Five Yōkai references to Studio Ghibli films

Yōkai are a class of supernatural creatures that roam the realm of spirits in Japanese folklore. The Japan Foundation organised traveling exhibition titled “Yōkai: Supernatural Monsters from Japanintroduces these curious spirits through a diverse range of media, including nishiki-e prints, emaki picture scrolls, sculptures, toys and films.

Apart from the harmonious and subtle color palettes, the lush and peculiar imagination of the ancient artist, his experienced hand drawing each brush stroke, and the excitement of seeing a picture scroll in real life, what really intrigued me were the images that looked like a scene from a Studio Ghibli film. Listed below are some of the references I spotted.

1.Mount Ōe Picture Scroll and Princess Mononoke
First in line was this one illustrating the heroic tale of the brave samurai Minamoto no Yorimitsu, who, according to legend, exterminated the quintessential yōkai Shuten-dōji, a mythical oni or demon leader of Japan. Although decapitated, the demon’s detached head still took a bite at the hero, who avoided death by wearing multiple helmets stacked on his head.

Close-up of Shuten-doji biting at his decapitator. Source: The Japan Foundation

In Princess Mononoke, on a few occasions Lady Eboshi warns her people that it will take more than a single shot to kill a wolf god: “A wolf’s severed head can still bite.” Ignoring Ashitaka’s warning and attempt to stop her from committing yet another godslaughter, Eboshi succeeds in murdering the Forest Spirit. This victory is short-lived, however, as soon after Eboshi gets her well-deserved punishment for angering the gods when the wolf god Moro’s decapitated head bites off her right arm: “Moro’s head. It moved on its own,” feels like Eboshi had foreshadowed her own misfortune.

Wolf god Moro’s decapitated head after she mutilated Lady Eboshi. © Studio Ghibli

2.The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons Picture Scroll and
Howl’s Moving Castle
This is more of a visual than content resemblance. The big headed tengu and courtesan riding the cart instantly reminded me of the Witch of the Waste’s disproportionate head when she is similarly looking through the window of her palanquin carried around the city by her loyal henchmen.

Tengu and courtesan riding a cart pulled by a toad. Source: The Japan Foundation
Close-up of the Witch of the Waste. © Studio Ghibli

3.The Nue and Princess Mononoke’s Forest Spirit
If you have ever leafed through The Art of Princess Mononoke book you might know that the Forest Spirit (shishigami) didn’t always have that same soothing smile and piercing eyes that are both amicable and cruel. In the early stages of his development his face was more human-like and uncanny than it is now. Though at first glance he resembles a deer, the Forest Spirit is actually a combination of several animals. This blog post lists them as follows: a red-monkey face covered with blue patterns, cat eyes and nose, goat ears, big body of a wild boar, the fur of a serow, and the tail of a dog. As a whole his appearance is one overflowing with peculiarity.

The Forest Spirit preying on a Shinto tree branch. © Studio Ghibli

Similarly the Nue, a legendary yōkai or mononoke, in The Tale of the Heike, is described as having the head of a monkey, the legs of a tiger, the body of a dog and the front half of a snake for a tail. In other writings it is sometimes depicted to have the back of a tiger, the legs of a tanuki, the tail of a fox, the head of a cat, and the torso of a chicken.

The Nue is also said to have the ability to shape-shift, often into the form of a black cloud that can fly. Much like the Forest Spirit who at nightfall changes to the giant Nightwalker (deidarabotchi).

Another similarity worth mentioning is that in both cases the mythical creature is indirectly murdered by the Japanese emperor. Lady Eboshi intends to give the Forest Spirit’s head, which is believed to grant immortality, to the Emperor in return for protection from Lord Asano. In The Tale of Heike, the samurai Minamoto no Yorimasa slays the Nue, because its very existence causes fear in the Emperor who falls ill and is unable to recuperate.

Minamoto no Yorimasa defeats the mythical beast Nue. Source: The Japan Foundation

4.The Foot Washing Mansion and Spirited Away
This nishiki-e print depicts a large-footed yōkai monster that descends from the ceiling and demands to be washed. The story is one of seven stories in the famous Seven Wonders of Honjo and goes as follows: At the time when the flowers were sleeping and the ushimitsu plant was blooming, a horrible, rotten stench would invade the house, and a giant foot bristling with hair would descend from the ceiling accompanied by an enormous sound. If you washed the foot, it would soon disappear back into the ceiling. But if you didn’t, the giant foot would rampage through the house until satisfied.

The large-footed yōkai descending from the ceiling. Source: The Japan Foundation

Most of Spirited Away’s plot takes place within a bathhouse for gods and spirits, known as kami, whose proprietor is the greedy witch Yubaba. The majority of these kami habitually visit the bathhouse for a regular wash to keep themselves clean — unlike the unwelcome enormous and foul smelling guest who imposes his presence and causes turmoil. He smells so bad that at first everybody, unsuccessfully, tries to prevent him from entering the bathhouse. Eventually they realise he is harmless — only after Chihiro cleanses him and sets him free from the taint of humanity.

A kami being washed at Yubaba’s bathhouse. © Studio Ghibli

5.Personified Daikon Radish and Spirited Away’s Oshirasama
According to Japanese ideas of animism, spirit-like entities are believed to reside in all things, both the living and the dead, including natural phenomena and objects. Kami and yōkai inhabit the spirit domain and in shape or nature can be either humans, animals, plants, natural phenomena or artifacts. Like for example this daikon radish (can you spot it?) appearing on omocha-e play pictures made for children’s entertainment as early as the Meiji era (1868–1912).

Yōkai-themed omocha-e. Source: The Japan Foundation

Root vegetables like radishes and carrots have often become internet sensations due to the occasional deformations they suffer. Their wonky shapes might have displeased a farmer in the past and ended up in the garbage instead of as pickles. Similar destiny had already befallen the objects of a house possessed by spirits. Discarded while the house was being exorcised, the aggrieved objects transform into yōkai and start plotting their revenge.

Oshirasama (Radish Spirit or Great White Lord) is the white, hefty, slow-moving guest at Yubaba’s bathhouse who resembles a radish sumo wrestler. His name, Oshirasama, is also the name of a kami of agriculture in the Shinto faith.

Radish Spirit riding the elevator alongside Chihiro. © Studio Ghibli

Have you noticed any of these? Do you perhaps know of another reference I might have missed out. How about re-watching the above mentioned films with this newly gained perspective?
Japanese folklore is rich, extraordinarily original and beautiful. And so are Studio Ghibli’s films.

The Japan Foundation,
Hyakumonogatari Kaidankai,
Comic Caravan,

This article was originally published on June 2 here



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Eliza A.

Eliza A.

Hi. My name is Eliza and I am a visual storyteller. On this blog I talk about my work and Studio Ghibli.