When I first saw anime containing Japanese folklore, I passed it off as fantasy content. I didn’t think about the youkai much differently than I would about fairies. I didn’t even notice that the word “youkai” was being used most of the time, as translators muddled along with words like “spirit” and “demon.” But over the years, I’ve learned that these youkai still have a more respected place in the Japanese culture than Western fairies and related superstitions do in our culture—even if very few people believe in them. At the very least, their modern portrayals are often fairly consistent with their portrayals from a few hundred years ago—even if creators mix in their own, new youkai with the older legends. Yet the portrayals themselves are not, to my mind, as important as the themes they carry with them.
(Note that, despite what I say about consistency, modern portrayals are not necessarily consistent with ancient beliefs, in which spirits, thought to reside in all things, were less personified/characterized.)
Thoughts on Youkai and Folklore
As a caucasian American, I’m distanced by time, religion, and many miles from any superstitions my mixed bag of ancestors may have held. The tales they came up with to frighten children or to explain mishaps have been watered down in pop culture, so that the most well-known portrayals of folklorish creatures include Tinker Bell learning lessons about friendship. Of course, if you know where to look, you can find writers who tap into the older versions of these tales, but these don’t tend to show in more popular culture—and those that do show only the more exciting, powerful folktale creatures, while fae like the brownies who do household chores are either neglected entirely or relegated to minor background roles. Most people have forgotten the roots these fairy tales had in real life experiences and routines. That affects how these stories are told.
Japanese folklore, connected to the broad Shinto religion, has not been watered down to the same extent. The treatment of youkai in anime like Natsume Yuujinchou still resembles the way youkai were treated in tales from a few hundred years ago, at least based on the information I’ve gathered online. Yes, people are forgetting. Many of the traditional youkai don’t fit as well into modern, urban life. They’re not the same as kami—deities—some of which are believed to dwell in shrines, which are still an important part of holiday rituals. They’re certainly not as important to remember as ancestors and the beliefs and rituals surrounding them. Yet they seem connected, in my outsider’s eyes at least, to kami and related Shinto beliefs and rituals. So youkai remain prominent in media, even if not in daily routines, and they’re often tied to themes of remembering and respect.
I’m no folklorist. I could continue to speculate on why youkai have been treated so differently in Japan than fae in the west—the lack of Christiandom, for example, or respect for tradition. But it would be nothing more than uneducated speculation. I can say, though, that as a Christian American, I see similarities in how different kami and youkai, gods and other spirits, are treated in anime. More specifically, I see themes emerge in these shows: respect for nature, respect for history and ancestors, and respect for the spiritual things not all humans sense.
Youkai in Natsume Yuujinchou
Even though modern Japanese do not often believe in youkai—or necessarily even in kami—they’re often part of anime that manifest Shinto themes. For characters, this is often connected to the kami and youkai that dwell in various parts of nature.
In fact, this post is prompted by episode 5 of Natsume Yuujinchou Go. In this episode, Natsume encounters a youkai whose tree was cut down. This youkai is journeying toward its tree’s “twin” tree, hoping to find a new dwelling place. It wanders into a house filled with talismans and gets stuck until Natsume’s friend Taki helps it out.
“For a long time I lived in an ancient tree in the north, but humans cut it down.”
It’s not like the episode condemns men for cutting down trees and building things. The focus of the story isn’t even on how the youkai lost the tree, but on his interactions with Natsume and Taki. Still, there’s that sense of melancholy for something lost because of man’s ignorance. The episode also brings our attention back to the ways Taki’s grandfather harmed youkai, rather than living alongside them in respect.
“No matter how much I screamed in my rage, no one heard me. There is a tree on a southern mountain that is the twin of the one I lived in. I thought I could live there, but… On my way I cut through this house and found myself trapped.“
Several episodes of Natsume Yuujinchou dwell on the forgetfulness and limitations of human beings. Youkai exist for ages. Time means less to them, and their memories are strong. And so there are those such as the one in episode 2 of this season, that encountered a man who, because of specific circumstances, could see her, just that one rainy day. He gave her a towel to dry off, and she treasured it for decades. When she finally, through Natsume, had a chance to return it to him, he did not remember her.
Other youkai had encounters with Natsume’s grandmother, Reiko, who could see and remember them. She made promises that went unfulfilled, whether because of circumstances or fickleness. So youkai like one in episode 6 waited in vain for many years, hoping for her promised return.
The spiritual realm remains the same, while humans live their fast-paced lives, changing and forgetting. They can rarely be blamed for this; the human and spirit realms are simply different, each with their own priorities. Yet there’s a sense of melancholy to it.
Youkai, especially those that appear in Natsume Yuujinchou, may not be key parts of Shinto beliefs. But, as in the situations above, they showcase Shinto values that come from reverence for spirits in nature (animism) and the importance of remembering the past (connected, it seems, to both ancestor worship and a respect for nature that is more easily forgotten in modern, urban life).
The Thoughts of an Outsider
As a Christian American, I find the depiction of these themes beautiful, even if their root beliefs go against my own. Shinto-influenced anime encourage me to slow down, to notice and enjoy nature. Natsume Yuujinchou‘s respect for even the small, insignificant youkai, mirroring respect for tangible small, “insignificant” life, reminds me to consider little flowers and animals—and to listen to young humans. Ultimately, if I let them, these Shinto-inspired stories bring my attention to the Creator. I do not entertain thoughts of spirits living in trees and other objects. But I do see trees as beautiful, living things created by God, not to be cut down lightly. And I think it’s fitting to feel a sense of melancholy when trees are cut or populations of wildlife dwindle—even when something else good and worthy of celebrating takes their place.
I mentioned before that Natsume and other shows demonstrate respect for nature, respect for history and ancestors, and respect for the spiritual things not all humans sense. All of these require humans involved to slow down and think beyond their immediate activities and desires. A Christian version of each of these themes would be this:
- Respect for God’s creation as something put under human stewardship, to be taken care of as a precious gift, not wasted or overlooked.
- Respect for what God has done in the past, the lessons he’s taught to and through ancestors.
- Respect for the spiritual things around us: for God, all he does, and all that his Spirit and his servants protect us from; for the dark forces he tells us to arm ourselves against; and for the people we interact with, as each of us is more than a body and a collection of chemical reactions.
My perspective is different than that of Natsume‘s original mangaka. As a Christian, perhaps it would be easier to think of Natsume as pure fantasy, rather than consider possible connections to Shinto beliefs. Even the Japanese audiences likely don’t take this anime very seriously. But, as I’ve said in past posts and articles, I think it’s valuable to stop and consider the themes present in these kinds of shows—not just elements of folklore or religious ritual, but the related worldviews. It’s the best way I know to show respect to the creators, their culture, and the God who creates mangaka and animators. I do worry about misunderstanding things about folklore and Shinto, as I’m armed only with anime-inspired internet searches. But I hope that my misunderstandings and openness to being corrected are better than not trying to understand at all. And I hope that as you, dear readers, also explore the themes in anime, you can help build my understanding, correcting me or expanding on topics as needed in the comments.