Thursday, April 28, 2011

Japanese Monster Art and the Magical World of Harry Potter

Though not typically brought together in a single thought, Japanese monster art and the frightful and humorous creatures that populate the pages of J.K. Rowling's novels actually have a lot in common. In fact, they may have fallen from the same tree.

In Japan, supernatural creatures variously identified as monsters, spirits, ghosts, demons, phantoms, and specters are all categorized as yōkai. The most famous of yōkai include the Kappa, a frog-like monster associated with water, and the Kitsune, a shape-shifting fox often depicted with multiple tails.

Though these two monsters do not find their way into Rowling's plot, it seems obvious that she must have been familiar with other monsters from Japanese folklore. Everyone that has read the Harry Potter books or seen the movies remembers the giant spider Aragog. It just so happens that a similar gargantuan arachnid, called Tsuchigumo, is a legendary monster in Japan.

Tsuchigumo Zōshi, Kamakura period, 14th century. Tokyo National Museum.

Mary GrandPré - Aragog's Burial

For me, a more striking connection is found between the Japanese bathroom-haunting ghost Toire no Hanako and Rowling's Moaning Myrtle. Both ghosts are young girls dressed in school clothing and neither one is overly dangerous. Most people probably remember Moaning Myrtle's comedic pursuit of Harry Potter in the prefect's bathroom in The Goblet of Fire. Though not something one is excited to encounter, generally it seems that the school girl ghost is harmless. Unlike the spider yōkai mentioned previously, the first recorded appearance of the Toire no Hanako only dates back to the 1950s, so there aren't as historic of images to share. Because most of the images of this ghost today are from horror movies and focus on being extremely frightful and or gruesome, I have decided not to include an image of the ghost on this post, but feel free to google for some.
Moaning Myrtle and Harry in The Goblet of Fire

Whether or not J.K. Rowling got her ideas from Japanese art and folklore, it is interesting and almost comforting to see that very different cultures can hold similar beliefs. In both Japan and England, it seems that the claustrophobia of being in a bathroom stall has triggered each culture to make up a story accounting for the feeling of unease one might have when alone in the W.C.