The Definition of Yokai
Before getting into the anime that showcase how the concept of yokai is kept alive in the anime of Japan, you should first learn about the concept of yokai itself. The yokai, which is also referred to as youkai in some instances, is actually a class of numerous spirits, demons, and monsters that you will find in Japanese folklore. Like the most concept of supernatural entities, there are good ones and bad ones. They have supernatural powers that they use for either good or evil, depending on the nature of the spirit or creature.
There exists a notion that you can see with other spiritual or mythical creatures found in the folklore of other countries and that is that these creatures are stuck with the morality they were born with. This means that if they were evil spirits, to begin with, they will never be good and vice versa. Considering this popular notion for these creatures of folklore, you would be intrigued to find out that there is yokai in Japanese folklore that is free from this notion.
As mentioned earlier, there are good spirits and bad spirits that exist. The spirits that bring good fortune to people are called nigi-mitama while the spirits that bring ill fortune and natural disasters are called ara-mitama. The reason why some yokai are free from the notion mentioned above is that there are stories in folklore that have instances wherein an ara-mitama was converted into a nigi-mitama through a ritual called chinkon which means “the calming of the spirits”. To balance things out, there are also instances in Japanese folklore wherein a good spirit turns bad because the people stop giving it worship and praise or just stopped recognizing its existence and this upset the spirit. These instances give the yokai stories a bit of an edge over other folklore because it was able to introduce a sense of mystery to the stories by keeping the readers guessing where the good guys will turn into bad guys and vice versa.
Since these creatures originally did not have any portrayal of how they looked because they were only described with words from the stories about them, people feared them a lot in the earlier years. As the years passed, specifically around the time of the Meiji era, paintings became a growing interest in the artists of that period so they started to created illustrations of creatures from the folklore. How they looked were usually completely dependent on how the artist saw the creature in his or her head. They drew their impressions of the creatures on things like the emaki or other forms of paintings and having actual images of how these creatures would look really stabilized them as more of characters in the stories and less like monsters. By the time the Edo period came, the creatures found in Japanese folklore have become objects of entertainment rather than a source of fear. They were usually depicted to have animalistic features but there are also times in certain stories of the folklore wherein they appear as normal humans as well.
Notable Japanese Yokai Anime from the Decade of the 90’s and Earlier
Just like how books turned into e-books and how notebooks turned into laptops and iPads, the Japanese folklore stories also evolved into manga and eventually became anime as well. This is not to say that all manga and anime are from Japanese folklore but if you are a person who is well versed with manga and anime, you would know that a lot of manga and anime take inspiration from the fantasy and history that Japanese folklore has.
There are a lot of anime to be watched from Japan and those with the yokai theme are plentiful as well. With this being the case, it might be hard to find the anime that would be worth the time to finish without any help. To provide this aid that you might need, here is a list of yokai anime that comes from the year of 2010 and earlier.
The first and oldest anime series on this list would have to be “Gegege no Kitarou”. It was aired during the winter of 1968 until spring time of 1969. Within that period, it was able to show 65 excellent episodes that revolved around a young ghost named Kitarou and how he protects people from evil yokai as well as some well-known monsters like the Transylvanian Dracula and the Chinese vampire known as Yasha.
This anime is a great recommendation not only because of the quality of the story but because its creator, Shigeru Mizuki, is actually considered to be the father of yokai. He and this anime series gained so much popularity throughout the years that there is a road in Japan named after Mizuki to honor him and his work with Gegege no Kitarou.
The next anime on this list is Princess Mononoke. From the title alone, one can already tell that this is a yokai anime because the term "Mononoke" is actually another word for yokai. Unlike Gegege no Kitarou, this anime isn’t a series. It is an anime movie that was released during the fall of 1997. For a moment in time, this anime was the highest-grossing film in Japan as well as of all time until movies like Titanic and Spirited Away from years after.
It was mentioned earlier that the yokai were depicted as animals or creatures with animalistic features and in this anime, this is very true because all the supernatural beasts seen in this show are great animals like a giant wolf, a giant boar, and some other creatures with amazing powers. Aside from its involvement with supernatural forces, the message of this tale is what made it such a hit and to this very day, its message should still be heeded all over the world because it teaches people to respect the forest and the general balance of nature.
As a child watching this movie, you will be hooked by the awesome animals and the intense fight scenes found here. As a teenager or as an adult, you will be hooked because of how timeless the lessons found here are and maybe because of the love story as well. It isn’t even that hard to watch because it only runs for 124 minutes. If you subtract the time for the introduction and the credits, you can easily finish the movie in less than 2 hours.
The More Recently Made Japanese Yokai Anime That You Should Definitely Watch
The recent decades have also been able to produce quality yokai anime that you can watch and enjoy. These anime may not have fairies in them but, as you can see from the anime above, there are a lot of other amazing creatures of myth and fantasy that can easily take a fairy’s place in an anime storyline. The anime called Inuyasha would be a solid example for a great anime that has no fairies involved.
Inuyasha aired from the year of 2000 until the year of 2004 and within that period, it was able to show all 167 of its episodes. Unlike Princess Mononoke, which showcased the yokai as pure majestic animals, this anime showed the yokai as different things. There are depictions of the yokai as mixtures of humans and animals and then there are also depictions of the yokai as ghostly dark figures. These are only a couple of way that this anime showcased the yokai and as you progress through the episodes, you are sure to notice other ways that its creator decided to depict them.
Similar to Inuyasha is the anime called Kamisama Kiss, which also depicts the yokai as mixtures of different creatures. Both these anime fall under the genres of romantic comedies, fantasy, and supernatural and both of them are definitely worth the watch because of their action packed episodes and unpredictable storylines. They also used the yokai and deities based closely on what and how they really are in Japanese folklore so it is a great avenue to learn about the creatures of Japanese folklore if you can’t be bothered to read the daunting amount of stories found in Japanese folklore.
Considering the yokai anime’s production in the past and its continued production in the recent years, it is obvious that this art is alive and well in the Japanese culture. Now that you have a list of the many yokai anime series and movies worth watching, you can now start collecting copies of them to binge watch during your summer or any time off work. It is a great way to pass time and, at the same time, learn about the Japanese culture in a very entertaining way. If the anime found in these lists catch your attention or leave you wanting more, you can easily search for more recommendations online. You are sure to bump into the other quality yokai anime that weren’t discussed here.