The Japanese Bestiary of “Cool”

by Arthi Aravind

Japan’s mythological creatures are a source of rich inspiration for the many anime artists who produce the pop culture which has exploded in popularity in the United States in the past two decades. The mystical creatures of this culture’s bestiary are a unique aspect of its gross national cool which differentiate it from the pop culture exports of other countries. These otherworldly creatures, which are so foreign to the Western imagination, contribute to the popularity of Japanese cultural products in the United States because of their novelty value.

Many Japanese anime series have become significantly popular in the United States in the past two decades. Some notable examples are Death Note, Pokémon and Digimon, and InuYasha among others. The canon of Miyazaki films itself is an excellent example of the popularity of Japanese animation, with the Oscar win of Spirited Away and the distribution of Miyazaki films in the United States by entertainment giant Disney. Many of these TV and movie series have fantasy creatures which draw heavily from Japanese mythology. They are not only cultural, but also based on the religious background of Japan.

Animators include these magical creatures not because they want to appeal to foreign audiences, but because including mythology in pop culture is simply common in Japan. The mythology is ingrained in the Japanese psyche and thus makes an obvious source of ideas for artists. Americans’ voracious appetite for Japanese cultural products, including anime, is a side effect of this. The ideas behind the myths, as well as the religious aspect of the kami, present totally different plots and concepts to Americans.

The Pokémon Espeon, based on the bakeneko.

 

There are numerous examples of Japanese monsters appearing in anime series. Several Pokémon and Digimon are based on monsters from the Japanese bestiary. The bakeneko, a spirit feline with a forked tail, makes several appearances in the forms of the Pokémon Espeon and the Digimon Persiamon and Gatomon X. The kamaitachi, a weasel with scythe-like claws, is also seen in the Pokémon Sneasel and the Digimon Kyukimon. These are only a few examples.

The kitsune, or spirit fox, makes a surprising number of appearances in several popular animé series. Interestingly, the kitsune has strong ties to the rice god, Inari, so these examples show religious influences in pop culture. Naturally, there are several Pokémon (Vulpix and Ninetales and Digimon (Renamon) based on this creature. Because of the more powerful nature of the kitsune and its ability to transform into a human, it is also seen in Naruto. The main character has a kitsune inside him, which grants him supernatural powers useful in his goal of becoming a master ninja. A fox demon is also a minor character in the series Inu Yasha.

The shinigami, or death god, has also become familiar to American viewers, primarily through the television series Death Note, which was part of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. The main character is constantly followed by the shinigami whose notebook he found. In the series Bleach, the main character actually becomes a “soul reaper,” which is essentially a shinigami.

Ryuk, the shinigami from Death Note.

Miyazaki’s movies by themselves have myriad examples of Japanese magical creatures. The film Princess Mononoke has demons which are the gods of the animals they represent, giant wolves, and guardian forest spirits. The wolves especially are significant because of their relation to the historical background of Princess Mononoke: the Ainu people, who are featured prominently, believed they were descended from a goddess and a wolf. [1] Princess Mononoke herself and her wolves are reminiscent of these entities.

Spirited Away introduced American viewers to the Japanese concept of spirits. Objects such as rivers and even radishes are show to have spirits; one of the main characters is the spirit of the Kohaku River, who saves Chihiro’s life and befriends her at the bathhouse. The belief that all natural objects have spirits is shared by Native Americans, so the concept may not have been totally new to some viewers. However, the Japanese spirits take on physical forms that an American viewer would not be able to conceive. Among the more bizarre forms seen in the parade of spirits is a yellow blob with colorful markings and a red hat. The total unfamiliarity of this imagination makes Japanese creatures more interesting to Americans.

Spirited Away was critically acclaimed in the United States, and earned an Academy Award not for Best Foreign Film, but for Best Animated Feature, showing that it could hold its own in the American market. Many Americans were already familiar with Studio Ghibli’s work due to My Neighbor Totoro, but this propelled the studio to even greater heights, and the subsequent release of Ponyo was widely anticipated, netting $3.5 million dollars on opening weekend. [2]

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The Japanese interpretation of elements from other cultures also provides a different perspective. Some anime series incorporate the mythological creatures of other countries, most notably China. The popular manga/anime Fruits Basket is completely based on the Chinese Zodiac. Part of the strife in the plot comes from the legend of the cat being left out of the zodiac; indeed, the character representing the cat often feels like a loner.

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However, examples of Japan’s use of mythical creatures from other cultures are overall difficult to find and is not as prominent. Well-known creatures, such as dragons, phoenixes, and unicorns, have their own equivalents in Japanese mythology which are often used instead of the Western versions.

The unique mythology of Japan makes it more appealing to Western viewers because of its unfamiliarity. Mythology is often based on the imagination: every creature can be interpreted in myriad ways simply because there’s no defined way for it to appear. This room for interpretation allows mythical creatures to be easily inserted in many different anime and manga series, both popular and obscure. American viewers may not necessarily be aware of the rich stories and folk tales behind these creatures, but the novelty and different imagination appeal to them.

The unusual nature of Japanese mythological creatures is part of Japan’s overall gross national cool. The pure novelty value of their cultural products already fascinates American viewers, and their mythical creatures are just another aspect of that novelty. This has allowed several anime series to truly flourish and even become part of American popular culture.

Discussion Questions:

1. Do you agree that Japan’s mythical creatures helps its popularity in the United States?

2. Do other cultures feature their mythology as prominently in their cultural products?

3. Why are mythical creatures/monsters featured so prominently in Japanese cultural products, if at all?

Sources:

[1] Walker, Brett L. The Lost Wolves of Japan. Seattle: University of Washington, 2005. Print. [Google Books link]

[2] “Spirited Away (2001) – Box Office / Business.” The Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Web. 11 Apr. 2011. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0245429/business>.

Related Links:

(1) Japanese mythology in popular culture  (Wikipedia): comprehensive listing of potential matches between anime/manga characters and Japanese myths

(2) Discover How Japanese Characters Inspire Anime Characters at Epcot: “Spirited Beasts,” an exhibit at Disney World, explores the same ideas as my paper.

(3) Encyclopedia Mythica: Japanese Mythology: comprehensive listing of Japanese mythological figures/creatures

Comments

  1. This was a fun post to read, Arthi! I wasn’t aware that so many characters in GNC media were based on mythological creatures. When you update your post, I would suggest that you explain what bakeneko and kamaitachi are because some readers (including myself!) are unfamiliar with these concepts and will probably not understand the significance of their appearing in anime etc.
    If I understand your thesis correctly, you argue that Americans are attracted to GNC media in part because they are interested in the unusual mythology of Japan. But do you think that most Americans really recognize that mythology for what it is? Or do they miss the significance of those cultural references entirely and simply appreciate the strangeness and unfamiliarity of these animal characters? I am inclined to go with the latter.
    Do you think that this trend is motivated by the Japanese creators of these media being interested in sharing Japanese mythology with the world? Or, do you think that, due to its ingrained cultural nature, the mythology simply presents itself as a natural choice for content? How is this similar or different from the way in which Judeo-Christian themes are found within Western media?

  2. It is interesting to see how different cultures incorporate mythology and mythological creatures in their media. In the west, Lord of the Rings comes to mind as well as games such as the Warcraft series and Diablo (Blizzard Entertainment). While it seems like many put mythology into their media, what I find so interesting about Japanese media’s use of mythology and religion is the vast amount of different kami or “gods” the Japanese can call upon because of the religion and mythology that is present in Japan. With the Shinto religion itself, there are apparently over 8 million different Kami and also the number of resentful kami make for many interesting stories, especially for people who are unfamiliar with the religion and culture. I feel like this is one of the biggest selling points for using it in their media; the use of the mythology is almost unique to Japan and it is something new for western viewers. I can relate this to story lines and plots of J-Horror in that J-Horror was incredibly popular because it surfaced a fresh and new paranormal plots and folk lore to the horror genre. I feel after a while though, like J-Horror, the constant use of familiar creatures will soon begin to desensitize western viewers to it, making it not so exotic anymore. Just like J-Horror, if we are exposed to it long enough, it will no longer be foreign but familiar.

    Do you think that the Japanese are more successful at selling their media because their mythology and culture is just more interesting than ours? 😀