Spirited Away Paper Birds
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If you’ve ever been whisked away by Haku, taken a magical ride on the Catbus, or been captivated by a Studio Ghibli movie, you’ll be thrilled to discover the enchanting myths that inspired these extraordinary creatures. The world of folklore is even more mesmerizing than the silver screen.
In celebration of Hayao Miyazaki’s founding of Studio Ghibli 34 years ago, we delve into the realms of Japanese mythology that influenced Miyazaki’s otherworldly characters. From the peculiar Radish Spirit in Spirited Away to the elusive Totoro and the mystical Princess Mononoke, these spirits and creatures, known as yōkai, are deeply rooted in Japanese folklore.
The Mysterious Paper Birds
Imagine being chased by a flock of paper birds, seemingly harmless yet determined to lead you straight into a wall. These peculiar beings, known as shikigami, originated from Onmyōdō, the traditional Japanese esoteric cosmology that dates back to the 7th century. Onmyōji, the practitioners of Onmyōdō, were believed to possess power over shikigami.
While shikigami are generally invisible or appear as stationary paper figures without eyes, Studio Ghibli’s rendition transforms them into swift and agile paper birds. Their harmless nature can become a nuisance when they stick to someone, just as Chihiro discovered when she rushed to Yubaba’s penthouse after the dragon-Haku crashed into it.
The Bewitching Yubaba
Yubaba, the shapeshifting, fire-spitting witch from Spirited Away, finds her origins in the mythical Yama-uba. These mountain witches were initially perceived as kind old ladies until their true nature emerged, revealing their voracious appetite for human flesh. They were believed to be either young women who sought refuge in the wild after being accused of crimes or elderly women abandoned by their families.
Gradually, Yama-uba transformed into terrifying beings with horns, teeth, or any other feature that could instill fear. They dabbled in black magic, much like Yubaba, who possesses the ability to steal people’s names and transform into a colossal, hideous bird.
Totoro, the Shapeshifting Enigma
Ghosts, gods, or monsters? Obake, the shapeshifting entities from Japanese folklore, defy easy categorization. They can assume any form they desire, including a giant furry creature that roams the forest, emitting peculiar sounds reminiscent of “Totoro.”
The true nature of Totoro remains elusive throughout the movie, deliberately leaving the audience with a sense of mystery. The word “obake” translates to “thing that changes,” and Totoro perfectly embodies this definition. Perhaps Miyazaki intended to maintain the enigma surrounding Totoro, allowing each viewer to interpret the creature as they wish.
The Curious Case of the Radish Spirit
The giant anthropomorphic radish spirit in Spirited Away has an origin that is just as enchanting as its appearance. Oshirasama, the mythical beings to which it is connected, have no relation to radishes at all. The link to radishes sprang forth from Miyazaki’s vivid imagination.
Oshirasama emerged from various traditions and are closely associated with Northern Japan and an obscure ritual commemorating the legend of Tamaya-Gozen. The ritual involves sticks engraved with the faces of a girl and a horse. Tamaya-Gozen, deeply in love with her horse, prayed in front of its skin after her father killed and skinned the animal, leading the skin to wrap around her. Silkworms were born from this unusual union. Each year, the Oshirasama are adorned with different silks and blessed by a blind shaman – a far more fascinating tale than one involving simple radishes.
Bakeneko, the Feline Shapeshifters
Bakeneko, the “changed cats,” epitomize shapeshifters from Japanese folklore. These supernatural creatures, born from actual cats, possess the ability to transform into fearsome yōkai. Miyazaki’s interpretation takes the mythology to new heights with the creation of a feline bus sporting moon eyes and an eerie Cheshire grin.
Cats have long been associated with yōkai lore due to their mysterious nature, evident in their glowing eyes and ghostly silence as they move. Bakeneko were believed to possess powers that ranged from cursing humans to controlling the undead. While transforming into a vehicle may not be their usual modus operandi, Miyazaki’s reimagination seamlessly integrates the shapeshifting element of this mythological creature.
Haku, the River Spirit
Who wouldn’t desire to be spirited away by a magnificent river dragon like Haku? The inspiration for Haku comes from mizuchi, water dragons or serpents often regarded as water deities. Haku, short for Nigihayami Kohakunushi, which translates to “god of the swift amber river,” deviates from the traditional depiction of mizuchi.
In an ancient legend dating back to the early 700s, mizuchi are described as venomous snake-dragon hybrids. One mizuchi met its demise at the hands of a man named Agatamori, who cleverly challenged the creature to sink three gourds he tossed into the river. When the mizuchi failed, Agatamori finally vanquished it. The romantic connection between Haku and Chihiro leaves fans yearning for a different outcome.
Tanuki, the Mysterious Shapeshifters
Contrary to the fantastical portrayal in Pom Poko, tanuki, or raccoon dogs, do exist. However, they lack the ability to transform into humans for the purpose of saving the world from destruction and pollution.
The yōkai version of tanuki, known as bake-danuki, has a long-standing presence in Japanese folklore. Legends surrounding tanuki still persist in the Sado Islands of Niigata Prefecture and in Shikoku. In some tales, they assume human forms, although their preferences seem to lean more toward singing during the spring season rather than participating in political agendas. They are also rumored to assume different forms and even possess individuals.
Tanuki statues can be found all over Japan, particularly outside businesses, believed to bring good fortune and wealth. These statues seem to beckon visitors to be generous with their wallets, symbolizing a connection between the tanuki and prosperity. Like many folklore motifs, the lore surrounding tanuki has gradually expanded over time.
Kodama, the Forest Spirits
The ethereal white figures nestled among the trees are not Halloween decorations but kodama, forest spirits originating from the wooded and mountainous regions of Japan. They emerged from ancient chronicles dating back to the early 700s, linked to the existence of a tree god. Much like the dryads from Greco-Roman mythology, kodama are intimately connected to the trees they inhabit. If you ever hear an echo while traversing a forest, it is likely the call of a kodama.
Kodama only manifest when the forest thrives, disappearing when the health of the trees declines. Shrines dedicated to kodama can be found in Japanese forests. In Princess Mononoke, the kodama vanish when the Forest Spirit’s head is severed, and the forest regains its vitality as the head is returned. Beware, for anyone who dares to harm a kodama’s tree will face dire consequences.
The Mighty Shishigami
Also known as the “deer god” in Princess Mononoke, the Shishigami is a deity not to be trifled with. Sever its head, and it sprouts terrifying tentacles, releasing a lethal blood that extinguishes life upon contact, all until its head is reunited.
The Nagahama Shrine in Shimane Prefecture pays homage to Yatsukamizuomitsuno, who, although not always resembling a mystical deer, possesses the power to create entire planets. Legend has it that Yatsukamizuomitsuno extended the Izumo Province by bringing over enough land. At night, the deity takes the humanoid form of Daidarabotchi, towering and capable of lifting mountains effortlessly. The myth behind the Shishigami serves as a testament to the immense power and influence that fuels the magic in Miyazaki’s films.
Indulge in the fantastical folklore that inspired the shapeshifting, spell-casting spirits of Ghibli. Immerse yourself in the magic and mystery crafted by Hayao Miyazaki. Whether it’s spirited paper birds or mythical river dragons, Studio Ghibli continues to transport us to a world where the extraordinary becomes tangible.