Japanese folklore is filled with all types of creatures, with one of the most enduring being the oni. Considered to be a type of yokai, oni took the form of giant, supernatural trolls. Their demonic appearance gave them an evil reputation. Oni have been identified as bringers of chaos, delighting in the punishment of mortals. The connection to the darkness has translated into pop culture, as oni have appeared in art and literature. However, their role has changed over time to reflect modern interpretations.
Traditionally, oni are depicted as ogres that have sharp horns, claws and wild hair. Their skin is typically red, blue or green and they carry around iron clubs. Oni have been described as being taller than a human and superhumanly strong. The origin of the name is interesting because there was a time when oni referred to all Japanese monsters and spirits. The word meant ‘to hide or conceal,’ referencing the deceitful nature of some spirits. As Japanese folklore developed, the concept of a hideous troll became a dominant image for the name.
Oni are linked with the Setsubun festival that happens in February. The event involves purification rituals, driving away evil spirits. People throw roasted soybeans as a way to cleanse their homes and keep monsters like oni away. The beans are a symbolic gesture that represent the beauty of life.
The ferocious appearance of oni have been used to the advantage of warriors. Samurai wore demonic masks as a form of intimidation. I recently came across an oni mask at the Doki Doki Festival in Manchester. I thought the craftsmanship was gorgeous, so it’s not hard to see why samurai favoured the image of an ogre.
Oni in popular culture
In modern times, oni have taken on a more complicated reputation, similar to tengu. They have become symbols of protection, with people wearing oni costumes at parades. The creatures have also been used on Japanese buildings. Called onigawara, the statutes are similar to gargoyles, warding off bad luck.
Popular culture has done a fantastic job of capturing the duality of oni. They are common within games, anime and manga. For example, in the world of Mortal Kombat, the citizens of Netherrealm are referred to as oni, though they’re depicted as ape-like rather than troll-like. An example of a ‘good’ oni appeared in Dragon Ball Z. King Yemma presided over the Check-In Station in Other World, deciding which souls were sent to heaven and hell. He had a soft spot for Goku, helping the Saiyan throughout his life.
Oni have been utilised as a fashion statement as well. Many retailers have incorporated the image into their products. Japanese fashion brand Koisea have created an exceptional shirt with the outline of a white oni on the front. The back features a brilliant amount of detail. The oni is surrounded by a grey cloud and I think it adds to the mysticism of the design.