Leading Yokai

October 31, 2010

Yokai, the ghosts and monsters of Japanese folklore, appear alot in manga, but how often do they get to be one of the main characters? This list features titles where they yokai is the protagonist of the manga, and not just a monster to be beat up before the hero moves on.

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Black Bird – Kyo Usui is the head of powerful Tengu clan, a position he took from his older brother. He is one of several yokai clans seeking to claim Misao Harada, who is the “Bride of Prophesy”. Whoever marries Misao, their clan will be powerful, so she is pursued by several other clans including the Kitsune who had the “Bride” the last time she showed up. Kyo appears selfish and manipulative of Misao, but it is revealed that he really does love her, and wants her because of his feelings and not her potential power.

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Cat-Eyed Boy – The Cat-Eyed Boy, as he is known, is a half-breed. Part-human and part-yokai, he is accepted by neither, but spends his time trying to protect the humans that scorn him so from other yokai. Sometimes just a narrator, sometimes part of the story, Cat-Eyed Boy tells tales of human-yokai encounters, often with some form of commuppence. The yokai are creepy looking and very monstrosic.

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Inukami – Yoko was believed to be a troublesome and uncontrollable Inukami who just needed the right master to contract with her. Keita Kawahira gets to be that guy. But Youko turns out to be much more than that. She is actually a kitsune, a fox spirit, who is also the daughter of the Dai Yoko, a fox demon sealed on Inukami land. Yoko has feelings for Keita, inspired from a meeting when he was very young. She is also very jealous, and don’t like Keita looking at other girls, which he does, despite the punishment he knows he’ll get from Yoko. The series has a very Urusei Yatsura feel to it. It’s got a lot of comedy at the beginning, but does get more dramatic as the series progresses.

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Inuyasha – Inuyasha is a half-breed, much like Cat-Eyed Boy, except his father was a dog yokai. And like Cat-Eyed Boy, Inuyasha is shunned by both humans and yokai, but instead of trying to help humans, he wants to use the Sacred Jewel of Four Souls to become completely yokai. Then he meets Kikyo, the guardian of the Sacred Jewel, and thinks he might become human instead. Another yokai that wants the jewel tricks Kikyo and Inuyasha in believe one betrayed the other, and Kikyo dies and Inuyasha is sealed to a sacred tree until Kikyo’s reincarnation from the future Kagome is brought back and he must work with her to retrieve the shards of the shatter jewel. This long running series from Rumiko Takahashi features several yokai in the main cast besides Inuyasha. Shippo is a kitsune and Kirara is a neko-tama. It’s a long series, as most of Takahashi’s shonen series tend to go, but it’s also a very good one. Get the VizBIG editions of the series if you can, they are unflipped.

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Natsume’s Book of Friends – Tadashi Natsume lost his parents at a young age, and was passed around to different relatives. Because of his ability to see yokai, no one wanted him for long. In high school now, he is living with some childless relatives that live in the town where his grandmother grew up. She could also see yokai, and didn’t make herself too popular with them. Now all the yokai in the area are chasing Tadashi, thinking he is his grandmother. During one chase, he accidentally disturbs a shrine where Madara, a kitsune had been sealed. Like all the other yokai, he wants the Book of Friends Reiko created that would give them power over the other yokai. He makes a deal with Tadashi. Madara will protect Tadashi, and Tadashi will give him the Book of Friends when he dies. Of course, Tadashi keeps giving back the names in the book, so there may not be many left when Tadashi is gone. Madara is one of the reasons to read this title. In his normal form, he is a large, white, powerful fox spirit. He spents most of his time in the shape of a maneki neko, or lucky cat, which he was sealed in. This is a slow paced series with each chapter featuring a yokai for Tadashi to help, or his learning to interact with people. The stories are very good, and the different yokai portrayed are interesting.

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tactics – Haruka is the famous “Goblin-Eating Tengu”. He is released by from his seal by Kantarou, a folklorist and exorcist that can see yokai. He is now bound to Kantarou, but lost his memories of his past, and some of his power, such as his ability to eat yokai. He is disturbed by these losses which causes some conflict between him and Kantarou, who just wants to be friends with Haruka. Other yokai that appear in this series is Yoko, a female kitsune who Kantarou named, and Sugino, a white tengu who was Haruka’s friend in the past and his mate Muu-chan, a small, green yokai who only says Muu. This series has a lot of comedy with an undercurrent of something darker that starts to become more apparant in later volumes.

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Yokai Doctor – Kuro is a high school boy who is also a self-proclaimed yokai doctor. He befriends Kotoko, the granddaughter of an exorcist, who can see yokai, but can’t exorcize them. But Kuro has a secret. He is actually a yokai himself, who has come to the human world to learn more about humans and help the yokai living in their world. And the first thing he seems to learn is that he likes women breasts. This title features a lot of fan service which really turned me off from it, despite featuring yokai so prominently.

Gegege no Kitaro – Kitaro is a yokai boy that was born in a graveyard. He lives with his father, an anthropomorphic eyeball, and is the last living member of the Ghost Tribe. Missing his own left eye, though his hair covers the empty socket, he fights for peace between humans and yokai, much like Cat-Eyed Boy. Kitaro has may yokai friends that usually help him as well as a large assortment of other-worldly weapons. First published in 1959, it went for 9 volumes, and has had a new anime series every decade since then. Readers of Yokai Attack! will recognize many of the yokai mentioned in the series. The series is currently unlicensed in the US, and being a Kodansha property may remain that way, unless a similar title, Nononba by the same creator, Shigeru Mizuki, to be coming out from Drawn and Quarterly, proves to be successful. It’s a shame too, since not only is Gegege no Kitaro a classic manga, it brought yokai back from obscurity and made them popular again. With kitaro, all the other titles on this list may not have been.

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3 Comments for this entry

  • Ahavah says:

    Nice list! I’d like to add some titles for consieration:
    Kekkaishi:
    Yoshimori Sumimura’s “night job” as Kekkai heir of his clan, is to hunt an destroy Ayakashi (who are just like yokai, as far as I can tell) who try to take over the sacred Karasumori sight (on which his middle school happens to be built(y by casting kekkai, or barriers, around the power hungry spirit creatures. His older brother, Masamori, sends him reinforcements from his own Night troops-kids like Gen Shishio, who were partially possesed by Ayakashi, which grants them superhuman abilities. The half-Ayakashi characters are well developed, not quite fitting in to a human world that fears them, whilst trying to resist the Ayakashi instinct for dark power and total control of their bodies.

    Yokaiden: This charming OEL manga drawn by Nina Matsumoto is about a boy who loves yokai so much that even after his grandmother is killed by one an he sets out into the yokai realm to find her killer, he still manages to make yokai friends left and right! His cheery, if naïve, nature and non-discriminating attitude just attracts a lot of yokai helpers in his quest. The fact that some may be taking advantage of his good nature does not seem to cross his mind.

    Naruto: I’m not sure if it counts, but it is worth mentioning that the Nine-Taile Fox Spirit, usually considered a yokai or other type of demon in Japanese lore, resides within the title character.This made him an outast in his village as a child, even though he is able to control the Fox’s destructive power-most of the time! :)

  • Margaret says:

    You forgot to mention that in “Kekkaishi,” Yoshimori and his sharp-tongued female rival/love interest, Tokine, the daughter of a rival clan, are each assisted by talking dog-spirit familiars who help them track down and battle the various trespassing ayakashi. Yoshimori’s supernatural canine assistant, Madarao, had a major same-sex/cross-species crush on Yoshimori’s ancestor who tamed him, but seems to share most people’s largely unjustified view that Yoshimori himself is a careless slacker who doesn’t deserve the heavy-duty powers and mark of heirship he was born with. In vivid contrast to this, Tokine’s familiar, whose name I can’t recall, dotes on her and does his best to help and protect her–a duty which the snarky Madarao occasionally neglects to fulfill for Yoshimori.

    Both canine sidekicks are usually depicted as floating dogs whose bodies trail off into stylized mist where their hind legs and tails should be. This is probably intended as a visual indication of the fact that they aren’t just yokai–they’re ghost yokai. In a two-part episode about ten or twelve installments into the anime, it’s revealed that centuries ago, Madarao–and presumably Tokine’s “dog” as well, although a lot less detail is provided about him–were what appear to be supernaturally strong and intelligent wild dogs (at least, that’s what the translation calls them–they seemed more like wolves to me) who wound up being killed after repeatedly attacking the humans who kept encroaching on their turf in the wilderness that eventually became Karasumori village. After Madarao died and was converted into his more insubstantial spirit form, Yoshimori’s ancestor managed to win him over. I’m not sure exactly how Tokine’s “dog” became her clan’s designated assistant, since the two-part episode focused mainly on the ongoing conflict between Madarao and a fellow canine ghost-yokai from his old pack, who retained his bitter enmity toward humans in the afterlife and attacked Madarao when he couldn’t persuade his old friend to join him in killing the humans and taking over Karasumori.

    There’s also another “shaman’s best friend”-themed manga, Mick Takeuchi’s “Her Majesty’s Dog,” published in the U.S. by the now-apparently defunct Go!Comi. This series is about a teenage girl named Amane who is the heiress to a long line of practitioners of kotodama (a specialized form of spoken-word magic that involves controlling people and things by using their true names) who normally operate out of a remote rural island. When the sheltered Amane persuades the clan elders to let her come to Tokyo to attend high school, her shapeshifting koma-oni familiar, Hyoue, a formidable canine yokai who can take the form of a slightly punk-looking teenage boy, comes with her. Hyoue is even more devoted to his mistress than Tokine’s “dog” is in “Kekkaishi.” In fact, he’s in love with her. (Hyoue tries to hide this, but it’s obvious to just about everyone but the naive and socially isolated Amane herself.) This violates all the rules of how such human/koma-oni contracts are supposed to work, incurring the disapproval of the clan elders, who at one point actually attempt to break the bond between Hyoue and Amane.

  • Derrick says:

    Nurarihyon No Mago is a really good one that is currently being serialized in Japan about a half-human, half-youkai boy that can transform at night :)

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