King of Monsters

With the class coming to an end soon, I would like to take this time to write about something near and dear to my heart, the weird and sometimes city destroying monsters known as kaiju.

Kaiju is a term meaning “strange beast” and was popularized in America when the movie Pacific Rim was released, featuring many different monsters who were all designed to destroy the human race.  Although this film by Guillermo Del Toro is not Japanese, it is clear to see that it takes a lot of influence from Japan.  Kaiju fighting giant mecha screams anime origins, and in my opinion, it did a good job blending Japanese themes with Western cinema.

A much more famous kaiju though, the King of Monsters, is Godzilla.  When it comes to kaiju, Godzilla will always win in my heart, and it is the real reason I wanted to write about kaiju.

Known as Gojira, this poster comes from its movie debut in 1954

One of  the reasons I love Godzilla so much is because as a child I could use the films to bond with my older brother.  Being six years apart, movies like Godzilla were a perfect middle ground for things to watch that we could both appreciate.  So right of the bat, I’m definitely a little sentimental about the big monster.  The real reason I’m bringing Godzilla up today though, is the symbolism involved.

To put it simply, Godzilla was made as a commentary on nuclear weapons.  Being a city destroying monster with a signature power called “atomic breath” this allegory makes complete sense.  The attacks against japan in WWII with the use of atomic bombs was key inspiration, especially with scene destroying Tokyo.  Further and lesser known inspiration came from a much smaller incident though, that still caused immense fear and uncertainty.

The Daigo Fukuryu Maru fishing boat (Lucky Dragon 5) was getting further and further away from its point of origin, in desperate search for more fish.  in the process of doing this, the ship and her crew came close to the Bikini Atoll nuclear test site where a thermonuclear bomb was being detonated.  Due to the fishing boat’s accidental close proximity, the crew experienced a large dose of radiation, along with the fish they had caught.  After getting back to Japan they were rushed to local hospitals, showing heavy signs of radiation sickness.  At the same time, there fish had somehow been accidentally offloaded, and accidentally sold.  All but two tuna were found, likely having been consumed.  The sick fisherman and the chance of consuming irradiated fish caused a mass panic, and it was suggested not to consume from the ocean for a while due to these tests.  This confusion and terror from nuclear weapons fed the modern myth of Godzilla and helped create the most famous kaiju today.

This historical background makes Godzilla an important character in media, and shows how stories are adapted to show modern issues in the world.  With over 30 films based on Godzilla, and the resent reboots involving the 2014 American Godzilla film, and a 2016 Japanese Godzilla film (using the Fukushima meltdown as a major plot point), Godzilla shows no sign of going away.

-Will Sarros, Group Naga


Swenson, Tommy. “Lucky Dragon 5 And The Terrifying Truth That Inspired GODZILLA.” Birth.Movies.Death. N.p., 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2017.

Bakemono No Ko

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:



Works Cited

                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.

All translations were done by the author

All images come from google images


Group Naga Updates + Studio Ghibli Movies

Happy Tuesday!

First, I wanted to give a quick update on Group Naga and our podcasting endeavors. This past weekend plus the beginning of this week has been rather successful for us as we really began organizing, recording, and editing. Last week we had originally toyed with the idea of Will as our host while Sili, Christina, and I each had our own sections. But, Christina came up with the great idea of Sili interacting within the sections of Christina and myself instead of having her own section since she was able to bring in Chinese context to our Japanese-focused sections. After recording and editing, we found this to be a really successful and organic approach. Although our newly edited draft is still rough and far from the finished product, we are happy with the organization and the amount of material we have within our podcast.

Besides recording and editing, my weekend was also spent watching two Studio Ghibli movies with one of the members of Group Death, Peyton. Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki have constantly been referenced to throughout our class and the class blog, most notably with Group Mononoke and their focus on this particular film. So naturally, one of the movies we watched this weekend was Princess Mononoke. The next night, we watched Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. Although Peyton had seen these movies before, these were my first viewings and what really stood out to me were how closely they seemed to be linked.

Although we did not choose to watch these movies together specifically, they both seemed to have common themes, most notably their concern with nature and its coexistence (or lack thereof) with humanity as well as the morality of the main characters. In Princess Mononoke, as Group Mononoke has expressed, there is much commentary on nature and the negative effects of human development on it. Many of the animals/spirits/youkai, especially the boars and wolves, express their disgust and mistrust of the humans because they are destroying their home, which is the forest. Similarly, in Nausicaa, there is the issue of nature suffering from poison, forcing the humans to wear masks when they ventured out into land that was affected by spores.

Another commonality that stood out to me was the “goodness” that was evident within the main characters of each film, Ashitaka and Nausicaa. Both characters did not seem to see the “antagonist” as a villain. Instead, they both seemed to see the good in everyone and everything. In Princess Mononoke, when Moro’s head bites off Eboshi’s arm, Ashitaka goes to help and prevents San from killing her. In Nausicaa, when the plane she is riding in with (essentially) her people’s conquerors is shot down, she helps Princess Kushana escape the burning plane even though she may be seen as an antagonist.

Both of these movies were very insightful into the themes and youkai used within modern-day Japanese tales and I am happy especially that I have now seen Princess Mononoke since one of the group podcasts focuses on this work.

-Thanks for reading!

The Forest Spirit and the Kirin: Between Dragons, Unicorns, and Nature Itself

Yes, I know the Forest Spirit looks creepy here, but it's the best picture I could find. The Forest Spirit IS creepy, anyway. Have you SEEN the movie?

Kirin (Left) and the Forest Spirit (Right)


Group Mononoke is hard at work putting the pieces together as to how Studio Ghibli’s film Princess Mononoke  relates to Asian history and mythology, and in the process of analyzing entries about youkai and the like, it became apparent that a particularly crucial figure in the film drew considerably from certain legendary creature. Princess Mononoke‘s central deity in its mythos is the placid yet ominous Forest Spirit, a shapeshifting elk-like being which holds dominion over nature and therefore serves as opposition to all in the film who conspire against nature. As it has multiple forms, it is somewhat an amalgam of different mythological ideas from Asia, with a healthy portion of Studio Ghibli’s originality added in to keep with the stylistic senses of the rest of the film. But even so, the Forest Spirit’s underlying manor bears a striking similarity to an Asian mythological creature of similar status: the Kirin. The Spirit’s likeness to the Kirin isn’t exactly one-to-one, and looking at both creatures might prompt someone to ask if they have any real similarities whatsoever, but what similarities do exist between them are very important to the film, and hearken to myths in a way that requires further study to comprehend. As such, it seems appropriate to give greater attention to this creature and its place in Asian myth, in order to better understand how its inspiration manifests in the film proper.


Origins of the Myth and Historical Context

The Kirin (or Qilin if you want it romanized in Pinyin) is a creature that was first referenced in the old Chinese narrative, the Zuo Zhuan, which was a well-regarded commentary on parts of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. In it, the creature’s arrival is said to have marked the impending birth and death of Confucius, an event that thenceforth closely associated the Kirin with the concepts of mortality and – following the widespread adoption of Confucianism throughout China in later centuries – good omens. Its connection to life and death eventually earned it the status of a being connected to the gods, or even a divine being itself. It gained a reputation as a beast of purity and justice, able to peer into people’s hearts and judge their moral character, and only punishing the wicked while never harming the innocent. Later Buddhist influence on the creature’s lore went so far as to describe it as never partaking in another creature’s flesh or stepping on greenery for fear harming the plants, and gave it the ability to walk on water or air instead. Today it remains as powerful symbol of morality and respect for nature, which is clearly evident in the Forest Spirit’s role as protector of nature and the veritable linchpin of life or death in the film.


Physical Appearance

As would be expected for a creature that’s existed in human consciousness for over 2000 years, the Kirin’s appearance has seen some changes over time due to inevitable shifts in aesthetic, influence of the appearances of real animals, and intermingling of myths from other cultures. However, there are some features that have remained fairly consistent. The Kirin is almost always depicted as a hooved and horned animal with a body shape similar to that of an ox, horse, or deer. Traditionally it borrows much from the appearance of Chinese dragons by having scales, a fearsome leonine visage with tapering whiskers, and sometimes the ability to manipulate fire. This interpretation persists today, but permutations of it became popular once the Kirin’s name was adapted as a term for a particular real-life animal that was foreign to historic Asia: the giraffe. According to legend, giraffes were to referred to as Kirins once they were brought to Asia from Africa, on the grounds that they were magical creatures not unlike the Kirin itself. As such, their appearance gradually seeped into interpretations of the Kirin as a more mammalian animal, akin to a reptilian steed rather than a draconic beast. This trend was reinforced by the influence of European myths about creatures like the unicorn, which spread to Asia centuries later. The Kirin thusly underwent a “westernization” of sorts to the point where it is now often referred to as “the Chinese unicorn”; it’s quite common to see the creature depicted as an equine or cervine being with a single horn instead of multiple ones. Again, depictions vary, but it goes to show that Kirin is certainly capable of inspiring a creature that may not resemble it clearly, and in time that inspired creature may even become part of the Kirin’s lore.


Thematic Connections to the Forest Spirit

Furthermore, the idea to take away from this is that the Kirin’s inspiration for the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke is less physical and more practical. The Forest Spirit mirrors the Kirin’s legacy accurately by being a divine being which concerns itself intrinsically with the birth and loss of life. Its every footstep grows and then kills plants in its wake, which may be a reference to the Kirin’s aforementioned aversion to stepping on plants for fear of unjustly harming or killing them, and it can also walk on water. It is trusted to be able to judge the purity and content of others’ hearts, just as the Kirin can, and just as it protects life, it takes away life only in situations where innocence is in danger just like the Kirin is said to do. Summarily, while the Forest Spirit is not quite as explicit in its judgement of others’ moral righteousness, its wrath which is incurred on the entire cast by those who wish to harm nature can be seen as a form of punishment not unlike how the Kirin is reputed to punish the wicked. Only an act of bravery and kindness is able to sate its destructive rampage, and once it’s been appeased, it immediately sets things right as a symbol of justice would.

In conclusion, Princess Mononoke‘s forest spirit can be interpreted as another modernized incarnation of the Kirin with some other elements mixed in. This is far from the only instance of correlation between the film and real-life context (historical or mythological), but given the Kirin’s long-standing legacy and the Forest Spirit’s integral part in the movie, it looks like a particularly latent yet profound reference is made.


Works Cited

Alexander, Skye. Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Adams Media Corporation, 2015.

Chan, Joan. East Meets West. Author House, 2009.

Zuo, Qiuming. The Chronicle of Zuo (Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan). JiaHu Books, 2013.

Childhood Memories

This class has breathed life into an old love of mine; Miyazaki films. When I was little I watched Spirited Away constantly. Strangely, it was the only film that scared me that I was willing to watch (I wouldn’t even watch Fox & the Hound because of the train scene towards the end). Tonight, a couple friends from class came over and we watched it again and I realized just how much of the movie I didn’t understand as a child.

First off, a high emphasis is placed on manners. Chihiro evolves through the movie from a ‘spoiled brat’ to a well-mannered, hard-working girl. There is a clear hierarchy and everyone knows the proper way to greet, thank and bid farewell to others. I find it interesting because in America, Chihiro at the beginning of the movie acts much better than most 10 year old’s I’ve know.

Another interesting note is the spirits/ demons commentary on society. In one scene an incredibly filthy, muck covered spirit comes into the bathhouse and it turns out that it was a river spirit who was filled with filth. Tons of trash came out and the river spirit was back to his original glory. Then Noface appears and lures in people with gold, eating them. Noface appears to just be a demon at first, but in the end, he is happy to live a simple life with a job– knitting for granny. Noface knitting with Granny.

This movie is filled with themes and representations that I never realized overtly as a child. I am excited to rewatch other Miyazaki films that I loved as a child and notice what I was too young to understand.


Good night!