Kodama: Celebrating Japanese Forest Spirits

Kodama tree spirit on a mossy log
A kodama in action.

Okay, so we watched Studio Ghibli’s masterpiece Princess Mononoke again recently and one of the things that still stands out are the kodama (木霊, 木魂 or 木魅).

These are the cute, quirky, only mildly disturbing little tree spirits that romp merrily – butt naked – through the forests of Japanese folklore. Cobwebs and strange? Let’s examine their history.

Kodama

There’s a thing in Japan called a yamabiko (山彦) – it’s a Japanese god that supposedly causes the echoes in canyons and mountains. This sometimes gets attributed to kodama, too.

In Western culture, it’s Princess Mononoke that introduced most of us to the concept. Its realisation of them is through pale little things with distorted eyes and a vacant expression like bobbleheads – although in the film they do smile and frolic quite merrily at times.

But the influence of Studio Ghibli’s film is particularly ever present. In our recent Gris review, as you can see from the tweet above, various characters took inspiration from the kodama.

History

In Japan, locals think of the spirts as having supernatural powers. They inhabit trees in the sense they live with them and tangibly connect with them. As such, if you cut down a tree you become cursed.

But the spirits intertwine with the tree itself, so when a tree dies it passes its knowledge onto the kodama. When they inhabit other trees, this information is then past on and on and on.

In Japan’s Records of Ancient Matters (Kojiki – 古事記) the spirits are thought of as mountain gods, so these little dudes date far back into antiquity.

In the present day, Nippon (Japan is an exonym, remember, the name we Westerners hand it) still has a fascination for the beasts. Asides from Studio Ghibli films, on the Izu Islands there’s a shrine dedicated to them.

But the legend of the kodama continues to this day in modern Japan. So much so that cutting down a tree that is supposed to be a home to the spirits is thought of as horrific bad luck.

Some of these trees are marked with shimenawa rope. These are thought of as strong enough to ward of evil-doing and whatnot.

Hey, if you have a Buddhistic leaning then it’s all in good taste. We shouldn’t be cutting down wonderful trees, anyway. And that’s especially the case if they’re home to kodama.

Make Your Own Kodama

Most people who watch one Studio Ghibli film are soon infatuated and eager to sell their souls to the animation studio. They fit rather succinctly into Japan’s craze for kawaii (cuteness) culture.

But why not embrace your creative side? Sure, that £100 cuddly Totoro toy would be truly epic in your bathroom on the roof, but you can also just go ahead and make some of Ghibli’s characters.

The kodama are ideal as they’re such a varied bunch of oddballs. Pallid, wonky headed, but prone to social revellery, welcome them into your home post haste to bask in the glory.

2 comments

    • I’ve read a lot of Japanese literature over the last few years to complement my Studio Ghibli and Nintendo intake. And there’s a lot of folklore and sense of tradition. This one is certainly more in keeping with the cuteness culture over there.

      Liked by 1 person

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