As I was working on my parents’ anime guide, I wanted to add more than just information about anime, manga, and cosplay. And then it hit me: why not add in details about the mythology someone would see in anime?
When many people talk about anime, sometimes the mythology behind certain characters, plotlines and places get overlooked. And as a writer nerd who loves how stories connect, I can’t stand for people not to know at least the most common myths!
Down below is an excerpt from the Parents’ and Guardians’ Guide to Anime, Manga & Cosplay talking all about most of the mythology you might find when watching anime. Enjoy!
Like Western shows and movies, anime will have angels appear. Sometimes these angels are a symbol of good. However, it could just be a cover for the villain to use in order to trick the hero. In some anime like Gundam Wing, a character or figure will have angel wings to denote a righteous nature or just because he is the main character who needs to stand out a little bit more.
Demons and Akuma
I would have to say that demons are used much more often than angels. They can be used as symbols of evil or defiance. However, not all demons you see will be evil. For instance, in the anime Devil is a Part-Timer, the devil is actually a being from another world who works at a fast food restaurant in our world. He was evil, but is now the hero of his own show.
Akuma (あくま) is a malevolent spirit. This is also the name assigned to Satan from Christianity and Mara from Japanese Buddhism. In anime, characters with the akuma name usually keep the evil nature associated with the lore. Like in Miraculous: Tales of Ladybug and Chat Noir, the akuma are evil butterflies that take over people and turn them into villains. In D.Gray Man, akuma are evil spirits that manifest from the ill will of people.
Journey to the West
Journey to the West is an old tale from China. It is where a priest, a monkey king, two demons turned “good” and a horse travel from China to India and back again in order to bring Buddhism to China. It is used in different ways in countless anime. For example, the popular Dragon Ball Z has characters like Goku who have names and traits based on the characters from the tale. Saiyuki, and all of its sequels, is a retelling of the entire story with a modern twist. There is also anime such as Yu Yu Hakusho that take the four/five-man band trait from the tale (depending on if you count the horse as a character) and use it throughout the series.
Kami & Shinigami
The word kami (かみ) means god or deity. In anime, kami can show up in any form, which usually a very beautiful humanoid form. Most notable kami in Japanese mythology are Izanagi and Izanami, the first two deities that created the world, and Amaterasu and Tsukuyomi, the sun and moon deities. There is also Enma-sama (King Enma), who is the deity of hell or the afterlife and seems to have more than enough references to himself throughout all of anime.
There are anime like Kamisama Kiss that center around kami, and others like Good Luck Girl that just have a character or two.
Shinigami (しにがみ) are death deities, or what we would call reapers. Just like angels and demons, shinigami can either be good or bad. Bleach, a popular series from 2006 to 2010, centers around shinigami but views them in a positive light. In anime such as Death Note, they are even neutral, letting humans do whatever they want.
Landmarks and Cities
There are way too many amazing places to see and visit in Japan. But since this chapter revolves around myths, I will only be naming the most notable landmarks and cities that have to do with Japanese folklore in this section.
Mt. Fuji is the tallest mountain in Japan and has some old religious aspects still tied to it. In fact, it was illegal for women to climb it in the past for fear of an eruption. Since it is such an icon of Japan, you will most likely see it anytime an anime is based in the country.
Tokyo Tower is also a landmark you will see a lot. It is the largest radio tower that is designed after the Eiffel Tower. Even though it is not as popular a tourist site as its sister, the Sky Tree, it is still an iconic place to have magical gates to other worlds open up or the best place to cast spells the cover all of Tokyo. At least that’s what anime would have you believe.
The two main religions of Japan, Buddhism and Shintoism, have mixed and mashed throughout the centuries that both have brought about some of the most interesting aspects of Japanese customs and culture. They have also been the reasons for the multitude of shrines you see around the country. Don’t be surprised to see and hear references to any number of shrines in anime or manga.
Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto have such rich histories. You can find them as backdrops for many myths and legends. This is mainly due to both of their histories as capitals of Japan. You see, the capital is traditionally the surrounding area of where the Emperor lives. Between 1180 and 1868, the area of modern-day Kyoto was the capital. In 1868, Tokyo became the capital when Emperor Meiji moved his seat to the city. If you watch a historical anime that revolves around Japan, you might be able to pinpoint the time period it is set in if someone mentions the capital. Just remember that Tokyo’s former name was Edo, which is another place you’ll hear a lot about.
If the series you and your child are watching or reading is set in modern-day Japan, the both of you might come across cities like Harajuku, Shinjuku, Akihabara, and Ikebukuro. Even though these cities might not have a lot of mythology tied to them, I think it is still necessary to learn about them. Harajuku is home to a huge “fashion street” called Takeshita Street, where clothing and cosplay shops abound. Shinjuku is one of the busiest commercial and administrative centers in Japan. It is also where the famous Hachiko (はちこ) dog statue is. Akihabara is a place for anime nerds and computer geeks alike to “geek out” to their hearts’ content. It is called electric town due to the countless electronics and gaming stores. With the rise of anime and manga, there has also been an influx of stores specializing in merchandise from a myriad of series. Alongside Akihabara, Ikebukuro stands out as another center for otaku culture. However, it caters more to females with its number of butler cafes and retail shops for anime, manga, and cosplay.
Besides the specific kami I mentioned earlier, there are a few other figures you might have the pleasure of meeting in an anime or manga series.
Momotaro is the same iconic character from Momotaro’s Divine Sea Warriors, but he has been a character in many books and movies since the first tale of his adventures. His name, which means peach boy, comes from how he was found by an old couple in a giant peach. Throughout his life, he has nothing but good for the people around him, including defeating a whole island of demons.
The story of Princess Kaguya is truly a classic. The princess was found as a baby in a bamboo stalk by an old couple, who decided to raise her as their own daughter. Only later did the couple realize she was a deity from the moon. Her story has been turned into movies, books, etc. over the years. Her name has also been used for many characters throughout anime.
The four cardinal points – north, east, south, and west – have always been personified in Chinese and Japanese mythology. Whether by a character, magic spell, or something else, these four personifications love to show up in anime. The directions are represented by animals, colors, and elements. Each also has a name that changes depending on what culture you are looking at in Asia, but I will only give you the Japanese name to make it less confusing.
The north is Genbu, a black turtle with a snake on its back that controls earth or rock. The east is Seiryuu, a blue dragon of ice. The south is Suzaku a red phoenix with, of course, fire at its control. And the west is Byakko, a white tiger of wind.
Samurai and Ninja
There is no doubt you will hear about samurai and ninja (with the possibility of ronin) in Japanese anime. They also play a big part in the history and mythology of Japan. Samurai (さむらい) were the military nobility who served daimyo (だいみょ) and shogun (しょぐん), or lords, during the multiple shogunates of Japan. (Note: Daimyo were a step under shogun in the caste system of Japan.) A samurai would protect his leader to the bitter end if necessary. Any samurai that had abandoned a fight or battle, had been dismissed, or had survived after his home was conquered and his lord killed, would be considered a ronin (ろにん).
Ninja (にんじゃ), or shinobi (しのび), were elite spies and mercenaries of Japan. Some were loyal to certain daimyo or shogun, while others were hired assassins. Though the term ninja is mainly used, if you hear the term shinobi, it basically means the same thing. In fact, both words come from the longer word of shinobi-no-mono (しのびのもの).
Spirits and Mononoke
You will see a variety of spirits in a number of series, especially if you and your child watch something about ghosts or ghost hunters. A particular type of spirit is called a mononoke (もののけ), or vengeful spirits that are bent on making mortal lives miserable for one reason or another. It could be because one person killed another, and the dead one turned into a mononoke ready for revenge. It could be just because the mononoke is being mean for no particular reason. It is said that these spirits don’t move on until they are exorcised. However, that doesn’t mean they will be in an anime or a manga series.
Ever since Japan opened its doors to the outside world, its people have consumed a lot of Western concepts, including its lore. Some of the most popular myths are vampires and witches. A number of characters from children’s shows to adult series are actually one or the other – or a combination of both.
With these creatures, there has even been a slew of Greek, Roman, Norse and Celtic Irish myths that have entered the anime world. Loki, the trickster god of Norse mythology, is one example. So if you are trying to figure out the stories behind some characters or ideas, you might try looking toward European myths.
The word yokai (よかい) means spirit or apparition, but it refers to all monsters, spirits, and demons of Japanese folklore. Though there are too many to name, some of the most common in anime and manga are kappa, kitsune, ōkami, oni, tengu, and ayakashi. Kappa (かっぱ) are turtle-like water monsters that stay around rivers and lakes. Kitsune (きつね) are fox spirits that, like Loki from Norse mythology, are tricksters. Ōkami (おおかみ) are, in real life, grey wolves that became extinct on the island nation in 1905. In Japanese folklore, they can be spirits of deities or demons. Oni (おに) are basically ogres. Tengu (てんぐ) are crow demons that are usually associated with Mt. Kurama in Japan – that is where they live in folklore. And ayakashi (あやかし) are spirits that appear above the surface of some body of water. Since Japan is an island nation, these yokai will appear often in art and anime.
I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. And if you know a parent – or are one yourself – who would like to know more about anime, manga, and cosplay, check out my new anime guide on Amazon today! The ebook is $2.99 for a limited time only!