Japanese Media and Psychedelic Yokai

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Demon Blood, Bone Trumpets, and Metaphysics

“…Myth remains the proper language of metaphysics.” –Ananda K. Coomaraswamy

“The Namahage are frightening creatures and their exaggerated strange appearance underlines what they are: beings from outside, from another world. For that reason they appear not just on any night, but on the very night that marks a border, the end of one year and the beginning of another. For the villagers and their ordered world they represent the (seemingly) threatening outside, the unknown other. However, at the same time they are also the harbingers of all the good the villagers hope for. In this function they are mediators between their world, the outside, and the world of the villagers, the inside…these visitors, despite inspiring intense feelings of fear, are also looked at as a kind of divine being.” [1]

[Beware of spoilers for Berserk and the Souls trilogy]

The Japanese have always had a distinct way of portraying supernatural encounters with otherworldly beings. The infiltration of J-horror into the stale domain of Hollywood was an early sign of amnesiac Westerners longing to learn of the old ways. Supernatural encounters with the other (often the demonic Yokai), in whatever horrific way they are experienced in media, is seen by the Japanese as a way of gleaning knowledge from forgotten ancestry and learning the delicate threads of fate. It is in these darkly psychedelic, shadow healing encounters with the Gods that mortals are forced to reconsider the meaning of time, matter, and being.

Scholar Noriko T. Reider proposes that that the temporary disappearance of demons had to do with the rise of supernatural samurai warriors, whose sole mission was to battle with demons and gods alike. He is quick to point out that

“…the more demonic the opponent in this paradigm, the greater the warrior’s fame. In a nod to the carnivalesque we might say that, like Shuten Doji himself, the warriors consume the oni and in turn, the oni feed on the warriors’ power.” [2]

The dark fantasy masterpieces Berserk, along with the Souls trilogy of games—created by Kentaro Miura and the ever mysterious Hidetaka Miyazaki, respectively—are particularly striking in their masterful use of metaphysical tropes in a genre still underrepresented in transmedia. Certain perceptions of demonology that have held true arguably since the invasion of Judeo-Christian myth in the West; namely that all supernatural creatures other than God and the angels are tricksters not to be trusted, are entirely dismantled in these stories and the greater lore of Japanese/shinto mythos.

I will argue here, as I have previously, that the staying power of dark fantasy narratives in the psyche of the West and the popularity of consciousness altering media is a not-very-subtle reminder of an ontologically real human history. We jack into the astral video game world as a way of fulfilling our unconscious desire to slip between worlds, as the shamans and yogis do.

In the not-so-distant past, I believe we actively encountered netherwordly demons and Portals of Power and conversed—as Geralt of The Witcher series does—with all sorts of otherworldly creatures and supernatural entities that were eventually scared away from the material plane by the ahrimanic dawn of transhumanism and the suppression of plant-spirit medicine, only to return once again as the digital yokai who persistently haunt our 4D dreams. [3]

Along with Christian Ratsch and Paul Devereux, I believe that monster hunting culture’s popularity in the demon blood soaked West is indicative of global prehistoric psychedelic origins, when our ancestors freely indulged in visionary plants and promptly found themselves living in the enchanting world of laughing fairies, or recoiling in horror at the fearsome Brian Froud-esque trickster gnomes of the imaginal realm. [4]

The academic post-modern refinement of literary studies and folklore exegesis represented by books like Propp’s classic Morphology of the Folktale, while valuable, also misrepresent one of the most vital functions of any given mythology; a remembrance of our own metaphysical empowerment and the value in actively utilizing the bliss of the infinite imagination palace [5], a concept perhaps first popularized by Wiccans.


Enter the Yokai

It’s no secret that global media is positively bewitched by tales of monster hunting. While the Western audience is by now well familiar with vampires, werewolves, ogres, elves, and all sorts of other common fantasy creatures, thanks to Buffy and Supernatural, Japan’s own tradition of the oni and yokai deserve special treatment.

For it is in the mining of yokai lore that we find mythology, metaphysics, and the acquisition of supernatural power (as depicted by Taoist and Shinto philosophy) were never separated in popular media, as we often find them today, but united by a force called mononoke, which is

“…the energy inherent in all things that can change or mutate within anything creating a new yokai. This mutation can take place in natural forces, phenomena, animals or plants as well as in humans and tools…Mononoke is without known form, it is the flow of energy that accumulates into a powerful and mysterious entity. Yokai, on the other hand, are the distinct formations of mononoke and the very symbols of the concept of change and mutation. Yokai appear on the border between yin and yang, they are the frozen moment where one aspect turns into another.” [6]

From this point of view, the classic (and exceedingly overwrought) motif of opposing metaphysical forces of order and chaos is expanded here into something a bit more complex than the average dualistic dichotomy of good vs. evil. As Ananda Coomaraswamy once said:

“The Devas and Asuras, Angels and Titans, powers of Light and powers of Darkness in the Rig Veda [Rg Veda Samhitâ], although distinct and opposite in operation, are in essence consubstantial, their distinction being a matter not of essence but of orientation, revolution, or transformation, as indicated by such express statements as ‘The Serpents are the Suns’ in PB [Pancavimsa Brâhmana’]’ Thus Hermes can write: “By the friendship of contraries, and the blending of things unlike, the fire of heaven has been changed into light, which is shed on all below by the working of the Sun.” [7]

The dark symbols of cannibalism, mutation, bone trumpets, and demon blood all play an active part in helping humans exclusively oriented to the material plane to regain their own sense of dignity. Trials of supernatural combat eventually lead lost souls to a place in the higher astral worlds. The primal terror of the nightmare visions are a dark alchemical potion with a hidden intent to rip the veil of the material plane asunder, however forcefully the spirits feel the message needs to be.

Author Zilia Papp has previously argued that the entirety of manga and anime (and consequently much of their influence on the art design of Japanese video game development) is rooted in the prehistoric lore of the yokai and early Japanese monster art. The influence of yokai lore is particularly striking in Yoshitaka Amano’s contributions to Final Fantasy VI, known by gamers to be a dramatic leap in innovative boss/creature and art design.

The eastern equivalent to The Brothers Grimm collected monster lore coveted in the West, is the much earlier artifact The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons (1776), which was further popularized in Japanese culture by the animation series Gegegeno Kitaro (1968-present) based on the manga by Toriyama Sekien.

In each episode of the TV show a new yokai is introduced, only to be defeated neatly in the end by the heroes. It could be said that the entire “monster of the week” trope that Western audiences know from Buffy and Supernatural, stems from this ancient Eastern source. The Tenome or Hand Eyes monster originally from Night Parade even turns up in Del Toro’s excellent Pan’s Labyrinth. The ontological other will always surface in the strangest of ways.



The distinction and claim to superiority between East and West in the RPG genre continue to rage on. It seems that, for the Japanese, the most horrific thing when encountering demons is to be a lone wizard or knight, without a backup party of magical friends for support in monster hunting. Hence in the Souls series—Japan’s take on the genre tropes of the Western RPG—terror and doom is evoked by being utterly alone, stranded in haunted dungeons with no companions to balance and aid in battle.

Outside of the immersion vs. complexity arguments that often pop up, to compare the Western genre of RPG’s to the Japanese variety is also to compare the wizard archetype to that of the shaman.

The wizard is a figure of solitude, stranded in his tower, fiddling with swirling potions and sworn to the silence of archaic tomes. In the contemporary world the inverted wizard archetype manifests in the perversion of corporate CEO’s, so isolated in the riches of Babylonian towers as to be completely disconnected from the “masses”. The shaman, [8] however, is an archetype that cannot exist without the tribe. Shamans are the archetypal wounded healer, chosen by the gods to be a mouthpiece for the people as (s)he is never removed from the troubles and wounds of the collective consciousness they choose to both lead and heal.

The popularity of Final Fantasy, wherein various classes work with the strengths and weaknesses of others, is indicative of this collective shamanic-tribal mentality. Various magical classes must work together towards the defeat of towering demons in order to be properly successful. In JRPG’s, it is impossible to be a lone wolf and survive.

While Dragon Quest, Final Fantasy, and Pokemon are the most well known titles of JRPG’s in America, the pagan/shamanic pre-Buddhist shinto view lives on fondly in the still under appreciated Digital Devil Saga series, a subset of the Shin Megami Tensei hardcore dungeon crawler, whose origins began in 1987. While it is often thought that Pokemon was the origin of the “befriending monsters for shamanic power” trope, the earlier Dragon Quest V first popularized the mechanic.

Shin Megami Tensei masters the dynamic of monster hunting by ridding itself of the pop-anime aesthetic in favor for a darker and distinctly adult lore. In the Persona sub series of titles we are treated to a masterful deconstruction of the high school dating tropes so commonly found in manga and anime, meanwhile, characters blow their brains out with guns in battle in order to unleash fearsome magickal abilities in the randomly generated, fantastically neon-psychedelic dungeons.

Encounters with Lilith and the infusion of the occult into the samurai genre is the centerpiece in Shin Megami Tensei IV, released in 2013 for the Nintendo 3DS. In this handheld game masterpiece, the lesson your characters learn quite quickly is just how very different the demonic understanding of reality is. Characters are berated not only for their lack of knowledge of metaphysical events but also for daring to challenge the complex law of chaos that rules over Lucifer and his legion. The player has to choose between Law, Chaos, or Neutral—a system that I don’t wish to spoil for readers—but one that is delightfully more complex than the standard light, dark, and grey path that has become the standard for WRPGs. In Strange Journey and Soul Hackers, electronic glitches are intertwined with demon summoning in a way that would make Erik Davis and Rudolf Steiner proud.

Souls and Berserk contain an unconscious betrayal of the very real history of Norse witchcraft, shamanism, and pagan cosmology [9]—one that the Brothers Grimm, Tolkien, and many others both simultaneously revealed and concealed through folklore and fiction, respectively. It is here, in Japan’s complex and sometimes downright unusual interpretation of the Western fantasy genre, that we find one of the most lucid examples of Bataille-esque surrealistic shadow healing, occult history, and image magick known to lore hunters everywhere.

Indeed, Dark Souls makes no bones about throwing you into the pit of the demons without mercy right away. Known for it’s infamous difficulty that appeals to hardcore gamers, the beginning of the narrative utilizes the classic “I’m in prison with no memory of how I ended up here” motif, but effectively subverts it by immediately throwing you into a boss battle with a gigantic dragon after stumbling blindly out of the entrance, heart viciously pumping, with only a broken dagger as a weapon to defend yourself. The supremely intricate and entirely seamless level design (no loading times, rejoice!) of Hidetaka Miyazaki’s masterpiece is one of the few pieces of media I’ve encountered recently that absolutely warrants all the praise it receives. It is also a striking example of how to treat an audience with respect. It rewards those who do not need the hand-holding tutorials that Final Fantasy XIII became infamous for.

In any given RPG that has roots in Dungeons & Dragons, the occult idea of magical objects and items holds true. Rings and enchanted armor make you more intelligent and powerful in the game world, but in real world application, an iron ring or fortified quartz can ward away demons in ayahuasca induced trance. Games are also a subtle reminder of the function of our own psychology, placing too many points into any given category (stamina, willpower, intelligence), can also create imbalances and weaknesses that others may exploit in the competitive post-capitalistic environment.

The entrance of Nosferatu Zodd—the first supernatural demon the reader is privy to in Kentaro Miura’s Berserk—also contains a deeper meaning than it may first appear. In the Berserk universe, Zodd signifies the dawn of the unsuspecting shadow in a medieval fantasy universe said to be rid of monsters forever. It is a trope that is well overused now (by Game of Thrones and a host of other even more derivative fantasy narratives), but in 1997 it felt fresh in an anime that was riding the success of the earlier manga, which first began in 1990. As Ananda Coomaraswamy and Joseph Campbell once posited, it’s possible that all images of dragon slaying are a reminder of how the soul or psychology of a person representing the low self (mind/identity) must be slain in order to give birth to the hero of our own narrative (the non-dual Spirit).

In a theory of sacred symbols [10], imaginative gaming symbols move beyond the mere aesthetic of badass character roleplaying and transform into a metaphysical primer. Each image has the potential to form and solidify the astral imagination palace, to become something more than a mere glossy surface capitalistic product to be consumed. Each encounter with the astral gaming world has the potential to inform what Lewis Mehl-Madrona has deemed to be narrative therapy.

But what is the latent reason for the popularity of the consciousness altering aspects of the video game medium? Is it, as Tom Bissel has suggested, to allow us to live extra lives? Or because ‘reality’ is totally bullshit? [11] Is it merely escapism from the horrors of capitalism? Or does it remind us of our previous shamanic empowerment, when we freely consulted with the spirits, in a not-too-distant past?

The answer, I think, may be found only in innerspace; home of the eternal yokai, and the skillful monster hunters of old.

[1] Japanese Demon Lore by Noriko T. Reider, p. xiii.

[2] Ibid, p. 51.

[3] For ways in which metaphysics infiltrates the fantasy genre see Farah Mendehlson’s Rhetorics of Fantasy and Portals of Power: Magical Agency and Transformation in Literary Fantasy by Lori M. Campbell. On arguments for pagan cosmology and the activity of spirits in contemporary Iceland see Elves, Wights, and Trolls: Studies Towards the Practice of Germanic Heathenry, by Kveldulf Gundarsson.

[4] For an introduction to Henry Corbin and Ibn Arabi’s philosophy of the imaginal realm see the work of Tom Cheetham.

[5] Those interested in constructing their own sacred imagination palaces through trance should check out Jan Fries’ masterpieces Dragon Bones and Visual Magick. For a more playful mytho-poetic variation of the theme, see John Crowley’s Little, Big.

[6] Anime and Its Roots in Early Japanese Monster Art by Zilia Papp, p. 11.

[7] Coomaraswamy, 1935, p. 1.

[8] While academics continue to squabble over the generalization of the term shaman, Michael Winkelman’s sly exegesis in Shamans, Priests and Witches: A Cross-Cultural Study of Magico-Religious Practitioners continues to be my favorite reference.

[9] Check out Clive Tolley’s Shamanism in Norse Myth and Magic.

[10] See Symbols of Sacred Science by Rene Guenon, Alchemical Traditions: From Antiquity to the Avant-Garde by Aaron Cheak, and The Hermetic Tradition: Symbols and Teachings of the Royal Art by Julius Evola.

[11] Extra Lives: Why Video Games Matter by Tom Bissell. Reality Is Broken: Why Games Make Us Better and How They Can Change the World by Jane McGonigal.

[Image by Anko]


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