Witches and Yokai: 10 Folklore-Inspired Anime to Knock Your Socks Off
June 30, 2020
So we have a confession: both of us were a bit late to the anime game. Sure, we watched (and loved) shows like Grimms’ Fairy Tale Classics on Nickelodeon, but we really had very little awareness that they were originally created by another, non-Western country until we were much older.
For Brittany, the obsession started in high school. She fell hard and would literally go to the mall to buy VHS tapes with, like, four episodes in a series per tape, devour it, and then wait months for the next tape to come out (and yes, she’s aware she’s showing her age by confessing this!) Later, in undergrad, she would go to NYC’s Chinatown and MARVEL at the (likely totally illegal in retrospect?) DVD sets that each contained an entire series.
Sara didn’t get into anime until college, when her roommate was horrified that she hadn’t seen the iconic films of Miyazaki. So she plunked Sara down and had her watch Princess Mononoke, and by the end of the film, Sara was a convert. Like, a die-hard, cosplaying, article-writing, anime-con-attending, DVD-hoarding convert. (Ask her nicely, and maybe she’ll show you a ridiculous picture of her cosplaying as Howl.)
But regardless of how we got here, we both love these Japanese imports. Inspired by a thread in our Rapunzel’s Circle Facebook group, we’re thrilled to offer you a list of ten of our top folklorically inspired shows and movies!!
xxxHolic (haunting, funny, atmospheric) – We’re not going to lie – there is NO anime quite like xxxHolic. It’s one of the first things that brought the two of us together in the very early days of our friendship! This show is absolutely steeped in folklore, from the depiction of a yokai parade to ghost stories to urban legends. It also features one of the most badass witches of all time and can even scare the pants off you if you hit the right episode. (There’s one featuring a photograph that will haunt us both for the rest of our days, and Brittany STILL can’t cut her fingernails at night because of another!)
Basically the story is of a kid, Watanuki, who has been able to see spirits his whole life, even those no one else can. He eventually stumbles into a part-time job as the lackey/chef/servant/apprentice to a witch whose visitors all come to her desperately needing something. What they get, however, may not always be what they had in mind (after all, the entire show revolves around the concept of hitsuzen, or destiny/fate/inevitability.) Haunting, gorgeous, and endlessly thought-provoking, we maintain xxxHolic is one of the best anime series you’ll ever see (also Yuuko is obviously #goals for both of us!)
(Bonus: check out the stunning manga of the same name that predates the series. Created by the all-female studio Clamp, it is just as wonderful and has some of the best art ever.)
Snow White with the Red Hair (romantic, heartwarming, adventure) – If you’re looking for a profoundly sweet and kind tale that depicts one of the healthiest romantic relationships we’ve ever seen in any medium, we highly recommend you check out Snow White with the Red Hair. Based loosely on “Snow White,” the series follows herbalist Shirayuki (Snow White) and prince Zen as they meet, become friends, and fall in love. In a delightful plot twist in the first episode, Zen bites the poisoned apple, and Shirayuki saves him! Throughout the series they continually respect, support, and encourage one another to be the best they can be. Serious #relationshipgoals!! Part of what we love about this show is that, even though it’s a romance, both the main characters have a full life beyond the relationship. They both have jobs and friends. The romance develops over time and is something that makes both characters have richer, broader lives instead of narrower ones.
Your Name (sci-fi, romance, atmospheric) – Sara has no chill about this film. To the extent that she went on a fan pilgrimage to sites from the movie when she visited Tokyo and incorporated one of the songs into her wedding ceremony. Your Name explores a magical connection between Mitsuha, a girl from a fictional town in rural Japan, and Taki, a high school boy living and working in Tokyo. Much of the plot revolves around mysterious body-swaps between the pair and the confusion they experience when living each other’s lives. Mitsuha has to learn to navigate Tokyo and fast-paced work at a restaurant, while Taki struggles with traditional braiding and travels to a sacred location associated with Mitsuha’s family’s shrine.
What does this have to do with folklore, you might ask? It sounds pretty sci-fi, right? We’ve seen reviewers say the movie is inspired by an ancient Japanese poem, “Torikaebaya Monogatari,” or “The Changelings.” But if we think about folklore as the ever-shifting dynamic between continuity and change, as a conversation between tradition and adaptation, then the connection is pretty clear. Folklore is about repetition, communication, identity, and links between the future and the past. And Your Name is absolutely about all these things.
Spice and Wolf (romance, historical fantasy, intrigue) – What happens when a jaded wolf goddess and a traveling merchant team up? Spice and Wolf. Holo is a wolf harvest deity, and when the village she’s watched over for generations maligns and devalues her, she jumps ship…right into merchant Lawrence’s wagon. The series can basically be summed up as sassy medieval economics. There are countless (surprisingly complicated) intrigues related to exchange rates and currency (de)valuation. But what brings the show to life is the delightful banter between Holo and Lawrence, two incredibly different people who learn how to be partners. Their slow-burning romance unfolds as they learn how to navigate pride and give voice to their feelings. Their story is surprisingly sweet. Also, Holo occasionally turns into a massive wolf and terrorizes people. What’s not to love?
Fruits Basket (comedy, romance, heartwarming) – This classic anime is currently getting a reboot, and it’s a sheer delight. You know the Chinese zodiac? Fruits Basket is about a family under a zodiac curse. Thirteen members of the Soma family turn into animals (the classic twelve of the zodiac, plus the cat) whenever they are stressed or if they hug a member of the opposite sex. (Yes, this is super gender-essentialist and heteronormative, though there is some pretty fabulous and creative gender presentation, and also one trans character!) We find the main character, Tohru a bit exhausting – she’s prone to selflessness that tips over into self-abnegation – but the overarching messages of kindness and acceptance are lovely. Also, the secondary characters are bursting with personality and charm. We’re particularly enamoured with the flamboyant Ayame Soma and the psychic Saki Hanajima.
Mushi-shi (horror, atmospheric, contemplative) – A wonderfully atmospheric show, Mushi-shi dives deep into the magic and folklore of Japan. Set in vaguely early 19th-century Japan (in other words, before Western influence or the Meiji period), the show follows Ginko, a Mushi Master with the ability to restore balance between humanity and Mushi. Basically, mushi are magic: ethereal, supernatural lifeforms that most people can’t directly perceive. Ginko, who can see and interact with Mushi, travels around the country, researching these magical creatures and helping people solve Mushi-related problems. The series is an episodic anthology – each episode stands on its own and has its own complete, compact story. And many of them are decidedly creepy but also strangely beautiful. If you like ghost stories and haunting legends, this is the show for you.
Spirited Away (adventure, heart-warming, whimsical) – It was obviously incredibly difficult to pick just ONE Miyazaki movie. So many have folkloric inspirations! But we had to go with Spirited Away for the sheer volume of wonderful folkloric cameos! After her parents are transformed into pigs by a witch, Chihiro starts working for said witch at her bathhouse for spirits in hopes that she’ll be able figure out a way to change them back. The witch’s world is one full of kami, gods, and yokai, spirits, many of them plucked straight from Japanese legend. Chihiro’s magical journey is a bit like Alice in Wonderland, and it’s full of fabulous characters and strange happenings! This film is by turns beautiful, eerie, and chaotic, and it will enchant the pants off you.
Puella Magi Madoka Magica (suspense, adventure, fairy-tale) – Yes, the name of this show is completely extra, but do not let it put you off. It’s one of the best anime series we’ve ever seen. You know the “magical girl” trope? Popularized by the iconic show Sailor Moon, magical girl stories are basically tales where the fate of the world rests on the shoulders of adolescent girls with supernatural powers. Well, Madoka is part of the magical girl tradition, but it also turns the genre upside down. We’re going to avoid spoilers here (it’s too good and we don’t want to ruin it for you!), but the series is about a young, very feminine girl named Madoka and what happens when she and her friends enter into a contract to become magical girls. It’s very Faustian and very witchy, and it features some of the most beautiful and creative animation we’ve ever seen in an anime. (If you watch this one and really want to geek out about it, Sara and her friend Erin wrote an article about Madoka and fairy tales that you can read for free here.)
Little Witch Academia (comedy, heart-warming, girl-power) – Don’t be turned off by the ever-so-slightly maddening protagonist. We almost couldn’t handle her, but we’re glad we stuck with it! This anime is one of the sweetest and most fun out there. It’s all about a magical school and the trials and tribulations of its worst but most enthusiastic student, Atsuko. Oh! And did we mention there’s a mushroom obsessed poison witch, a “Sleeping Beauty”-esque episode, and a teacher whose incognito persona is a show-stopping performance witch dedicated to using magic to bring joy to a world that’s slowly forgetting its power? Full of amusing gags and heart-warming friendship, this one is a great remedy for when you’re feeling down.
The Mystery of Ceres (or, Ceres: Celestial Legend) (haunting, romantic, mystery) – This is an older, classic anime, but one of the very first Brittany fell in love with (until the end at least… ugh!) Based loosely on the Japanese folktale of stealing a robe of feathers from an angel-like being called a tennyo, a girl named Aya turns 16 and discovers that she is the reincarnation of an ancient celestial maiden named Ceres. Her twin brother, Aki, is the reincarnation of Ceres’ former husband, Mikagi, who stole Ceres’ robe and imprisoned her. Their entire family has been using Ceres’ power for their own gain, through the reincarnation of her husband, ever since they realized she would be reincarnated every generation until her robe was returned to her. Aya and Aki both hate this, but have little power over their situation… unless Aya can find the robe. Not always the easiest story to follow, the visuals are stunning in this one and, despite its problems, will always have a special place in Brittany’s heart.
So there’s ten awesome animes to get started with! We didn’t even really get into the countless manga series we could add… but that’s a post for another day :).
Do you have a favorite folklore-y anime? Let us know in the comments!!