October 31, 2008

An Assault on the Dignity of Japanese Monsters

The Japanese haven’t “done” Halloween until recently, and even now, the idea of trick-or-treating seems strange to them. Nonetheless, the Japanese do have both a sophisticated horror aesthetic and a monster tradition that goes WAY back.

The creatures I'm referring to have lineages that predate Godzilla by centuries. They are known as the Yokai (“the otherworldly”), and there is a convenient field guide for those who are interested: Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda.

This valuable tome teaches that the Oni is a formidable demon. But I’m plugged in enough to know that like many Japanese monsters, the Oni has suffered from a neotany makeover; this is the Japanese compulsion to make everything as cute as humanly possible. Fun Fact: Hello Kitty began life as an Oni, but has since been demoted to a mouthless mite. (Okay, I made that up.)

Washington Post reporter Blaine Harden
reveals that other creatures are less fortunate, e.g., the Onibaba (demon hag). She was formerly a “horribly unbalanced elderly woman who collects livers of unborn children.” Today, the Onibaba is a theme park mascot.

One monster that’s withstood assaults on its honor is Akaname (“the Filth Licker”). He eats bathtub scum. Try prettying THAT up. And if Akaname shows up in a Japanese house, it really is horrible. People in the Land of the Rising Standards of Hygiene take clean bathrooms seriously.

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