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  • Japanese Mythology in Film: A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime by Yoshiko Okuyama
  • Micheline M. Soong (bio)
Japanese Mythology in Film: A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime. By Yoshiko Okuyama. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015. 244pp.

Yoshiko Okuyama’s Japanese Mythology in Film: A Semiotic Approach to Reading Japanese Film and Anime is a much-needed text that may well serve those who teach undergraduate-level courses on folklore, myth, popular culture, and film within the context of Japanese language, literature, and religious studies. The book is aimed at an undergraduate reading audience; Part I (Chapters 1–5) introduces basic vocabulary, concepts, and key theorists of semiotic film analysis, and Part II (Chapters 6–9) provides an in-depth semiotic film analysis of eight contemporary Japanese novel- and manga-inspired films and anime. Through this eclectic selection of visual texts, Okuyama reveals the rich intertextuality of referenced Japanese sacred texts, legends, mythological themes, symbols, and motifs shaped by Taoism, Shinto, [End Page 430] Buddhism, animism, and other Japanese folk beliefs that are encoded in the works.

Chapter 6 explores the mythical elements of Taoist and Shinto beliefs balancing the opposing forces of darkness and light in the live-action films Onmyōji (2001) and Onmyōji II (2003) based on Baku Yumemakura’s novels that inspired Reiko Okano’s manga series. The films center on the friendship between canny Japanese folk practitioner Abe no Senmei and bumbling courtier Minamoto no Hiromasa, as Senmei battles evil spirits using spells based on Onmyō-dō (yin-yang principles) to protect the Heian emperor and his son. Okuyama contrasts the Taoist cosmological concepts and key texts with the indigenous Shinto beliefs and symbols in her analysis of voodoo dolls, spirit possessions, exorcisms, and so on and the contentious link between humans and what goes on in the unseen world in the films.

Chapter 7 further delves into folkloric antecedents of humans versus nature found in Hayao Miyazaki’s anime films Spirited Away (2001) and Princess Mononoke (2000). The first features a young heroine’s quest to save her parents, who have been transformed into pigs as the threat of human pollution spills over into the spirit world, and the second revolves around a Muromachi Period eco-rebellion leader raised by wolves who battles a physical and metaphorical sickness overtaking the land. Okuyama’s semiotic film analysis covers a wide range of motifs and legends examining danger posed to mortals in the twilight realm of the supernatural kami spirits, the consequences of human damage to the environment, and the development of the anime storyboards based on other extant texts.

Chapter 8 compares Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and motifs on the cycles of birth and death in the live-action films Dororo (2007) and Departures (2008). The first focuses on the friendship and quest between two orphans, each seeking revenge on the person responsible for their present situation. The second traces the unlikely apprenticeship of a twenty-first-century cellist-turned-encoffiner. Highlighted in the analysis of Dororo are the Japanese narrative devices of the biwa hōshi (the blind musician-storyteller/protagonist) and kishuryu-tan (a person of noble birth who is forced to wander in search of his or her own true identity). Okuyama untangles the intertextual relationship between Aoki Shinmon’s autobiography Nōkanfu Nikki and the development of Koyama Kundō’s screenplay for the film Departures and sheds light on the roots (Shinto attitudes toward death as spiritual defilement) of the supporting characters’ abhorrence toward the protagonist’s new job as an encoffiner, juxtaposed against the Buddhist understanding of death as an integral part of life’s journey.

Chapter 9 raises existential questions from the two films Mushi-shi (2006) and Ghosts in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004): are the causes of human suffering internal or external? And wherein lies human fascination for facsimiles such as [End Page 431] shape-shifters or dolls or robots? Mushi-shi follows an aloof, Edo-Meiji Period itinerant master who reluctantly relieves people’s suffering caused by mushi, or spirits with supernatural powers. Ghosts in the Shell 2: Innocence centers on a dystopian cyberdetective on the trail of...


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