Many of the best anime are based on Japanese mythology, folklore, and even urban legends, leading to some truly incredible anime.
Many anime take inspiration for their story or characters from Japanese mythology and folklore. From gods and yokai to urban legends, these anime rely on well-known and loved stories as the centers of their own shows. Some are straight retellings, while others are looser interpretations.
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These anime will often have similar themes. Some central beliefs of the Shinto religion from which most of these legends originate include a connection with and respect for the natural world, an infinite number of omnipresent spirits, and the maintaining of harmony, purity, and morality. These values are as present in adaptations of mythology as its characters.
In one of the best historical fantasy anime ever made, Kagome Higurashi is dragged into a portal through time, and realizes very quickly that her family’s stories of magic and monsters were all true. She soon discovers that she’s the reincarnation of the shrine maiden Kikyo, who fell out with the half-human, half-yokai Inuyasha centuries ago. Kagome must then team up with Inuyasha to fight the evil spirits that threaten their world.
Inuyasha places its protagonists in the center of a complicated conflict between yokai and spirits. Inuyasha is rejected by other yokai for his human heritage, and his differences has left a chip on his shoulder. The clever Shippo and transforming Kirara are closer to traditional kitsune and nekomata than he is to an inugami.
9 The Tale Of The Princess Kaguya
Many of Studio Ghibli’s most famous films focus on mythical creatures, from Princess Mononoke to Spirited Away. The Tale of the Princess Kaguya is a direct retelling of the oldest recorded piece of Japanese folklore, “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”. With its unique art style and poignant story, director Isao Takahata sought to give Kaguya more depth as a character.
A bamboo cutter and his wife find a divine infant in a bamboo shoot, and vow to raise her into a noble lady as they believe the gods wish for her to be. Kaguya obeys her father, but his pursuit of wealth and status are a burden to her. The things she truly values on Earth are her mountain home, the love of her parents, and her human friends.
8 Natsume’s Book Of Friends
Because of his supernatural abilities, Takashi Natsume has never been able to connect to other people, let alone make human friends. He possesses the ability to see yokai that other humans can’t, which, after inheriting his grandmother’s book of captured yokai names, makes him the only one who can free them. While some would rather try and kill him for the book, there are many more who appreciate his kindness.
Natsume’s Book Of Friends mixes the supernatural elements with Takashi’s driving desire to no longer be alone. Madara the maneki neko sticks around hoping to inherit the book, but soon becomes one of Takashi’s closest companions. Unlike the people in Takashi’s past, his classmates are eager to help him with his yokai problems once he lets them.
In Shinto, there are many minor gods and spirits, all serving specific functions, such as local gods looking out for their town. When middle schooler Yurie Hitotsubashi becomes a god overnight, she is overwhelmed with her new abilities and all that is now expected of her. Local shrine maiden Matsuri’s first priority might be using Yurie to keep her family shrine open, but she’s also the best guide Yurie has now.
Kamichu! explores the relationship between traditional Shinto beliefs and modern-day sensibilities. Set around the coastal city of Onomichi, the show includes many real-life temples and landmarks from the area. As a new god, Yurie must contend with not only divine affairs, but the problems and wishes of the people of Onomichi.
When Hiyori Iki almost dies saving who she believes is an average human, her life is changed forever. She discovers that not only can she now separate her soul from her body and see supernatural beings, but the person she saved is a minor god looking to hit it big. Delivery God Yato might be broke and lonely now, but his dream is to become a powerful God of Fortune.
While Yato’s desire for a shrine, worship, and donations of five-yen coins are in line with traditional god behavior, he himself is not based on any existing god. Who do come from centuries-old mythology are stronger gods like Tenjin, Bishamonten, Ebisu, and Takemikazuchi. In their adventures, the main trio must journey into the underworld and stop war from breaking out in the heavens.
Makoto Saeki comes from a long line of keepers of a shrine to the gods Inari and Ukanomitama. She’s inherited both the ability to see spirits and the companionship of Gintaro, the white fox spirit that has protected the shrine since the very first Saeki. Together, they help gods and humans alike that come to the shrine with their problems.
Like Kamichu!,Gingitsune explores how to balance long-held beliefs and modern lifestyles. Makoto is devoted to the shrine and wants to keep it running when she grows up, like her parents before her, despite it being a dying profession. To do this successfully, she must learn to use Gintaro’s power responsibly, both in her goals and in how she goes about helping people who no longer believe in the gods.
4 Into The Forest Of Fireflies’ Light
Based on the manga by Yuki Midorikawa, who also wrote Natsume’s Book Of Friends, this short film follows an unlikely friendship between a human girl and a not-quite-human boy. After being rescued by Gin, a masked boy raised by yokai, Hotaru continues to visit him every summer as she gets older, and they gradually fall in love. But because of his yokai qualities, if Gin ever touches Hotaru or any other human, he’ll cease to exist.
This film is highly praised for its beautiful environments, particularly its depiction of the real-life Kamishikimi Kumanoimasu Shrine. Harmony with nature is a major tenet of Shinto, and Hotaru’s annual escapes from the city to the mountain god’s forest are the happiest times of her life. As a human, she can never fully be a part of the spirits’ world, nor can Gin be a part of her life forever.
Ginko has been touched by mushi spirits since childhood, and is under a curse from one that will one day kill him young. He has made peace with his fate, and spends the time he has left wandering Japan as a mushishi. Some of these spirits are harmless, even in need of protection, but others threaten the surrounding humans: in all cases, only Ginko’s abilities can solve the problem.
Mushishi nails the Shinto concept of spirits being more or less a part of nature, albeit one largely invisible to the human world. They are to be respected highly, and the consequences for taking advantage of them are severe, briefly making the show one of the scariest body horror anime. There are countless mushi to be found everywhere Ginko looks.
In addition to the concepts of chakra and elemental jutsu deriving from Buddhist, Hindu, and Shinto beliefs, many Naruto characters are inspired by Japanese myth and legend. The Nine-Tailed Fox is inspired by the myth of the kitsune: a shapeshifting creature that can be tricky, but also incredibly loyal once its trust is earned. The Legendary Sannin come directly from the nineteenth century folktale “The Tale of Jiraiya the Gallant,” particularly the chapter in which Jiraiya and Tsunade foil the plans of the serpent’s son, Orochimaru.
The Uchiha in particular love this theme. The creator gods Izanami and Izanagi birthed Amaterasu, goddess of fire; Tsukuyomi, god of the moon; and Susanoo, the god of storms. Not only do the Sharingan’s ultimate techniques share the names and attributes of these deities, but the gods themselves are a family marked by death, grief, and chaos, much like the Uchiha clan.
1 Yamishibai: Japanese Ghost Stories
There is plenty of horror to be found in Japanese folklore. In this long-running anthology series, short scary stories are retold in the style of kamishibai, a storytelling technique popular in early twentieth-century Japan. The narrator is an old man, passing them on to an audience of children, as oral tradition usually goes.
These stories also take inspiration from Japanese urban legends. It includes episodes based on the stories of the child-abducting “Eight-Foot-Tall Woman”, and the Internet rumors of the Kunekune, a scarecrow-like creature that drive anyone who looks at it insane. Even if they aren’t direct adaptations, the themes of the stories are also typically based on mythology; for instance, season nine’s episodes are based around the Chinese zodiac.
Many anime are based on various myths, legends, and folklore. Not only do they feature famous characters and storylines, but their themes are in line with essential Shinto beliefs.