Yokai toys are an amazing thing. The more I accumulate, the more new stuff I iscover. And this is fantastic! It’s such a rich worldview illustrated in monsters – and now that Yo-Kai Watch has broken through stateside, it’s even showing up on Wal-Mart shelves!
Today isn’t about Yo-Kai Watch. Gimme some time, I’ll get stuff together on it eventually.
Today also isn’t about Shigeru Mizuki, though he needs to be mentioned. Mizuki was one of the manga and anime greats – the comics and shows he put together formed the backbone of anime for the last sixty or so years. And, most specifically, he reinvigorated Yokai in a way not seen since Toriyama Seiken. In fact, some of the things he flat-out invented for GeGeGe no Kitaro have become part of the folklore – because why not? Many things have been written on the man and his incredible life, as well as GegeGe no Kitaro. This isn’t the time and place to do it justie, either – I’ll need to pick up more specific Kitaro-based stuff to do a proper overview. So why mention it now? Because the first few figures are related! But that’s no excuse to ignore the others – you should see the horrifying Gashadokuro, or read about the romantic tale of Kiyohime and Anchin (it’s the last entry).
Kitaro, the ghost-child, is… well, yeah, he’s the main hero of the show. A Yokai orphan (sorta) child who can communicate with both worlds of the living and the dead, and the show focuses on his adventures with everything from traditional Japanese Yokai to… Dracula. The fact that I don’t have most of the cast is why you’re only getting a taste of this series.
Remember when I said that Kitaro is “sorta” an orphan? That’s because, when his father died, he… well… this is Dad’s eye. Dad’s eye is technially Dad, and is the ghost of ghost (Dad was a ghost). So Kitaro’s father is dead, but he lives on as an eyeball. Who likes to take baths in teacups. You know, he’s a good dad.
Or Buckbaird, Bugbear, Buckbeard… it’s kinda hard to tell what to name this weirdo. But this is one of Shigeru Mizuki’s creations, and is actually based on a piece of surrealist art. In the story, Backbeard is “The boss of Western Yokai,” which essentially means that we should all recognize him. Even though we don’t. For reference’ sake, a “bugbear” is one of the root words for “Bogeyman” and plays basically the same role. So, Backbeard is the Boogeyman.
I love Ookamuro and his Kool-Aid Man ways, but he’s another Mizuki creation.
There are lots of giant head Yokai out there (Remember Spirited Away?), but Ookamuro is a new(ish) invention, based on classic art of a Tanuki trick – a mischievous Tanuki who transforms himself into a gigantic raccoon-dog head just to freak people out. But Ookamuro has taken on a life of his own, and even has a statue dedicated to him (granted, all of Mizuki’s creations have those – it’s a testament to his cultural impact that he has miles and miles of monuments along a historic roadway).
It bugs me a little how the door pieces for this toy were on a sprue, and thus you get unsightly white patches where they had to be broken off. But other than that, this is hilarious!
Wait, this guy AGAIN? Yes, yes, we know the drill – boss of all Yokai, sneaks into your house and steals your food, so why another one? Well, aside from this figure being exquisitely made, Nurarihyon’s place as the boss of all Yokai is mostly Mizuki’s doing – he’s the man villain in the show, after all. But if you want to know how important Shigeru Mizuki’s contributions are to Yokai mythos, just think about how Nurarihyon became so much more important because of him. It’s comparable to our modern werewolf legends (silver, the full moon, wolfsbane, etc.) coming almost entirely from the 1941 Lon Chaney Jr. movie.
Some (a lot) of the remaining Yokai in this article have appeared in GeGeGe no Kitaro, and many are even in Mizuki’s style, but this article will now focus on their legendary origins. As for the figures, some are under the GeGeGe no Kitaro brand (well, duh), while others can be found by searching under “Yokai Netsuke” or even the Capsule Q brand. Looking by name will help for a lot of monsters, too, though eventually American eBay will prove insufficient. Oh yeah, this guy is a Hyakume – turns out that one of the other Nurarihyon figures (the one standing atop a litter) has a removable mini-figure inside! I love that.
An invisible Yokai (except for when he’s represented like this), Nurikabe is a wall. It impedes travellers, making it impossible to move forward. The only way out is to knock on the lower-left portion of Nurikbe, and then he will let you go. As an aside, Shigeru Mizuki swore that he encountered this Yokai once while deployed in World War II he found a patch of jungle that he couldn’t walk through, even though there was no underbrush or foliage int he way. Interesting, that.
A rather vicious Tsukumogami (an everyday object that has come to life – remember the other articles?), Ittan-Momen is nothing more than a strip of cotton which would otherwise be used in making clothes. Ittan-Momen flies through the air, looking for victims to smother or strangle. It is responsible for many otherwise unexplained suffocation deaths… so this eans your Uncle Fred didn’t accidentally choke himself on a bedsheet while drunk. It was a ghost! Wow, that got morbid real fast.
The header image was my attempt at making a Gashadokuro of my own, but this one is a genuine figure of this horrific Yokai.
One of the most horrifying and deadly of all Yokai, Gashadokuro is an aggregate ghost formed from hundreds of spirits. The requirement for one is that they had to have died in misery – usually by starvation, although sometimes by plague, or soldiers left to rot in the fields, or otherwise dying with anger and hatred in their hearts. I takes a hundred such deaths to create the Gashadokuro, a massive skeleton fifteen times the size of a human being (or larger!). Despite their size, Gashadokuro can move absolutely silently, except for the rattling of their teeth (the “Gasha” in their name is an onomatopoeia for a rattling sound. It’s also found in “Gashapon”). Since they also have the power to turn invisible, often this (or a supernatural ringing in your ears) is your only warning before the giant skeleton grabs you and bites off your head, drinking your blood to satisfy its famine-hunger. A Gashadokuro can’t be killed, though it will eventually run out of energy and dissipate. They can be warded off temporarily with Shinto charms, which gives you enough time to run – and perhaps if you flee, it will go after another victim and leave you alone.
The ghost of a woman who died while pregnant, or giving birth, or shortly after childbirth, or related to her baby in any other way, Ubume is one of the more tragic Yokai. She appears as a woman – sometimes pregnant, sometimes bloody, sometimes with bird talons, but always holding a baby. Her desperate need to help her child is the undoing of any mortal she meets, as she will beg you to hold her baby for her. But once you do, the child becomes a heavy stone, and often crushes the life out of the poor, good-natured victim. There are a few ghosts like this, including one variant of Yuki-Onna whose baby will freeze you to death. Basically, if you’re in Japan, never hold anyone’s baby for them. Just punt that little monster (don’t actually kick a baby).
This isn’t the first time Kappa have made this entry, nor is it the last. But this is a public service announcement to remind you that Kappa love cucumbers, and you can fend off an attack by offering it one. See how much he’s enjoying that cucumber?
Related to the Tengu, Taimatsumaru is a giant bird wrapped in demonic flames that really, really hates Buddha. How much, you ask? Although it’s mostly known for attacking and interfering with monks, it even goes so far a to harrass Buddha himself! Now, usually a flaming bird is treated as something positive, whether the Phoenix or the East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean) Vermillion Bird. Clearly, that ain’t the case with this little guy. Mind you, any more info is scarce, as he basically came entirely from Hyakki Tsurezure Bukuro, written by Seiken Toriyama in 1784.
Hey, WAIT A SECOND. This one isn’t a Yokai! It’s not even Japanese! And that’s a figure of a Yeti (Pathfinder miniatures), so what gives? Well, the Yeren, aka “The Wildman of China,” is an ape-like cryptid from… well, China. It’s been more directly represented by that weird-as-all-getout Monster in My Pocket figure below:
But anyway, the Yeren is supposedly reddish-brown, kind of like an ape, and peaceful. Some theorize that it’s a new (hidden) species of Orangutan, or Gigantopithecus, or… because the forests where it is sighted also supposedly have ogres and werebears, maybe it’s just a legend after all. So, why bring it up here? Because, even though China and Japan are about as different as apples and goats, “Yokai” honestly can mean any kind of monster (similar to how “Anime” just means cartoon – so yes, Looney Tunes is marketed as anime). Sometimes foreign things get absorbed into the main Japanese canon, or are at least referred to as foreign Yokai – like Backbeard, earlier. So, essentially, the Yeren is a Chinese Yokai. Don’t think about it too hard. You’ll be fine.
The tale of Kiyohime and Anchin is one of Japan’s most beloved love stories, appearing in everything from literature to Noh Theatre, and enduring for over a thousand years.
Near the Dojo-ji temple, there once was a well-to-do family who would lodge monks on their pilgrimage, giving them a place to stay before they crossed the Hidaka river to the temple. One such monk, Anchin, was quite handsome, and the family’s young daughter, Kiyohime, developed a crush on him. Anchin jokingly told her that, “Well, if you’re good, I suppose I’ll marry you someday.”
Of course, Kiyohime took this seriously, and waited patiently over the years. Finally, she came of age, and Anchin’s yearly visit… when the same as any other. He stayed the night with the family and then went on his way. Kiyohime got rather angry and chased him down to the shore, fuming about how he hadn’t kept his promise.
When Anchin saw her and realized why she was angry, he said, “Uh… Anchin who? I don’t know anybody named Anchin. WHo are you? I’ve never met you before! You must be talking about, um, some other really awesome monk named Anchin, and… uh… oh, look at the time! I’ve got to go! OH BUDDHA PLEASE SAVE ME!!!”
And wouldn’t you know it, Buddha did rescue Anchin by knocking Kiyohime unconscious (there’s a mental picture for you). Anchin quickly boarded a boat and began to cross the river.
BUT… Kiyohime woke up, and realized that he was escaping her. So she jumped into the river and swam after him. And, in fact, she got so angry that she turned into a fire-breathing snake monster! Which is something that happens, apparently, When women get angry, they turn into fire-breathing snake monsters. Don’t blame me, this story is over a thousand years old.
Anchin saw the Kiyohime-monster swimming after him, and panicked to the boatman, who also saw her. Thus, they paddled faster than they had ever paddled before, and made it to shore. Once there, Anchin ran into the temple screaming, “Help me! There’s this girl, and she likes me and I rejected her, so she got reallyangry and turned into a giant fire-breathing snake-monster (which is totally normal thing that happens all the time)!”
And the monks of the monastery said, “Well, that sounds like a perfectly normal sequence of events that happens all the time. Here, hide under our big iron bell so she won’t find you.”
So, they hid him under their gigantic iron bell. Kiyohime slithered into the monastery, breathing fire, and sniffed out Anchin’s location. She wrapped her coils around the bell and breathed fire all over it, until it turned white-hot and Anchin died.
And thus, now that she had turned into a giant fire-breathing snake monster (happens all the time) and murdered the man she had been obsessively crushing on for over a decade, Kiyohime promptly plunged herself into the river and drowned.
And that’s the whole story. Sometimes it is titled, “How a Monk of the Dojo-ji in the Province of Kii copied the Lotus Sutra and Brought Salvation to Serpents,” which is not what happens in the story at all.
Okay, I was really sarcastic back there, but this story illustrates the Hannya legend – remember her? – The idea that a woman, when consumed by anger, hatred, or jealousy, can become a vicious demon monster. Note how this generic Hannya and Kiyohime have the same face (patterned after a grimacing Hannya mask). It’s the same concept! Kiyohime’s snake form came about because the most powerful and irredeemable Hannya resemble serpents. So, it’s not just an odd story about how if you ignore a girl, she will roast you to death (she will. Don’t ignore her), but it’s also one of the most well-known Hannya tales in Japanese legend.
In time, there will be more detailed articles about GeGeGe no Kitaro and Yo-Kai Watch, but even without those, it’s still fascinating to see the way Yokai display such a foreign mindset from our western eyes – and no, that’s not an insult, nor is it calling anybody “savage.” But the Judeo-Christian philosophy isn’t just religious – even basic concepts like time and chronology as we know them are very western, and Japan is one of the rare post-industrial modern nations to still hold to much o its oriignal philosophy, in this case through Shinto. When “Everything has a spirit” and “emotions can transform your body and soul” are basic parts of your philosophy, then is it any wonder that strups of cotton strangle people, starving ghosts become cannibal skeletons, and angry women just might roast you in a bell?