Today’s yokai is extremely well-known and popular in Japan, made famous by Mizuki Shigeru’s yokai stories. However, like many of Mizuki’s works, it has its history way back in the ghost stories of the Edo period. If we look back at the original monster scroll paintings that started the whole Edo period yokai mania, we’ll find that nurikabe has changed quite a bit from his original form to the cute character most people know today. Many yokai have changed such, and their original forms were much scarier or more grotesque.
Nurikabe means “lacquered wall” and also the word for a plaster wall today. It comes from coastal regions of Japan, and was originally an invisible, wall-like manifestation that blocked people from walking late at night. Like most other invisible yokai, it was given a spectacular form by imaginative painters, and since then it has been depicted in various styles.
One of the most famous depictions of a nurikabe comes from a scroll by Kanō Tōrin Yoshinobu painted in 1802. I think his nurikabe looks kind of like a mix between an elephant and the luck dragon from The NeverEnding Story… Others have painted him as simply a broad face on the surface of a house’s wall, almost like a kind of wall tsukumogami.
Nurikabe appear on roads late at night. As you are walking, right before your eyes, an enormous, invisible wall materializes and blocks your way. There is no way around it, as it extends as far as you can go to the left and right. There is no way over it, and it cannot be knocked down either. However, it is said that if you tap it near the ground with a stick, it will vanish, allowing you to continue on your way.
In some locations, nurikabe is thought to be a manifestation of a mischievous itachi or tanuki. In the case of a tanuki, the wall itself is the animal’s enormous scrotum (!) stretched out across the road to block your way. Imagine bumping into that! (Though it does help explain why hitting the part near the ground would make it disappear… ouch!)
Are you interested in yokai? Can’t get enough of strange Japanese culture? Then you should check out my book, The Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, on Amazon.com and learn the story behind over one hundred of these bizarre monsters!