Anyone who has seen a few Japanese horror movies knows that today’s yokai is, bar none, the scariest of them all. True, Kuchisake-onna or Hone-onna might appear more grotesque — but they’re just one-trick-ponies compared to the terror that is the onryo. Immortalized in countless paintings, woodblock prints, and movies like The Ring and Ju-On, the onryo is Japan’s vengeful ghost. The look we see today — long black hair, piercing eyes, white skin and burial kimono — originated in ancient kabuki ghost stories, and is one reason why this ghost is so expressive.
Both Japanese and Western ghosts usually have a powerful motive for their vengeance. But what makes an onryo so much scarier than its Western vengeful spiritual counterpart is that, while the Western ghost ceases to haunt once it is put to rest, an onryo appears and never goes away. There’s no concept of justice in an onryo’s revenge; in many stories the ghost will terrorize a village, murdering hundreds of poor, innocent souls in the most unimaginable fashions, but she rarely takes revenge on the actual cause of her unrest (usually a nasty husband). If Scooby and the Gang went to Tokyo to solve a mystery, they’d no doubt pull the rubber mask off old farmer Jenkins, call it a night, and then die in a horrible freak Mystery Machine accident, their bodies flayed and twisted into physically indescribable forms.
There’s some confusion as to how to define yokai and bakemono in Japanese folklore, which one is a subset of the other, and whether or not yurei — ghosts — fit into either category or exist on their own. There doesn’t seem to be a clear definition of either term, but from my understanding of them I think that “yokai” is a pretty encompassing term that collectivizes all supernatural beings in folklore, Japanese and non-Japanese alike. Whether bakemono are a subset of that or just a related term, I don’t know, but I definitely think that yurei and their kin (like onryo and zashiki-warashi) fit in as a type of yokai, rather than stand alone.
Today’s yokai makes 30, and tomorrow is Halloween! Tomorrow will be my last yokai! Where do I go from the onryo, who made me lose so many hours of sleep?? Come back tomorrow to find out, and have a good Halloween! (And don’t be a jerk and pretend not to be home when the kids come trick-or-treating!)