Ghosts in Anime and Manga article published in Animerica Extra Vol. 5, No. 11, October 2002
This article was written by and is copyrighted to Patricia Duffield and may not be reproduced in part or whole without permission.
The night before All Saints' Day is when spirits of the dead are said to be the most active before they settle down for winter. So ghosts epitomize this holiday, and ghost stories are essential Halloween entertainment. Every culture has its own unique ghosts, as can be seen in films like A Chinese Ghost Story (both animated and live-action versions). Anime and manga are great sources for discovering Japan's ghosts, so expand your knowledge of the great beyond and check out some of these scary stories.
The most popular application of ghosts in anime is for action. And what better way to catch a ghost than with a ghost? Whether the character's dead, mostly dead or recently dead, some form of connection to the other world is often used to provide characters the ability to deal with the things that go bump in the night.
Action-packed Yu Yu Hakusho* (a.k.a. Poltergeist Report) begins with delinquent Yusuke dead after saving a kid from a speeding car. Because he wasn't expected to die just then, let alone doing a good deed, there's no place for him in Heaven or Hell. So he's given a choice: accumulate enough good deeds to return to life or become a wandering spirit. He eventually gets his life back, but in the beginning, he aids people in need as a ghost. The difficulties of helping people when you have no physical form and can't be directly sensed are a source of many challenges and laughs. The resulting supernatural sensitivity he develops while a spook sets him on a course to becoming a spiritual agent, dealing with Spirit World problems which find their way into the Human World.
Yami no Matsuei (Descendants of Darkness) offers a complexly bureaucratic afterlife along with engaging mysteries and supernatural action. Tsuzuki is a Shinigami, a God of Death. Shinigami have the privilege of being able to go back and forth between the Human and Spirit Worlds, but their unpleasant job is to investigate and retrieve delinquent spirits --if someone's avoiding death, it's a Shinigami's job to finish them off! While investigating vampiric killings in Nagasaki, Tsuzuki meets his new partner. Hisoka is a bundle of issues and secrets, making him a difficult partner, but the problems become critical when he seems to have some connection with a creepy doctor who's involved in the case.
The origins of Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro's lead vary, depending on the series, but the classic Hakaba no Kitaro (Kitaro of the Grave, see page XX) comic, which inspired five different anime shows, begins with the tale of Kitaro's parents --a mummy and a ghost. This diminutive hero lives on the ragged fringe between the human world and that of ghosts and monsters. Intent on keeping the peace, Kitaro will deal with any marauding monsters by using his wit, courage and magic.
Jigoku-sensei Nube (Hell Teacher Nube) is another not-quite-human hero who handles monsters and ghosts. A background in the occult and a vicious demon-hand aid Nube in his supernatural adventures. With lots of elementary students as well as creepy critters to deal with, the series has nearly as much comedy as action. For a good look at some of Japan's strange and unique ghost stories, Nube and Kitaro can't be beat.
From his grim demeanor in X (X/1999), it's hard to guess Subaru was once a sweet-natured exorcist. Tokyo Babylon chronicles the events leading to his tragic transformation, and it begins as a series of ghost stories. The two videos for the series focus on the supernatural and hint at darker things to come.
While greedy, beautiful, supernatural butt-kicking Ghost Sweeper Mikami is not a ghost herself, she does employ one. Okinu is a seventeenth century spook who's sweet, thoughtful, and possibly the sanest member of GS Mikami's crazy cast. Although Okinu was the source of conflict only in her introductory story, there's plenty of action to spare when you work for Mikami.
Haruto just wants a normal life, but that possibility went out the window when he ended up at spook-infested Saito (long o) high school, also known as Haunted Junction. The unwilling president of the Holy Student Council, this minister's son is responsible for improving school life by dealing with the campus ghosts. Haruto may not have any special abilities, but he can summon the seven school spirits to help him. With Haruto's reluctance and the cast's kooky quirks, Haunted Junction is equal parts humor and haunted action.
Another exceedingly popular use of ghosts in anime is to complicate characters' lives with past lives and possession. Special powers, inexplicable knowledge, uncanny skills and magical transformations are just a few abilities that can enhance characters and series when possession occurs. The potential for drama, action and comedy is other-worldly.
The pubescent cast of the classic Boku no Chikyu o Mamote (Please Save My Earth) is plagued by painful, powerful dreams of their past lives as aliens observing the Earth from the moon. Not only do they have to deal with the emotional impact of occasionally being possessed by the spirits of their former selves, but they must resolve the mysterious legacy of their past lives in order to protect the Earth.
Tenshi Kinryoku (long o) (Angel Sanctuary) offers even stranger past lives for its cast. Setsuna has enough problems with a dysfunctional family and being in love with his sister. He doesn't need the spirit of a avenging female angel making things worse, for any time she does get possession of him, disaster and death follow. The series is an epic about Heaven, Hell and fate, so Setsuna isn't given the option of exorcising his divine spook.
Poor Aya probably has the worst past life of them all. This leading lady of Ayashi no Ceres (Ceres: Celestial Legend) doesn't even know there is a celestial being in her ancestry until her sixteenth birthday when her family tries to kill her. Ceres takes over Aya's body in times of danger and is intent on retrieving her celestial robe which was stolen by the man who made her his wife, Aya's ancestor. So Ceres has few qualms about destroying Aya's family. Aya must struggle to maintain her grip on reality as she's torn between Ceres' spirit and her own.
The ghosts of past lives aren't always used for dramatic purposes. Jubei Yagyu is a legendary swordsman, and Jiyu is the Chosen One who will inherit his power in Jubei-chan the Ninja Girl. Once Jiyu straps on Jubei's eyepatch and is possessed by his spirit, watch out! The complications this causes Jiyu are not just action-packed, but comedic, for not unlike Buffy (the Vampire Slayer), Jiyu is not too thrilled to be selected.
Of course, for the ultimate in action-comedy character possession and transformation, there's Rumiko Takahashi's Ranma ½. According to legend, if you fall in a magic pool, whatever drowned there will possess you when you get hit by cold water. But how, exactly, does a duck drown?
Co-star of Hikaru no Go (Hikaru's Go) is the refined Heian period ghost Fugiwara no Sai. A go master in his day, Sai's spirit resides within an old go board Hikaru finds in the attic. Sai doesn't exactly possess Hikaru, but he certainly shares his life. With Sai's help, Hikaru not only makes a few generational bridges with grampa, he becomes a national competitor. Between the two of them, they're credited with the Japanese revival of this traditional game of strategy.
Channeling and controlling ghosts is the name of the game in Shaman King. Yo (long o) seems like your average junior high kid, but at night, he hangs out in graveyards. This young shaman wants to be a shaman king, and through the series' supernatural battles with competitive shamen and vengeful spirits, he's got a good shot at it.
Of course, these anime titles represent a fraction of the spooky manga out there, like the fox ghost who nags the cursed Kajika and the sexy roommate who haunts the hero of Yu (long u) and Mi. There are also countless other anime and manga which have included a ghost story or two, including Urusei Yatsura, Card Captor Sakura (a.k.a. Cardcaptors), and Patolabor. Comedy, action, drama and horror, ghost stories offer a thrilling variety of entertainment.
* FUNimation includes "Ghost Files" in their Yu Yu Hakusho title icon, but all of their text just lists it as Yu Yu Hakusho. I don't know how uptight they are about this sort of thing nor what their preference might be, so I thought I'd mention it.
I didn't mention Spirited Away because I haven't seen it and don't want to spoil it for myself by researching it to find out if it's about ghosts or monsters.
Please use whatever spelling of Kitaro you used in the In Depth.