Japanese Yokai On-Screen

By Christopher Laursen

Pom Poko, The Great Yokai War & Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams

Three fantastical Japanese films introduce viewers to the culture’s rich variety of kwaidan and yokai – ghosts, some of them shapeshifting, others animal hybrids, and some of them radically defying the conventions of the Western imagination.

Japanese folklore is filled with kwaidan – ghost stories – and there is no lack of intriguing characters that populate these tales: half human, half animal beings; mischievous shapeshifters (henge); giant ogres; inanimate objects coming to life; masked spirits; and many more. Often, these fantastical beings are visually depicted in old Japanese block prints, but they also have come to life on the big screen in recent years.

For those not well versed in Japanese folklore, it can be tricky to follow these films, but after awhile, you start to see some common characters, storylines and themes. A bit of reading up on the various yokai (ghosts, phantoms) online is good preparation to understanding some key characters and the stories behind them. Many of the characters actually originate in Chinese folklore, and were adopted in Japanese storytelling. See below links for some good online English-language sources!

The first film worth checking out was released by the great Studio Ghibli in 1994. The animated Pom Poko is the wonderfully entertaining, often sad ecological story of tanuki, raccoon-like creatures that dwell in Japanese forests who are pushed off of their land by human development. The cunning but lazy creatures plot to use their shapeshifting abilities to scare the humans out of construction zones and renew respect for the various Japanese spirits, flora and animals that inhabit the woods. They are depicted in natural tanuki form, a cartoonish variation of the tanuki based on traditional Japanese sculptures (complete with pot bellies and over-exaggerated scrotums – explain that one to the kids!), and their various sneaky transformations. Ultimately, after a series of small-scale scares, the tanuki resolve to push the humans over the edge by staging a massive yokai festival on the streets, which features many spooks and references to Japanese ghost stories. Like many Studio Ghibli works, Pom Poko is rather mind-blowing, and contains a lot of deep, potent messages about how we treat the natural world and how humans have drifted away from respecting its mysteries…..

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Copyright©Christopher Laursen


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