Mononoke (物の怪) I did research, guys, and a lot of people seem to just lump mononoke in with yōkai. But that doesn’t quite work. They aren’t the same thing. What I was told (by a guy who studies the Tale of Genji for a living) is that a mononoke is a vengeful spirit. But it’s not necessarily someone who has died. Sure, it can be a dead spirit that haunts whoever they don’t like and makes them sick, such as the main spirit in Yotsuya Kaidan. But it can also be a living spirit. The example from the Tale of Genji is probably the clearest. Genji is a player. He goes around seducing women left and right. One lady he woos is Lady Rokujo. She finds out about Genji’s other women and becomes so jealous and angry that when she falls asleep, her spirit leaves her body. It then straight up strangles one lady while Genji is with her. It also makes both of Genji’s wives ill, and eventually kills them too.
So a mononoke is a person, usually a woman, that has become so angry or jealous she becomes a spirit to seek vengeance. If you’ve seen Princess Mononoke, think about that in context with San’s character. It makes a lot more sense why they called the movie that, doesn’t it? There’s this really creepy idea in lots of Japanese stories that living people can become supernatural. It’s creepy, but also really cool. There are classic stories, such as the jealous woman who transformed into a snake (which would make her an obake).
There’s another story where a monk became a “demon” after turning to cannibalism. In a more modern, but subtle example, the movie Twilight Samurai has a sort of transformation. One character eats the ashes of his daughter and almost immediately becomes more violent and angry. It’s not stated blatantly, but an action like that in many traditional stories would result in the character being transformed into something more like a yōkai than a human.
Japanese Yokai in Literature
Japanese storytelling has included the supernatural for literally over a thousand years. The terms for these different beings are specific and nuanced. It can be hard for us to understand the subtleties when we look at these terms from a foreign perspective, but cultural things like this can be so much fun to learn about. Learning about classic cultural things like this can also help you learn more about modern Japanese culture. So don’t be afraid to dig deep and learn about Japanese storytelling, folklore, and legends. If you want to get more into classic Japanese stories, check out the folktale I retold—Kachi Kachi Yama—on our blog page. Also, stay tuned for more retellings of classic folktales and much more discussion on Japanese storytelling.
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