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Daniel Robson on Japanese ghosts and ghouls

Spirits figure heavily in Japanese folklore, ranging from the mischievous to the downright evil, and feature in everything from ancient stories to classic paintings to modern-day manga and anime. Following the exploits of its half-human/half-ghoul hero and his monstrous family, Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan takes these traditional stories in all new directions.

Japanese superstition describes a variety of monsters and mythic animals, known collectively as yokai. Perhaps the best-known is the oni, the mountain-dwelling ogre or demon from which the US manga publisher took its name. The oni is generally considered an evil creature; with its horned head and mouthful of sharp fangs, it sure cuts an impressive figure. But it sometimes also represents a benevolent force of nature.

Other types of yokai are the shape-shifting or part-animal beasts known as obake. These are not exactly spirits, because technically they’re not dead – just like a werewolf. Their true form might be an animal, such as a fox, tanuki raccoon or badger, but they can transform to disguise themselves as human, or something vaguely human but with one massive eye or no face at all.

One popular obake form is the kappa, a scaly amphibian creature that is roughly the size and shape of a human child, but with a beak, webbed feet and a monk’s bowl haircut. Nowadays, kappa are often depicted as super-cute little beasties, but dig a little deeper into history and their dastardly nature becomes clear: Kappa are said to lurk in rivers and streams, pouncing on unwary passersby to drown them. And yet they’re supposedly incredibly polite. Catch a kappa red-handed and it will feel compelled to apologise, perhaps even in writing (adorable!). And if you come face to face with a kappa, the common advice is to bow deeply; the courteous critter will reciprocate, and the water-filled cavity in the top of its head will run dry, leaving it paralysed.

Even today, a sign warning of a dangerous body of water might include a picture of a kappa to scare off the kiddies. Still, even more than the taste of dead little children, kappa are known to love cucumbers, which is why cucumber-roll sushi is called kappa-maki.

The manga, anime and live-action film series Spooky Kitaro is renowned throughout Japan for its tales of regional yokai, all based on real mythology. Kitaro is a one-eyed dead boy who tries to protect humans from his fellow yokai; his father, Medama-Oyaji, is a bath-obsessed eyeball. The manga was first published in 1959 (as Hakaba no Kitaro), and today it is beloved by kids and adults alike.

Long before Kitaro, in the Edo Period (1603-1868), artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi also created spooky portraits, making a name for himself with gorgeous woodblock triptychs depicting all manner of ancient apparitions.

Much like in the West, the Japanese believe that the soul of someone who dies in violent circumstances – murder or suicide – is unable to pass on to the afterlife, instead becoming a yurei, haunting the living until its grievances can be put right. This also goes for those who lived a life of hatred or jealousy, or simply didn’t have the proper rites performed for them when they died. Bummer.

Yurei are often portrayed as a woman with long black hair, the most famous example being the terrifying Sadako in the Ring movies. The reason for the long hair is that in the old days, the deceased were cremated with their hair let down instead of tied back. Presumably because it looks scarier.

One well-known type of yurei is the yuki-onna (snow lady), a ghostly pale naked woman who legend says can be found floating through snowy landscapes, leaving no footprints. According to ancient mythology, the yuki-onna is deathly beautiful – literally. Looking into this temptress’ eyes will fill a man with dread, and she is said to murder mercilessly with her icy breath.

In the Edo Period, ghost stories were told in the game of hyakumonogatari kaidankai, which means ‘100 ghost stories party’, and was particularly popular among the samurai class. When a brave-hearted group gathered at night to play, they would light 100 candles, and blow them out one by one after each person told a ghoulish tale, until the room was submerged in darkness and a spirit was summoned. Hyakumonogatari kaidankai has been played in countless TV shows, anime and manga, including School Rumble, xxxHolic and Sundome.

But of course, not all spirits are scary. Those who live a normal life and die a normal death go on to heaven as a reikon, returning to the mortal plain to be honoured every summer during the festival of Obon. It is believed that the reikon of our loved ones watch over us after they die. Which is just as well, when you consider the nastier elements out there, just the wrong side of The Other Side.

Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan is out now on UK DVD from Manga Entertainment.


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