Yokai are among the strangest, the most exotic, and the hardest creatures to understand in Japanese mythology. Modern culture, such as that in Anime, tends to portray them as quirky or even cute. His…
Yokai are among the strangest, the most exotic, and the hardest creatures to understand in Japanese mythology.
Modern culture, such as that in Anime, tends to portray them as quirky or even cute. Historically, however, these supernatural beings were widely feared and guarded against.
Whatever you consider Yokai to be, here are five great Japanese movies to watch if you’re fascinated by them. Hopefully, knowledge gained from your viewings will help you manage and survive any Yokai encounter, should you visit Japan anytime soon.
1965’s Kwaidan is over half a century old as of this year, and its effects would probably feel “retro” to some viewers. That said, it doesn’t mean the movie has lost its ability to chill. Or that it is no longer a treasure trove of folkloric knowledge about Japanese Yokai.
A horror anthology featuring four classic Yokai stories as told by the famed writer Lafcadio Hearn, there is simply no better classic movie depiction of the darker side of these supernatural aberrations. With karmic retribution a heavy feature in three of the tales, Kwaidan is also an effective introduction to Japanese Buddhist thought and doctrines.
This is one movie that you must watch be it because you are interested in Japanese folklore, or because you intend to visit Japan.
2# The Great Yokai War
Takeshi Miike is widely considered one of Japan’s greatest and most controversial directors, renowned worldwide for his ultraviolent crime movies. In this 2005 production, though, he pays homage to his native country’s colorful Yokai culture by retelling the classic folktale of Momotaro the Peach Boy in a modern context. In the process, also having great fun by bringing to the big screen as many famous Yokai as he could.
The movie is furthermore notable for the superb performance of (then) child actor Ryknosuke Kamiki; his character truly embraces the role shoved upon him as any heroic child hero would. In short, this entertaining flick is akin to a mini glossary of must-know Yokai characters. Needless to say, it is also hugely enjoyable to watch whether before or during a Japanese holiday.
As far as legendary sorcerers are concerned, few in Japanese history enjoy the same level of fame as Abe no Seimei, a Heian-Period courtier. So it’s said, Seimei wasn’t even entirely human, his mother was a fox spirit. Other than his divination powers, Seimei was also described as a master of shikigami, these being bound yokai servants or other supernatural beings.
This 2001 flick, based on the popular OnmyMji novels by Baku Yumemakura, showcases the sorcerer and his steadfast buddy Lord Hiromasa is a string of courtly intrigues. Magic, shikigami, and esoteric rites feature heavily. There is also no shortage of periodic sets and Heian-Period costumes to gawk at.
Simply perfect to watch, in other words, if you intend to spend a few days in the historical treasure house that is Kyoto.
4# Spirited Away
Strictly speaking, Hayao Miyazaki’s widely acclaimed Spirited Away isn’t a Yokai movie. However, it does still draw heavily from tropes common in many Japanese supernatural folktales. Additionally, many characters were also directly inspired by classic Yokai depictions.
Outside of the above, this animated masterpiece is also a must-watch for its splendid animation, wonderful music, and environmentalism themes. A call-out here. The bathhouse at the center of the story is heavily based on famous historical ones in Japan, such as Dogo Onsen and Ginzan Onsen. You will want to have a long soak at one of these, after watching this Studio Ghibli gem.
5# Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura
Destiny: The Tale of Kamakura features a premise that’s reminiscent of classic Yokai tales, but at the same, is also as modern as it can get.
Set in a fictionalized Kamakura where humans peacefully coexist with Yokai, the story features the adventures of a bumbling editorial assistant adapting to a new lifestyle after marrying her editor. Lush and serene, and decisively Anime in tone, the movie surprisingly doesn’t feature that many renowned Yokai, but is nonetheless memorable for the ones that do cameo. (For example, the God of Poverty)
On top of which, there is the final third, which takes place in a bold imagination of the Yokai world. Beautiful and fantastical, Destiny is as a whole, a testament to the evolved nature of Yokai in modern Japanese culture. While some are still feared, many are nowadays regarded as adorable and peaceful. To the extent, you may want to visit their world, if ever given a chance to.