Welcome to today’s cultural studies class, students! Parts of the Japanese culture that often work their way subtly into anime are the myths and legends. You may be surprised with how familiar you already are with some of them, including the strange kappa, the fearsome demons called oni or the eerie and distinctive ghosts such as the karakasa.
Kappa are probably the most recognizable of all Japanese mythological beings. More peculiar than frightening, kappa are generally water spirits who resemble a tortoise with a shell, green skin, a distinct beak, monkey-like limbs and a circle of water on the top of their heads that enables them to move out of water. Some stories speak of them as monsters who attack people and livestock, while others tell of kappa as water gods who protect their fresh water homes. Some legends also credit kappa as healers that taught humans the way of bone-setting.
Today, most kappa are depicted as cute creatures with an affinity for sumo wrestling and cucumbers. In fact, cucumber sushi is often called kappa-maki. Kappa make an appearance in a wide range of forms, including statues, snacks, toys and animation. In Tenchi Universe, Ayeka and Ryoko are turned into kappa by an angry Washu.
Much more sinister than the kappa are the oni: huge horned demons resembling American notions of devils. Oni are the spirits of anger, although “oni” can also be translated as ogre, demon and devil. Some folktales deem them as the bringers of misfortune and gods of wind and lightning, while others speak of them as hunters of the souls of evildoers, including disobedient children. Festivals and plays to this day observe and commemorate famous legends of the oni to drive evil spirits from the home.
Ghosts are sometimes found taking the form of everyday objects, such as an umbrella or paper lantern. One of the more unique of the Japanese ghosts is the karakasa: a bamboo and paper umbrella with one leg and one eye. Other ghosts and legends include the rokurokubi (the long-necked woman), the tengu (a goblin with a long nose), the nurikabe (an invisible wall that blocks a traveler’s way) and many more.
Japanese stories, unlike most American ghost stories, are not tales of blood and gore, but of mystery and the supernatural. The girls in Azumanga Daioh, for example, seem to enjoy scary (and not-so-scary) stories in the hot, summer nights. Traditionally, almost all ghost stories are told in the moonlight of a summer night as a way to cool off from the heat of the day with a spine-chilling tale.
Ghosts, demons and monsters will always remain popular in anime no matter what time of year. Although some may be a bit harmless compared to their original forms, some of these fearsome creatures are sure to give you a fright or two.