Amy Blom:  Last updated: 05-05-03.
Folklore Page Introduction Bibliography Story #1 Story #2
Story #3 Story #4 Story #5 Story #6

An Introduction to Japanese folktales in Anime

For this project I retell various Japanese legends and folktales that I have seen used or referred to in different Japanese animation (anime) that I have watched.  As a big fan of anime, I have personal experience with how confusing little cultural details and story plot backgrounds can be at times.  Part of understanding these animated TV shows or movies is knowing various cultural fine points and some Japanese folklore.  However, I don't think this understanding is necessary for a person to enjoy an anime series. Just look how popular anime is becoming in the United States even with people who know very little about it!  (These days you can turn on Cartoon Network from 10PM - 1AM (Central Time) on Sundays through Thursdays and see hit anime series such as Trigun, Inuyasha or Cowboy Bebop.  And more are on the way soon!)  But I think comprehending some Japanese culture and reading a few of their folktales can only enrich and assist your enjoyment of these shows.  

With this in mind, the focus of my storybook project has been to retell stories and legends that inspired various Japanese animations I've seen.  I asked myself what tales or mythological figures appearing in a certain show deserved an explanation through a storytelling session, and then told the stories here accordingly.  Some of my stories don't focus on specific anime, instead they retell a folktale with the aim of furthering the viewer's general understanding of Japanese culture.  I also want to make it clear right now that not all these shows are for kids; they often have continuous and twisting plotlines, deeply thought-provoking and entrenched in Japanese culture.  Thus proving cartoons are for big people too!  Hopefully this project will help other people get excited about my favorite hobby, watching anime!  

Well, that just about sums it up, I guess. I hope you find these tales interesting and informative!  I plan to continue to update this page as time permits. :o)

(And for all my anime watching buddies who've come here after hearing me babble about some folklore background to a show, thank you very much!)

Story Guide:
Story 1: Kaguya-Hime or Taketori Monogatari, "The Bamboo Cutter's Tale".   This is an ancient Japanese fairytale about a kindly old man and woman, unable to have children, who find a mysterious princess one day inside of a stalk of bamboo.  They raise her, only to discover that in the end, she is not from this world.  Will she have to leave them and return to her original people?  

This tale has shown up in many series, the most well known being probably Sailor Moon.  I was inspired to tell it since in one episode of Daa!Daa!Daa! the characters put on a play about Kaguya-hime, or the “Princess from the Moon”, which is well-known in Japan.  But the episode is only funny because of the mistakes in how they put on the play.  For an American audience, not knowing the story might make it hard to grasp all the humor. 

Story 2: Bunbuku Chagama, a story about a Tanuki with the magical power to transform into anything he pleases.  Posing as a Tea-Kettle, he scares an unsuspecting priest and causes other sorts of mischief.  But the Tanuki is not mean-spirited.  He's just a food and fun loving creature, and when he is treated well by a fisherman, they become friends, both ending up better off than before.  

A Tanuki is a real animal from Japan, that was given mythological connotations over time.  While this specific folktale does not show up in any anime I've seen, the Tanuki as a creature appears or is referred to regularly in anime.  Understanding its supposed powers of transformation, mischievous and food loving nature, and the good luck it is said to bring to merchants and stores, will help viewers understand the status Tanuki have in Japanese culture.  

Story 3: The Story of Prince Yamato Take.  This story was originally from the Kojiki, a collection of Shinto myths and origins of Japan, dating from 712 A.D.  Yamato Take was supposedly the son of one of the first Emperors in Japan, and his exploits are explored in much greater detail in the Kojiki.  Here I retell his earliest days, when he faithfully helps his father rid the countryside of some evil bandits through his own swordsmanship and a little bit of deception.  

I included this story (out of ALL the ones I could have picked, sheesh...) because Yamato-Take demonstrates many of the qualities that appear in the samurai tradition as well.  And certainly, understanding the idea of the Samurai will really increase a viewer's understanding of Japanese culture.  In fact, there is no way that I could have possibly done it justice with this one very general, background story.  I hope you all go read more on your own...

Story 4:  Mushi Mezuru Himegimi or "The Princess Who Loved Insects".  This is a fairytale, although incomplete, in a collection of tales dating from 1271.  The little princess here shows no interest in doing things accepted by her society.  She loves insects not just butterflies, and seeds not just flowers.  She refuses to let things scare her, and she wants to see the world as a beautiful wonderous place to live in, not a place bound by traditions and rules.  

In the story she exemplifies some Buddhist concepts the Japanese held and gives the reader a small taste of what life for a woman must have been like in Heian era Japan. Also this story was used as an inspiration and a background to the film Nausicaa, showing us the Japanese are still captivated by this mysterious princess and her unfinished story, just like I was when I read it!

Story 5: Urashima Taro.  This is a popular Japanese folktale about a fisherman who saves the life of a turtle, and in return for his unnecessary kindness he is transported away to the bottom of the sea to visit the Dragon Palace.  He falls in love with the beautiful princess there, but eventually yearns to return home as well.  She allows him to leave on one condition - that he never open the box she gives him as a keepsake.  Well, I'm sure we all know how this goes...  

Since this story is really well-known in Japan, I've seen it used or referred to in many animes, like RahXephon and Urusei Yatsura.   Urashima Taro is a bit similar to Washington Irving's character, Rip Van Winkle.  As a result the story is usually invoked when animes use time-travel or to show how characters are lost and confused by that sort of thing.

Story 6: Hagoromo, or "The Celestial Robe of Feathers".  This tale is similar to various other cultures' "animal bride" stories.  A fisherman sees a beautiful celestial maiden bathing in a lake, and he steals away her robes while she isn't looking.  Then he forces her to marry him if she wants to get them back, but eventually she finds her robes and is able to fly away back to her home in the sky.  

There are lots of different versions of this tale, even within Japan, but I retold this one similarly to the way it is depicted in the anime Ayashi no Ceres.

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