Monsters and animal references

By Curtis Hoffmann
Converted to HTML by Rob Kelk

Ghost stories

    Miyazaki's movie, Ponpoko, is so full of cultural references that describing them would be more a task for a folklorist, than an anime fan.
    While Ponpoko is being described as a more serious movie, a protest against the development of a certain section of wilderness, there are enough comic elements to make one wonder.

    I'll let someone else describe Ponpoko in more detail. The rest of this file will attempt to highlight the cultural background, and the more famous ghost story creatures, instead.

Ghost stories

    Japan has a tradition, dating back a few hundred years at least, of telling scary tales on a hot summer night, as a way to feel cooler afterwards. Most of these tales avoid the gory elements one would find in western ghost stories, and focus mostly on the eerie. For this reason, most Americans would consider Japanese ghost stories to be boring, or merely quaint. Of course, this description does not apply to the more recent horror as exemplified by Wandering Kid, or Supernatural Beast City. Instead, Vampire Princess Miyu is more in keeping with the traditional Japanese ghost story genre.
    Many of the monsters in Japanese tales come from the animal world, and can be divided into two broad types; shape-changing animals, and brute creatures. For the most part, shape-changers take on female forms, whereas the brutes are either asexual, or male.

    Disclaimer: The following information comes from a variety of sources, mostly in talking to Japanese adults. I am not pretending to be an authority on these matters. So, if you spot any errors, please let me know, and I will correct them.

    Note: Nearly all of the Japanese ghost stories originally came from China, and were altered over time. While there may be old folktales concerning purely Japanese creatures, they are not as widely known. Just as important, though, is the fact that many regions have their own ghosts and stories, that are peculiar to just that one town, or location.


Hitotsume Kozou
"One-eyed boy." Bald old cyclops, who looks a bit like a shaved-top priest; just scares people.

A kind of humanoid turtle, with a circle of hair on the top of its head, a shell on its back, and a beak for a mouth. A kappa can either be a Water God, or a monster. As a water god, the kappa will protect fresh water from mistreatment (if you pollute a well or a river, the kappa will get you.) As a monster, kappa live beside fresh water, and drown unsuspecting passersby.

Kasa no Obake
"Umbrella monster." A wooden umbrella, with one eye and one leg. Hops around on one foot. Eerie, rather than menacing.

"Fox." Kitsune are considered to be clever, and selfish. Most of the stories about them concern "a lone woman found out in the woods. She is very beautiful, and begs for help. The man (usually a powerful lord, or a samurai) takes care of her. However, the woman turns out to be too beautiful and arrogant to be a mere human. Eventually, she is discovered to a be fox spirit, and chased away, or killed." The stories of fox-women seem to have originated in China, with the husband being the Chinese Emperor. The woman runs away to Japan, and resurfaces with a Japanese husband.

"Cat." Cats occasionally surface as shape-changers, but are usually very cruel. No outstanding stories about them. Dogs, on the other hand, are very nice to humans, and don't figure much into ghost stories as the main creature. The most famous story about a cat is simply the "beckoning cat," a normal cat which brought fortune to a small temple run by poor monks. The cat would sit beside the road, with one paw raised. Passersby felt like they were being invited to the temple by the cat. Currently, statues of the beckoning cat are placed outside of restaurants to help pull in customers.
Dogs, on the other hand, help out the humans occasionally after there has been some kind of trouble.

The sound made when you slap your hands against your full stomach, after eating a big meal. In China, it was once considered good manners to slap your stomach, and comment on how good the food was.

"Woman with a long neck." Another Chinese monster, this woman looks normal during the day. But, at midnight, her neck becomes very long. She likes to eat lamp oil. Eerie, rather than dangerous.

"Raccoon-dog." While Kitsune stories are very serious, Tanuki stories are much more humorous. The tanuki love playing pranks on people, although the older stories tend to make them much more cruel. Tanuki are also shape-changers. The more famous story goes something like "a human captures a tanuki, and gives it to his wife to cook up for supper. However, the man leaves again, and the tanuki escapes, kills the wife, cooks her into a stew, changes shape to imitate the woman, and serves the stew to the husband. After the man has eaten the stew, the tanuki reveals itself, explains its prank, and runs away. In grief, the man asks a friendly pet for help. The pet makes a boat for the tanuki, and the two animals go out fishing. But, the tanuki's boat is made of mud, and it dissolves, leaving the tanuki stranded out in the middle of the lake." The main characters in Ponpoko are all Tanuki. A few kitsune also show up.

"Crane." Rather than being a folk story, there is a very famous work of fiction concerning a crane that is saved by a kind man. The man bandages the crane's broken wing, and sets it free. Later, a beautiful woman comes to the man's house, and marries him. They grow wealthy, and have several children. But, the woman made the man promise that he would never invade her privacy. When he finally does, he discovers that she is really the crane that he once helped. Tearfully, the crane flies away, and never returns.

AKA: Woman without a face
"A man was walking by the Imperial Palace, and saw a pretty woman standing very close to the edge of the moat. Planning on a bit of lechery, the man walks up to the woman, from behind, and warns her of the danger. But, when the woman turns around, he sees that she has no face. In fear, he runs away. Eventually, he finds a ramen (or uden) cart, and decides to have something to eat to calm his nerves. While eating, he tells his tale to the the cart operator. When he is done, the other guy turns around and replies "is that so." The cart operator has no face." This is a common story, and is eerie enough to be considered scary by Japanese standards.

Yuki Onna
"Snow Woman." A popular folktale, about a group of snow spirits. They intend to freeze one man to death, but the snow queen has a change of heart. Sort of similar to the the Crane Woman story.

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