “was set up to handle affairs in the four areas of yin-yang-cosmology, astronomy, calendar calculation and time keeping”.[xii] The four fields, despite being assigned specialist “doctors”, are intertwined. Yin-Yang and Five-Phase thought pervades the calendar and time settings with twelve animals, which also double as star signs.

It comes as no surprise than that astrological divination was used to determine fortunate and dangerous days for each year’s calendar, and the directions (each linked to an element) one needed to avoid every day. In addition, Heian court intrigue might cause supernatural retribution, from which one needed protection. This was also a task of the onmyōji, who could divine the origin of an ailment and exorcise the demon or repel the curse which caused it. In addition, they performed Daoism-inspired rituals for the longevity of aristocrats.[xiii]


Possibly the first magical tool we now imagine in the hands of an onmyōji is the shikigami (式神/識神). It is most commonly depicted as a paper effigy which, once infused with spiritual power, transforms into a monster-like entity and does the caster’s bidding.  However, onmyōdō texts do not even mention them.[xiv]

The name itself is ambiguous; shiki can be written as either “ritual” or “consciousness”, whereas kami, here written as “god“” is a homophone of 紙, “paper”. So, this is paper is infused with the caster’s conciousness or will in a ritual, which acts as a supernatural being. Japanese language is so much fun! Anyways. Divination using the shikiban, a two-piece divination board with inscriptions referring to yin-yang, calendrical animals, and the I Ching hexagrams, makes use of 12 Guardian Deities of the months, in the “heaven” half.  Seimei allegedly made these his shikigami. Alternatively, he commanded two very powerful ones, each representing one realm of the board (earth and heaven).[xv]

Initially, though, Shikigami may have been a mere divination technique.[xvi] The foretelling of future ills through the shikiban may have involved a god of the shiki-board, a shiki-gami. This entity then became the means of inflicting, rather than the announcer, of misfortune. Thus, the shikigami as manifestation of a curse was born. In turn, an onmyōji could recognize the occurrence as an action of an enemy magician and repel the curse. The caster then dies of his own rebounding spell. This technique was another specialty of Seimei’s.

The ambiguity of the shikigami may be best summarized in Pang’s words: “the shikigami is actually a means through which the onmyōji controls the innate energy in natural elements with magical incantations.”[xvii] This fits all aforementioned manifestations.

Abe no Seimei as Ideal and Prototype

Seimei Shrine Jinja Kyôto Abe

Seimei Shrine in Kyôto. I took this photograph spring 2012.

Abe no Seimei is the most famed and, legend has it, most powerful onmyōji of all time. Some tales claim his mother was a kitsune, a magical fox spirit, [xviii] because this power seems inconceivable for a mere human being. However, he did not do his deeds in a vacuum, but rather represents the craft as its most prominent practitioner. Onmyōdō was an institution of the Heian-era Court, as I mentioned above.

The historical Seimei, or Haruaki, as his name would have been read prior to his popularity, was initially a court official of mediocre rank.[xix] It was his aptitude at performing the tasks expected of an onmyōji, combined with a long life, that enabled his rise to high rank and office, as Shigeta delineates. Seimei’s repertoire included purifying buildings before use, summoning rain, explaining occurrences, divining fortunate days, performing healing rituals, and repelling curses. For the effectiveness  of his rituals he received promotions.[xx] Shikigami, however, are not even mentioned in regard to him in any of the official sources.[xxi]

From the Middle Ages to the Early Modern Period and Beyond

Since that time, the Abe clan and (being pushed to second rank after Seimei’s success) the Nara-based Kamo family were the traditional onmyōji linages, until the extinction of the latter. In the Edo period, whoever wanted to perform divination, no matter his or her religion or self-description needed a certificate in order to do so. These certificates were granted by the Tsuchimikado family of onmyōji: the descendants of the Abe line.[xxii]

From this we can see how far onmyōdō departed from its Daoist influences and transformed to satisfy the demands of Heian-era court nobility, and yet, how it survived to the early modern period. Meiji’s emphasis on western scientific thought brought the practise to an end. But in the 1990s, onmyōdō celebrated a sort of revival in the Abe so Seimei-Boom caused by Yumemakura Bakus Onmyōji novels. Its numerous appearances in popular culture until now then can probably be traced back to this event. Anime series such as Kekkaishi and Mononoke draw on onmyōdō lore without naming it, whereas a monster-focused tale such as Nurarihyon no Mago casts onmyōji (initially) as antagonists. The most extensive focus on onmyōdō I know of, however, is this year’s Sōsei no Onmyōji, “Twin Star Exorcists”.

Sōsei no Onmyōji – Twin Star exorcists



Sousei no onmyouji poster Benio Rokuro

The main characters.

Sōsei no onmyōji takes up a number of the abovementioned symbols and concepts. The title hints at the importance of astrolog, and the chief onmyōji, Arima, performs divination. He bears the historically correct title, onmyō no kami.[xxiii] In addition, his family name, Tsuchimikado, reveals his descent from the Abe family. The two main characters also have names which allude to historical onmyōji or sites of magical ritual. Enmado Rokuro may be named for Roku Emaro, a  seventh-to-eighth-century “doctor of onmyōdō” from the continent who was commanded to renounce religious orders and found a dynasty.[xxiv] Adashino Benio’s surname maybe alludes to the Adashino temple near Kyōto, which celebrates a ritual for uncared-for souls (a raw material for monsters) every year.[xxv]



The series’ exorcists main task is to exterminate monsters called kegare. Usually, the noun kegare refers to abstract spiritual pollution rather than a monster-type entity, though. Therefore, the whole business of exorcists can be interpreted as a sort of metaphorical exorcism. However, despite the intelligence and emotion evidenced in higher forms of kegare, onmyōji do not grant them mercy and a right to exist, as Daoist exorcists might have done. Instead, two high-ranking onmyōji exterminate a very touchingly human kegare in what amounts to one of the most tragic moments of the series. Among the exorcists’ skills, shikigami feature regularly, most prominently in Benio‘s pet fox (who however does not seem to have any fighting properties). Head onmyōji Arima uses one as a replacement for himself, and commands two immensely powerful fighting shikigami, in a call-back to his ancestor.

…and Spells

purification Sae talisman spell sousei no onmyouji

The purification talisman.

When calling forth enchantments on body and weapons, these exorcists use a genuine Daoist spell, 急急如律令[xxvi] (kyūkyū nyo ritsuryō, if read in Japanese), though the type of application shown in the anime is, to my knowledge, original. Additionally, Benio’s swordplay calls to mind “a Chinese discipline that utilized swords and magic spells to exorcise evil spirits”[xxvii] mentioned in the context of Daoist imports, though I could not confirm the use of the aforementioned spell in this art.

Exorcism in the classical sense also features strongly in the second arc of the series. Whenever portals to the Magano (the demon realm) open, the vapours sicken the human population of the surrounding area, who then need the assistance of onmyōji. Healing requires purification spells, perhaps an allusion to the longevity rituals of Heian court onmyōji but surely a part of the exorcists’ basic task, erasing impurity. The most impressive cleansing, however, is an early use of the main characters‘ special power or “resonance”: With their joint energy, they manage to return a friend to normal after she transformed into a kegare, using the supreme purification spell – a feat previously considered impossible.

Heavenly Guardians

The 12 Heavenly Guardians of the shikiban, the legendary shikigami of Seimei, also appear in the series in the form of the 12 most powerful exorcists, who directly serve Tsuchimikado Arima, Seimei’s heir. Each of them bears the title of one of the twelve and has corresponding abilities. This fits with Pang’s view of shikigami as, ultimately, a kind of energy to be manipulated by those capable of the feat.[xxviii] Those who have enough spiritual energy, that is, in this series.

What makes protagonists Rokuro and Benio stand out is not so much their individual power. Although they are considered strong, especially for their age, they are repeatedly shown to be massively inferior to other characters. Their potential lies, in the first part, in their capability of “resonance” or joining their (male and female?) energy. In the second arc, however, even with resonance they are clearly outmatched by evolved Kegare (Basara) and Guardians alike. This seems to suggest that, after all, it will be not their resonance but their child, the Miko of the prophecy, who saves the world.

Miko – Child of Prophecy

In the second episode, Arima reveals the backstory of the series’ title. He claims to have received an oracle telling him about the immanent appearance of the Miko, the divine child foretold to end Magano and free the world of kegare monsters. The Miko is the child born of the Twin Star exorcists, as whom he has divined Benio and Rokuro, to the annoyance of both. This idea reminds me of the concept of the perfect child conceived by Daoist adepts in a ritual of sexual alchemy. This being „controls and registers the multitude of spirits. Summoning them by name according to the Registers, he lets none of them escape.”[xxix]

Benio legs kegare Basara

Benio’s kegare-granted legs.

Summoning by name seems to be an important phrase: exorcist techniques have to be called by name – they are essentially spells – and individuals are painstakingly introduced with their name, displayed in a freeze-frame next to their face. It might just be an anime staple, but I would like to see it practically applied in a story-relevant manner. For example, the Miko, if she[xxx] is eventually born, might call all the Basara by name and purify them in that way.

A Theory

Alternatively, perhaps the two energies the Miko is going to unite are not Benio and Rokuro’s female and male spiritual energy. With their kegare-infected arm and legs respectively, both heroes harbour in themselves some kegare-aspect, the same way the white and black halves of the yin-yang-symbol contain a drop of its opposite. Similarly, Basara have clearly human features, despite their exaggerated cruelty. It stands to reason that the elimination of Magano, which is the final goal of the exorcists, is as unreachable as the Basaras’ aim to take over reality. “Away with dualistic categories!”, as Blofeld put it.

I have the theory that the child of Rokuro and Benio might be a natural human-kegare hybrid and that she will end Magano by fusing it with reality, releasing both kegare and exorcists from their fate – by annihiliating the magic energy they work with. I don’t think she will make anyone immortal or produce gold, though ;).

Notes, References, and Image Sources

[i] Blofeld, John. Taoism. The Quest for Immortality. London & Boston: Unwin Paperbacks, Mandala series, 1979, available online https://de.scribd.com/doc/204085686/John-Blofeld-Taoism-The-Quest-for-Immortality. As an introduction, another of his books on Taoism, such as The Secret and the Sublime (1973), also makes an interesting read. For an introduction to the more philisophical aspects of Daoism, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/daoism/.

[ii] see Watts, Alan. Tao, the Watercourse Way (1975), which I read in the German edition, so I omit page numbers.

[iii] Again elaboreated by Blofeld, esp. in Taoist Mysteries and Magic (1983), where he condenses his experiences with different stands of Taoism into interesting if ficticious accounts. It seems our univerity librarian had a liking for his books 😉

[iv] cf. Blofeld 1979.

[v] Mollier, Christine. „Conceiving the Embryo of Immortality: ‚Seed-People‘ and Sexual Rites in Early Taoism“. In: Andreeva, Anna & Dominic Steavu. Transforming the Void. Embryological Discourse and Reproductive Imagery in East Asian Religions. Leiden & Boston: Brill, 2016. 87-110. 90.

[vi] Blofeld 1983:80.

[vii] ibid.

[viii] Concerning this, see also Hayashi Makoto & Mathhias Hayek, „Editor’s Introduction: Onmyōdō in japanese History“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013, 1-18. 5-6.

[ix] For an in-depth description of the reception of Daoism in Japan, see Masuo Shin‘ichirō, „Daoism in Japan“, in Kohn, Livia (ed). Daoism Handbook. Leiden: Brill, 2000. 821-42.

[x] See Masuo Shin’ichirō, „Chinese Religion and the Formation of Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 40.1, 2013. 19-43.

[xi] Masuo 2013.

[xii] Masuo 2000:824.

[xiii] Masuo 2013:35.

[xiv] Pang 2013:100.

[xv] Pang 2013:104.

[xvi] An argument made by Pang, Carolyn, „Uncovering Shikigami. The Search for the Spirit Servant of Onmyōdō“, in Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 99–129.

[xvii] Pang 2013:110.

[xviii] Pang 2013:117-8.

[xix] Shigeta Shin’ichi. „A Portrait of Abe no Seimei“. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 77-97. 78; 87.

[xx] Shigeta 2013, esp. 84.

[xxi] Shigeta 2013:93.

[xxii] Discussed in detail by Hayashi Makoto, „The Development of Early Modern Onmyōdō“, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, 40.1, 2013, 151-67.

[xxiii] Masuo 2013:22.

[xxiv] Masuo 2013:26.

[xxv] As mentioned in this Japanese-language documentary.

[xxvi] Masuo 2000:824.

[xxvii] Masuo 2013:21.

[xxviii] Pang 2013:109-10.

[xxix] Translation of a Daoist manual in Mollier 2016:91.

[xxx] The sex of the child is unknown, but since Shintō shrine maidens are called miko even today, I have a feeling it might be a girl. In any case, there is no reason to assume it has to be a boy (except the tendency of action anime to sideline women, but here we have at least a male and a female protagonist, so hopes may be entertained, I dare to hope ;))

Image sources in order of appearance:

yingyang: https://image.freepik.com/freie-ikonen/yin-yang-ios-7-symbol_318-34386.jpg

Laotzû Statue: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/dd/Statue_of_Lao_Tzu_in_Quanzhou.jpg

5 Elements: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wu_Xing#/media/File:FiveElementsCycleBalanceImbalance_02_plain.svg

Shikiban: http://www.onmarkproductions.com/html/slideshows/rikujinshikiban-master.jpg

Seimei photo: my own archive.

Twin Star Poster: https://myanimelist.cdn-dena.com/images/anime/3/77328l.jpg

Purification Spell: https://josefcd904.files.wordpress.com/2016/09/twin-star-23-11.png?w=736

Benio’s legs: http://65.media.tumblr.com/7e67877a73df6a19068251c32c83e809/tumblr_oc34dm5WAy1vysie1o1_1280.png



Musings III: On the Use of Premodern Japanese in Anime

Hard but hardly useful?

As a master student of Japanese Studies, I am obliged to concern myself not only with modern popular culture and anime but also with the subject of Premodern Japanese. To be precise, I’m learning to read texts from the Edo period and older which use bungo, or premodern grammar. I’m also doing  ‘Kanbun’, which is basically a Japanese trick of reading ancient Chinese using said grammar. It’s quite cool to think about all the yōkai legends I’ll be able to read once I’ve mastered bungo, and to realize I have just understood a story written in China in 200 BC (!) – but the practical, everyday applicability of Premodern Japanese does seem rather limited. However, I wouldn’t be writing this if I hadn’t found

A back door.

Pop-cultural products – anime, manga, and video games – do actually use premodern Japanese, here and now. In many cases, admittedly, the use only barely qualifies as ‘premodern’, and it is mostly done to give the show a bit of an “ancient” feel. In this way, it is similar to the drawing style of historical anime which sometimes evokes murals, picture scrolls, or woodblock prints. An interesting example, in both aspects, is the 2010 anime Katanagatari, which is set in a parallel universe’s version of feudal Japan. In the opening narration, a text appears in wild brushstrokes, which uses the premodern negation auxiliary ‘nu’ instead of modern ‘nai’. Katanagatari 1 opYet the sentence ends with the modern ‘atta’ (‘there was’) instead of a proper premodern form (such as ‘ari-keri’)… and even ‘nu’ is still used in modern Japanese, albeit rarely. So producers can assume that everyone will understand it, whereas ‘ari-keri’ would probably confuse people. This reminds me of the way ‘samurai’ in anime sometimes use ‘de gozaru’ for ‘to be’, to showcase the period the story is set in. It can be assumed that even viewers unfamiliar with the word will understand its meaning quickly, as it is used in exactly the same way the modern alternative is.  So far, so unsatisfying.

Gods and Monsters and the Prayer of Purification

Then I watched another episode of Noragami Aragoto (2015), the second season of the Noragami anime which continues the story of a hardly known Japanese deity, Yato, his sword-which-is-actually-a-dead-soul Yukine, and their friend Hiyori. They vanquish monsters and try to evade the battle goddess Bishamon-ten, who holds a grudge against Yato. Yato 1

Now, as Yato was making the little speech he always delivers before slaying a monster, to my infinite delight, I made out the premodern auxiliary ‘mu’, one of the functions of which is to signify intention.[i] 

Both the language style and the repetition of the speech before every showdown give these monster extermination sequences an aura of ritual. And premodern language patterns tend to survive in the formulaic speech of rituals, as Western Christians may have experiences themselves – think of  the Catholic Lord’s Prayer, which still uses the second person singular pronoun ‘thou’ and corresponding verb inflection.

It may be a bit of a stretch, but I wonder if Noragami isn’t referencing norito prayers here. Norito are the ancient prayers of Shinto, the Japanese indigenous religion, and one of the oldest forms of Japanese preserved.[ii] Since the main characters of Noragami are Shinto gods and their regalia, it wouldn’t be surprising if the makers had taken some inspiration from the actual Shinto prayer of purification when they devised the little speech Yato makes before purifying (i.e. slaying) monsters. A strong hint for this is the word Yato uses for Japan, Toyoashihara-no-nakatsu-kuni (something along the lines of “The Country Amidst the Plains of Plentiful Reeds”). The term is based on Shinto legend; it is one of the names given to Japan in the Shinto creation myth, if I am not mistaken. (This should be verifiable in the English translation of the Kojiki (A Record of Ancient Things), Japan’s oldest chronicle, but I am still unable to get my hands on a copy.) The term used for Heaven in the series, Takamagahara, originates from the same mythology. Finally, Yato also uses the same words for spiritual pollution (kegare) and cleansing (harau) as the prayers do. There are even a number of Kanji visible in the background during the sequence, but never long or clear enough to actually recognize them. I wonder if they are taken from a religious text?

In addition, Yato himself has definitely seen the Edo era (based on the clothes and buildings seen in his flashbacks), and would be able, perhaps even likely, to fall back to premodern speech patterns when under stress or in a repetitive situation – no matter how contemporary (and jerk-like) he usually acts.

The common suspects and the odd one out

I asked around for suggestions of other anime with potential use of bungo, and among those recommended were a few I had actually seen already, just without realizing – Ayakashi and Mononoke (2006/2007), Mushishi (2005-6), and Hōzuki no Reitetsu (2014), for instance. The first three can all be placed the context of historical (horror) fiction and/or monster-fighting fantasy; thus I assume the use of bungo can be attributed to the feel of magical/religious ritual and historical flavour I described above. I have also looked at two series I hadn’t come across before, Shōnen Onmyōji (2006-7, about the grandson of the famous Feng Shui magician Abe no Seimei) and Otogi Zōshi (2004-5, another dark historic fantasy which also features Seimei), and these also fit the bill. The aforementioned Hōzuki no Reitetsu is a bit of a special case, though. Set in present day, it portrays an unlikely oni (demon) named Hōzuki and his calm in the face of the daily struggles which come with his post as chief secretary of Enma Daiō – the King of (Buddhist) Hell.[iii]

Hōzuki is a very episodic and intensively intertextual comedy series which playfully joins Eastern (and a bit of Western) religion and folklore with a parody of modern trends and pop culture. Many of the jokes will go over your head if you don’t have some basic knowledge of Buddhism, Japanese folktales and literary classics. And modern Japanese pop culture. And koalas.

Well and sometimes, in the middle of all that, you’ll get some bit of bungo. For example, in episode 3, during a big sports tournament between the Chinese and the Japanese afterlives, the legendary beauty and poet Ono no Komachi pens a short waka poem for the title character. So basically, Hōzuki no Reitetsu opens up a third dimension of the use of bungo in anime: as an ironic citation in a postmodern (con/inter)text. And at this point, I’ll close my musings on the use of premodern Japanese in anime, at least for the time being.

Notes and References:

[i] See the beginning of this clip from episode 5 of the original series for reference.

[ii] For the following, I have mostly used this website  and outgoing links.

[iii] The opening introduces the 272 Hells of Buddhism, but the only version on YT is in pretty bad quality, see here. For those interested in the matter, Matthew Meyer’s yōkai anthology The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits includes a very interesting and intensely readable description of Hell (Jigoku).

Nurikabe–The Ghostly Wall Yokai

Torin_NukaribeJapan is a land haunted by many strange monsters and ghosts. Known collectively as Yokai (and Yurei. The two words are often used interchangeably, but for our purposes we will say that Yurei refer to human ghosts and Yokai to magical creatures of all sorts), these beings can range from the mischievous to the malevolent to the helpful. One notable type of Yokai is the Gashodokuro, giant skeletons who suck the blood from their victims. On the less deadly end of the spectrum are the Nuppeppo, flabby beings of dead flesh that do little more than stink up local cemeteries.

Somewhere between overtly deadly and mildly irritating is the Nurikabe, a being originally said to haunt the coastal regions of Fukuoka Prefecture. The Nurikabe has allegedly tormented Japanese travelers for centuries by quite literally acting as a ghostly wall–the monster is said to block roads, continually extending as the hapless wayfarer attempts to circumvent the invisible obstacle. The yokai forces travelers far out of their way, and was often blamed when people arrived late or became lost on the road. The Nurikabe could be defeated by taking a stick and striking at the bottom of the wall.

What makes Nurikabe interesting as far as Yokai go is that the ghostly apparition is a case study in how depictions of folklore change over time. The being was originally said to be completely invisible, or in some cases it was attributed to the mischievous tanuki.

Over time, however, Nurikabe took on a more corporeal form. a painting from 1802 (seen above) depicts the monster as looking a bit like a three eyed elephantine creature. Perhaps there were intermediate forms of Nurikabe depictions yet to be discovered, since going from invisible to an elephant monster is quite a leap, but it does demonstrate how over time ideas about folkloric stories change immensely.

But perhaps the most famous depiction of Nurikabe comes from a man who allegedly encountered one himself. The beast is a character in Mizuki Shigeru’s Gegege no Kitaro series, a long running manga about the adventures of various folkloric creatures. The character in the manga is depicted as a wall with eyes, arms, and legs.

Mizuki was partially inspired in his depiction by an encounter he claims to have had during World War 2 while stationed in New Guinea. Walking alone though the jungle at night, he suddenly was unable to move forward or backward. Walled in, Mizuki sat on the ground and rested, and was able to continue his progress after only a few minutes.

Mizuki’s depiction of the once invisible phenomenon has now become the standard way the Japanese visualize the Nurikabe. While Americans are less aware of this fairly obscure yokai, it appears to have had some influence on the iconic Mario Bros game series. The Whomps, tall blocks of stone with arms, legs, and faces, appeared in Mario 64 and have since been featured in many Mario games, at least superficially resembles Mizuki’s nurikabe. While it is difficult to tell if the Whomps were directly inspired by nurikabe, the appearance of the two beings are at least similar enough to infer that the folklore had some influence, even if it was strictly unconscious.

Nurikabe might not be quite as colorful and interesting as some of the wackier Japanese monsters, but they do shed light on how folklore evolves over time. Folklore is constantly being re-imagined as new generations with access to new technologies come into contact with old stories. From the intricate paintings of the Edo period to the pages of a manga to the world of video games, the Nurikabe is an ancient ghost who has evolved substantially over time as people have come reinvented the story to fit their own vision.



Foster, Michael Dylan. “The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore.”  University of California Press. January 14, 2015. pgs 140-141.


Yoda, Hiroko and Alt, Matt. “Yokai Attack: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.” Tuttle Publishing. July 30, 2013. pg. 31.