With the anime series Mononoke streaming on Viewster (for North American viewers), perhaps it is time to cover what a mononoke is. Lets start with the use of the word in the Heian Period (794 to 1185). Then it meant various mysterious supernatural things that were almost always seen as dangerous, these were generally nameless invisible threats which only a few could perceive. There is a famous tale of Fujiwara no Morosuke one night crossing paths with what is referred to as a procession of a hundred demons (hyakkiyagyō). While the procession passed he chanted to protect himself and his entourage.
Later, mainly in the Edo Period (1603 – 1868), another term came into dominant use, bakemono. Bakemono means changing thing, and some bakemono did have the ability to transform, though many did not. By this time many such creatures had been given names and were depicted in scrolls, woodblock prints, paintings, in stories, in plays, and illustrated books. In the 18th century there was even a famous series of small illustrated encyclopedias about bakemono by Toriyama Sekien.
With the Meiji Period (1868 – 1912) there was an official movement to modernize Japan and catch up with the West. Part of this modernization was the rejection of many traditional beliefs including those regarding bakemono. One of the persons active in this was Inoue Enryō, a famous professor who collected many tales as part of his effort. It was during this time that another term came into common use, yokai.
Then in the Taisho Period (1912 – 1926) and Showa Period (1926 – 1989) there was Yanagita Kunio, who is considered the founder of folklore studies, in Japan who collected folktales as part of his work. His most famous work is the Tales of Tono.
Fast forward to the post WWII years and we find a struggling one-armed war veteran, who had to learn to draw with his other hand, producing a spooky manga in 1960 about a one eyed boy. A boy who was born from his dead mother and who had clawed his way out of her grave. This was Mizuki Shigeru’s horror story Hakaba Kitarō (“Graveyard Kitaro”). Later he would reshape the tale to be more kid friendly and it became GeGeGe no Kitarō, and a huge hit, in time becoming more than one anime series as well as being made into movies.
In the 1960s interest in yokai began to increase, by the 1980s it would reach the point that people were talking about a yokai boom. Manga, anime, movies, TV shows, even lectures became popular, and continue to be popular even today. Mizuki, who is also known as a folklorist, even wrote a two volume illustrated encyclopedia of different kinds of yokai, alas it has yet to be trans into English.
The Mononoke anime series is only one of several shows with yokai, and it does a good job of putting together stories about five of them. So enjoy watching Mononoke and consider exploring other titles involving mononoke, bakemono, yokai or whatever other word is used to refer to them in the story.
Want to learn more about yokai? Here are some good books to begin with:
1. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster is about 1/3 history 2/3 a guide to various yokai.
2. Another good book is a tongue in cheek look at yokai by the husband and wife team of Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt; Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.
3. If you like well-done illustrated books, I recommend two written and illustrated by Matthew Meyer, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons and The Hour of Meeting Evil Spirits.
If you have questions about mononoke, bakemono or yokai, or suggestions for future blog entries, then make sure to leave a comment.