Language and culture are difficult to interpret for non-natives of any country. In Japan, the language and culture are distinctly different from what most westerners are used to. As anime and manga become more popular in America, the difficulty in understanding Japan becomes
less daunting. However, introducing Buddhism into the mix creates new challenges in understanding Japanese culture. The Japanese film Bakemono No Ko, uses language and helps showcase Japanese culture and Buddhism equally. It shows specific Japanese cultural values and how they interact with Buddhist values to create a story that can show the importance of both.
As is the case with many languages, translating from Japanese to English can create many different translations and interpreting issues. This is seen almost immediately when trying to translate the title Bakemono No Ko, which can be translated in a few ways. The popular translation is The Boy and The Beast which is very different from the literal translation of The Shapeshifters Child. The obvious difference between the two translations is how one is possessive whereas the other is not. But neither really describe what the bakemono are like in this story, other than a general translation. Bakemono are a type of yokai that are usually shapeshifters which is directly seen within the story. Yokai themselves are prevalent in Japanese culture, and can be portrayed in a variety of ways. Oni for example are brutish demons that are usually malevolent in most folklore. However, in this film, they are more like humans, usually even more benevolent than the humans themselves. They live in their own separate world from the humans, which is another distinct way of showing how there are often two worlds in Japanese culture, the human world and the spirit world. A lot of Japanese stories show how fluid the border is between the two worlds, and how easily it is to cross between the two of them.
The two worlds themselves are also very different from one another. The human world is set in what is assumed to be modern day Shibuya, whereas the spirit world called Jutengai (Bitter Heaven Town) is set in feudal Japan. Most of the story is spent in Jutengai, and involves martial arts training or a quest to learn from masters. The time spent in the human world mostly involves the main protagonist interacting with his estranged family, and studying to make up for his time spent growing up in the spirit world. The main protagonist lived solely in the spirit world from age nine to seventeen, and spent his time training and interacting with various bakemono. It is only in the final act in which the two worlds start to overlap, which is reminiscent of how Japanese culture and Buddhist culture overlap throughout most of the film.
The film shows Buddhist influences near the beginning with the protagonist initially being named Ren. “Ren” in Japanese can mean either “lotus”, or “love” depending on the kanji used, but both have direct ties to Buddhism. The lotus flower in Buddhism is possibly the most sacred symbol, indicating purity and beauty. (Ward, 138) The Lotus Sutra is also considered to be the most important Sutra for many East Asian Buddhists. This isn’t the only time the lotus symbol shows up in the film however, as it is seen multiple times on the grandmaster, who throughout the film is seen as a Bodhisattva like figure, and is even awaiting to be reincarnated as a god. In Japanese culture to explain how Buddhism melded with the local religion, a theory was created that gods in Shintoism where Bodhisattvas and Buddha’s who were there to try and save the Japanese people. (Shirayama) In many ways the grandmaster fills this role, often offering guidance to the protagonists, and even giving away his chance at godhood so the protagonist doesn’t have to sacrifice himself to defeat the antagonist.
The antagonist himself also represents Buddhist ideology, specifically from the Jodo Shinshu (Pure Land Buddhism) sect. (Dobbins, 14) The antagonist, like the protagonist, is a human living in the spirit world. Unlike the protagonist though, he is unaware of his heritage, and believes himself to be a bakemono. This causes him to be filled with uncertainty and hatred as he does not feel like he belongs but he doesn’t know why he feels this way. Throughout the film humans are seen as unworthy or impure by the people of Jutengai. This is because all humans are filled with darkness and are susceptible to falling to this darkness. An example of this is seen in the beginning when Ren is running away from home as a child due to his mother passing away and not wanting to live with the main branch of his family. During this time his heart is filled with hatred and darkness, and he leaves an imprint of that hatred on a shop window that he doesn’t notice until much later in the film. The film also uses the novel of Moby Dick, and how the protagonist of that novel is consumed by his hate, to show how dangerous it can be to allow yourself to be consumed. This directly references Pure Land Buddhism, which understands that the main cause of suffering in the world is this hatred, and that by letting go of it you are able to cease your suffering. (De Bary 125) The Protagonist is able to do this, and let go of his anger, which allows a god to enter his body and reside there. However, the antagonist is unable to do so. He becomes so consumed by his hatred for the protagonist, and his uncertainty of where he belongs in the world, that he morphs into darkness. The shape that he takes is the whale, which not only has a direct connection to the novel Moby Dick but also again ties into Japanese culture, as whaling was so prevalent to Japan.
Throughout the film there are also symbols that indicate this melding of Japanese culture and Buddhism. One of the protagonist’s mentors is a bakemono that is very clearly meant to portray a Buddhist monk. He is often the one who gives advice, and seems to be the wisest of the group. There are also the other grandmasters that they meet when they go on their quest in order to get strong. Strong is a relative term though, as the various masters show that strength can come from a variety of sources. One of the grandmasters is even depicted to be meditating in a Zen Buddhist rock garden. The climactic battle scene in the movie takes place in Shibuya, which is a district in Tokyo that is incredibly urban and compact. Yet this scene takes place in front of a distinctly Buddhist temple, and even has the protagonist purify the antagonist with the use of a Tsukumogami, or a good of tool. All of these directly tie in Buddhist beliefs and ideology with Japanese culture, whether it be modern or feudal.
Bakemono no Ko is a film that uses Japanese culture and Buddhist ideology to create a story that is able to showcase both of their values. It is able to clearly show how Buddhism was able to influence Japan’s culture back during certain time periods, and how Japanese culture was able to evolve over time Overall, I think this is a fantastic film, and recommend it to anyone who is a fan of Japanese culture.
A link to the trailer if anyone is interested in watching it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftX_XUuhEZM
Bakemono no ko. Dir. Mamoru Hosoda. By Mamoru Hosoda. Prod. Yuchiro Saito. Perf. Kōji Yakusho, Aoi Miyazaki, Shōta Sometani, & Suzu Hirose. Toho, 2015. Film. Web.
De Bary, Theodore, Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Second ed. Vol. One. New York: Columbia U, 2006. Print.
Dobbins, James C. Jōdo Shinshū: Shin Buddhism in medieval Japan. Bloomington: Indiana U Press, 1989. Print.
Shirayama, Yoshitarō (2007). “Han-Honji Suijaku Setsu (Anti-Honjisuijaku thought)”. Encyclopedia of Shinto. Accessed January 15, 2017
Ward, William E. “The Lotus Symbol: Its Meaning in Buddhist Art and Philosophy.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 11, no. 2, 1952, pp. 135–146. www.jstor.org/stable/426039.
All translations were done by the author
All images come from google images