by Christopher Laursen
Three fantastical Japanese films introduce
viewers to the culture’s rich variety of
kwaidan and yokai – ghosts, some of them
shapeshifting, others animal hybrids, and
some of them radically defying the
conventions of the Western imagination.
article | imaginative works
Japanese Yokai On-Screen: Pom Poko,
Great Yokai War & Kurosawa's Dreams
December 4, 2012
Japanese folklore is filled with kwaidan - ghost stories - and there is no
lack of intriguing characters that populate these tales: half human, half
animal beings; mischievous shapeshifters (henge); giant ogres;
inanimate objects coming to life; masked spirits; and many more. Often,
these fantastical beings are visually depicted in old Japanese block
prints, but they also have come to life on the big screen in recent years.
For those not well versed in Japanese folklore, it can be tricky to follow
these films, but after awhile, you start to see some common characters,
storylines and themes. A bit of reading up on the various yokai (ghosts,
phantoms) online is good preparation to understanding some key
characters and the stories behind them. Many of the characters actually
originate in Chinese folklore, and were adopted in Japanese storytelling.
See below links for some good online English-language sources!
The first film worth checking out was released by the great Studio Ghibli
in 1994. The animated Pom Poko is the wonderfully entertaining, often
sad ecological story of tanuki, raccoon-like creatures that dwell in
Japanese forests who are pushed
off of their land by human
development. The cunning but
lazy creatures plot to use their
shapeshifting abilities to scare the
humans out of construction zones
and renew respect for the various
Japanese spirits, flora and
animals that inhabit the woods.
They are depicted in natural
tanuki form, a cartoonish variation
of the tanuki based on traditional
Japanese sculptures (complete
with pot bellies and over-
exaggerated scrotums - explain
that one to the kids!), and their
various sneaky transformations.
Ultimately, after a series of small-
scale scares, the tanuki resolve to
push the humans over the edge
by staging a massive yokai
festival on the streets, which
features many spooks and
references to Japanese ghost
stories. Like many Studio Ghibli
works, Pom Poko is rather mind-
blowing, and contains a lot of
deep, potent messages about
how we treat the natural world
and how humans have drifted
away from respecting its
Similar in theme but different in
plot is the live-action 2005 fantasy
film directed by Takahashi Miike,
The Great Yokai War (Yokai
daisenso). Like Pom Poko, this is
quite a visual delight, especially
since the edgy director has
chosen to bring yokai to life using a combination of computer graphics,
fantastic stop motion animation and cheesy B-movie styled effects. The
mixture of tack and high-tech action sequences works really well for this.
Although it seems to be a film for kids, it features a great deal of gore,
scary scenes and violence. It's rated for the 13-plus crowd, but has a lot
of elements that seem more like a children's fantasy film, along the lines
of Wolfgang Peterson's The Neverending Story (1984). It is the story of
young Tadashi who is chosen in a festival to climb a great mountain next
to his village to obtain a sword and protect humanity from evil yokai who
are planning on taking their revenge on humanity for - well, doing all of
the bad things humanity does, such as polluting, making too much
waste and pretty much messing up the planet. The young actor
Ryunosuke Kamiki is really excellent as Tadashi, bringing to life a shy,
introverted character who
has no choice but to
become a warrior with a
ragtag gang of forest
spirits. The plotline is
often outrageous, but so
are the tales that inspired
this movie. The movie
climaxes with a huge
yokai festival that gathers
to celebrate the
conquering of the
The most artful of these
films is Akira Kurosawa's
Dreams (1990). It is a
quiet, challenging film
based on the famed
director's own night
visions, including a fox
wedding procession, Yuki-
Onna (a dangerous female
winter spirit seen by those lost in blizzards),
musical spirits of peach trees that were cut
down, and a village filled with watermills that
exists harmoniously with nature and spirits. It
won't be for all movie audiences; some might
find it plodding, but it is truly beautiful,
colourful, meditative and poetic. Kurosawa
has always been one to take filmmaking to a
new level; he has brought traditional and
satirical Japanese tales to life in Rashômon
(1950), The Seven Samurai (1954), The
Hidden Fortress (1958), Ran (1985) and the
wonderfully told commentary on the post-
Hiroshima generation, Rhapsody in August
It is wonderful to see old tales being brought
to new generations via these movies, and
they are all well worth watching especially to
gain a different cultural perspective on the
world of ghosts. In many ways, these
Japanese filmmakers are light years ahead of
where we are, putting out amazing films with
deep environmental messages at times when
the popular environmental movement lagged,
bringing dreams to life in live action form and
pushing the very bounds of the kinds of
stories we are used to seeing made into
Matt Alt’s blog, AltJapan.
Ancient Tales and Folklore
of Japan by Richard Gordon
Kwaidan: Stories and
Studies of Strange Things
by Lafcadio Hearn, 1904.
entries on Japanese
This article originally
appeared on Sue Demeter-
St.Clair and Matthew
Didier's Paranormal Blog
on 6 June 2007 and has
been reprinted on the
Paranormal Studies &
The spooks are active and eager in Pom Poko
(twin girl spirits and giant skeleton) and The Great
Yokai War (sunekosuri, hamster-like magical
creatures which are not so prominent in Japanese
folklore, but very prominent in this movie).
"I have no face!" One of the humourous and twisted
yokai depicted in both Pom Poko (top) and The
Great Yokai War.
Stunning and artful scenes from
Akira Kurosawa's Dreams.
The Japanese kitsune (fox), one of the most
famous yokai known for their intelligence and
magical powers, are depicted in (from top) Pom
Poko, The Great Yokai War and Dreams.
For more yokai, see Extraordinarium’s
gallery of Japanese spooks on Pinterest!
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