The Mythological and Folk Tale Origins of Classic Anime
Some of the most well-known and successful anime are often inspired by eastern folklore and mythology. Anime creators mine Japanese culture for source material, re-imagining the myths and legends for entertainment. However, many of the mythological underpinnings of these series go unnoticed by the larger audience. Many anime writers cleverly weave the folklore and mythology into their stories, retelling some of these classics while embedding some characters, symbols and themes within their narratives.
Folklore and Yokai in Inuyasha
Inuyasha: A Feudal Fairy Tale is an anime and manga series, written and illustrated by Takahashi Rumiko. The manga series published from 1996 to 2008 in Weekly Shonen Sunday, with the animated series running from 2000 to 2010. Inuyasha is set in the Sengoku period (1467-1573), focusing on the title character Inuyasha, a half dog demon, and Higurashi Kagome the reincarnation of shrine maiden, Kikyo. Together they search for the fragments of the shattered Shikon Jewel, attempting to destroying it for good.
Takahashi draws inspiration from Japanese folklore and yokai (a class of supernatural monster, spirit or demon in Japanese mythology). She uses the dog yokai, Inugami, as inspiration for Inuyasha and his brother Sesshomaru. In Japanese mythology, Inugami were dog like beings, similar to werewolves, that resembled normal dogs to blend in with society. Their true form was that of a decapitated dog head. You could create an Inugami by cutting the head off of a starving dog or a dog whose body was buried up to the neck. It was believed that performing this act would grant wishes. While Inuyasha couldn’t transform into a dog due to being only half-demon, both his father and brother could.
Several supporting characters are inspired by yokai as well. Sango, a demon slayer, has a pet cat, Kirara that is a nekomata (cat yokai). They were said to have two tails, the ability to transform into humans and were formerly domesticated pet cats. Kirara is depicted as having two tails and transforms from a kitten into a large cat. Shippo, a shape-shifting yokai, is inspired by the kitsune. In Japanese mythology the kitsune (demon-fox) was depicted as a magical and intelligent creature. Kitsune were also known to be tricksters. In Inuyasha, Shippo isn’t particularly strong but he does use illusions and toy based tricks. Shippo appears as a little boy with fox legs, ears, feet and a tail.
Japanese Mythology and Naruto
Kishimoto Masashi also uses the kitsune myth, along with several other references to Japanese myths in the series, Naruto. The title character in the series, Uzumaki Naruto, is a jinchuriki, a human that has had a tailed beast sealed inside them. Naruto had the nine tailed kitsune named Kurama sealed inside him as a baby. In mythology the number of tails a kitsune has correlates with its age, wisdom and power. Masashi uses this aspect of the myth to visually symbolize how powerful each tailed beast is. The nine tailed beast inside Naruto is considered to be the most powerful of all the tailed beasts.
Furthermore, several of the other eight tailed beasts are inspired by creatures found in myths. The one-tailed beast, Shukaku is inspired by the Tanuki. In mythology the tanuki is a shape-shifting yokai. They appear in the shape of a raccoons and are magical. Shukaku greatly resembles the tanuki. The two-tailed beast, Matatabi, is inspired by both the bakeneko, a type of cat yokai and the nekomata. Matatabi has two tails like the nekomata, as cats are considered to be yokai because of the psychical attributes’. The fact that cat eyes change shape based on the time of day, they walk silently, lick blood, and are hard to control give off the impression that they’re demonic.
The four-tailed beast is named Son Goku, after the monkey king from Chinese mythology. Sun Wukong the Monkey King, was said to have been born from a magic stone. This stone develops a magic womb, which produces a stone egg. When the wind blows on the stone egg, it transform into a stone monkey. He rebels against heaven and is imprisoned inside a mountain by Buddha. Sun Wukong has incredible physical abilities, he possessed great strength, speed and the ability to jump halfway around the world. He is a skilled fighter, capable of defeating the greatest warriors of heaven. Each of his hairs was capable of becoming clones of the Monkey King, transforming into various animals, weapons or other objects.
The eight-tailed beast, Gyuki, is a combination of a ox and a octopus. It’s named after the monster of Japanese folklore, it’s also called Ushi-Oni. The Gyuki varied in appearance, but always featured a horned head. Ushi-Oni are known as being giant sea monsters, that live off the coast of Western Japan and eat fishermen. Kishimoto Masashi utilizes mythology to create the dojutsu (eye technique) of the Uchiha clan. In Naruto, dojutsu are ninja abilities that utilize the eyes. Itachi posses three powerful eye techniques named after three important Shinto deities, Tsukuyomi, Amaterasu and Susanoo.
In Shinto mythology Tsukuyomi is the male moon-god, he is the second of the “three noble children” of Izanagi. Both Tsukuyomi and Amaterasu were born when Izanagi washed out his eyes, in Naruto, the Tsukuyomi is one of the most powerful eye techniques. It traps the target in an illusion, causing the victim mental torture resulting in psychological trauma. In mythology, Amaterasu is the sister and wife of Tsukuyomi, she’s the goddess of the sun. Amaterasu, along with both her brothers, are said to have created ancient Japan. In Naruto, Amaterasu is the highest level jutsu of the fire element. When used it produces black flames that can burn for seven days and nights and it cannot be extinguished with water.
With Susanoo, Masashi deviates from the myth. While Susanoo bares the same name as the god in mythology and a relation to Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi (in order to acquire Susanoo ability the user must first master both eye jutsus), it resembles a massive samurai that covers its user. The Susanoo from Japanese mythology is the sea and storm god, born from Izanagi’s nose. He inherited the sword, Totsuka no Tsurugi, previously used by his father to kill his other son, Kagu-Tsuchi. In mythology, Susanoo uses Tsurugi to slay the serpent Yamata no Orochi, obtaining the sword of Kusanagi. Masashi uses this aspect of the myth and recreates it.
During the battle between Itachi and Sasuke, the ability Susanoo makes its debut. Orochimaru aids Sasuke with his strongest snake-related technique, “eight branches technique.” Orochimaru transforms into a giant serpent with eight heads like Yamata. He even wields the sword of Kusanagi. However, Itachi uses the sword of totsuka to seal Orochimaru away. Susanoo varies in appearance based on which Uchiha uses it, however, they all have some resemblance to the yokai, tengu. In mythology the tengu share physical features of birds of prey and humans. Tengu were often depicted with abnormally long noses, becoming the tengu’s most defining characteristic. According to Buddhism, tengu are harbingers of war, however, some viewed them as protectors of the forests and mountains.
Shinigami and Anime
One of the most frequent myths that appear in anime is that of the shinigami. Popular series like Yu yu hakusho, Death Note, Bleach and Soul Eater all focus on them. Shinigami were the death gods in Japanese mythology. They are described as being demons, fallen angels or even death itself. In Buddhism, a shinigami is a demon that possessed humans, causing humans to want to commit suicide. Shinigami also were considered responsible for determining when people died.
Yu yu hakusho created by Yoshihiro Togashi, was inspired by Buddhist mythology. In the series the main protagonist, Yusuke Urameshi is killed saving a child from being hit by a car. The ghost Botan greets him and escorts him into the Underworld. He is to be judged by the son of the King of Hell, Enma. Buddhist mythology states that the King of Hell is a dharmapala (wrathful god) who passes judgement on the dead. Yusuke successful passes the test to decide if he should be resurrected and is given the title of “underworld detective.”
Both series, Bleach and Soul Eater, feature characters that are responsible for human souls after death. In Bleach, the shinigami are called “Soul Reapers,” they are tasked with defending humans from evil spirits called hollows, while guiding the dead to the afterlife. Tite Kubo takes the concept of shinigami and expands on them by imagining them in a society, with laws to govern their behavior and a social hierarchy that features a King.
Atsushi Okubo does something similar, with his series Soul Eater. This series centers around the “Death Weapon Meister Academy,” which is headed by a shinigami named Death. Students are tasked with finding 99 evil human souls and one witch soul to create a “death scythe,” that can be used by a shinigami to defeat the evil Asura.
Probably the most prominent series about shinigami is Death Note. A psychological thriller series created by Tsugumi Ohba. Light Yagami is a high school student that discovers the notebook of a shinigami known as a “death note.” He discovers that the book can kill anyone if their name is written on its pages. With the help of shinigami Ryuk, Light attempts to “play God,” as he plans to rid the world of evil using the books supernatural powers. Ohba inverts the myth of shinigami’s by giving the power of death not to a god but a human.
Anime creators have used the ancient folklore and mythology as sources of inspiration for their more modern creations. Whether they re-imagined the stories, or used aspects of these myths in conjunction with their original creations. However, the retelling of Japanese mythology can lead to the obscuring of the original meaning or story. This can leave Western audiences with the misplaced belief that these series are completely original. While creators, writers and artists use folklore and myth as a bedrock for their creations, building different narratives, the audience can miss important parts of that story. Overall, anime creators have used and will likely continue to use Japanese culture to create entertaining series, but it will be up to the more curious among Western audiences to search for the deeper mythology beneath.
Plumb, Amy. “Japanese Religion, Mythology, and the Supernatural in Anime and Manga.” The International Journal of the Humanities: Annual Review, vol. 8, no. 5, 2010, pp. 237–246., doi:10.18848/1447-9508/cgp/v08i05/42930.
Shamoon, Deborah. “The Yokai in the Database: Supernatural Creatures and Folklore in Manga and Anime.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 27, no. 2, 2013, p. 276., doi:10.13110/marvelstales.27.2.0276.
Ortabasi, Melek. “(Re)Animating Folklore: Raccoon Dogs, Foxes, and Other Supernatural Japanese Citizens in Takahata Isao’s Heisei Tanuki Gassen Pompoko.” Marvels & Tales, vol. 27, no. 2, 2013, p. 254., doi:10.13110/marvelstales.27.2.0254.
Geller, Prof. “Shinigami – Japanese God of Death.” Mythology.net, Mythology.net, 2 Nov. 2016, mythology.net/japanese/japanese-gods/shinigami/.
Tengu: The Legendary Mountain Goblins of Japan, www.seinenkai.com/articles/tengu.html.
“Tengu.” Yokai Wiki, yokai.wikia.com/wiki/Tengu.
“Yokai Wiki.” Yokai Wiki | FANDOM Powered by Wikia, yokai.wikia.com/wiki/
What do you think? Leave a comment.