While all monsters are supposed to be creepy, Japanese monsters consistently make you feel like you're watching a bad Tim Burton movie on even worse acid. As with all superior products, it's all about the ingredients.
Throughout recorded history, Japanese artwork and folklore have been positively creeping and crawling with a staggering array of outlandish goblins, ghouls, ghosts and demons. Known collectively as "youkai," these mythical figures come in hundreds of recognized species with origins, powers and weaknesses as detailed and outlandish as any modern comic-book heroes or video game characters. A few of the most famous, widely recognized youkai are as follows:
The Kappa or "water goblin" is the definitive aquatic monster of Japanese legend, resembling a fusion of duck, frog and turtle. A small pool of water on a Kappa's head is sometimes said to be its only means of functioning on land, and their most exploitable downfall is an insatiable love of cucumbers--hence "Kappa Maki" or cucumber sushi rolls. Though a beloved and heavily marketed figure in modern pop culture (even Hello Kitty has one in her circle of friends), the Kappa was once used by parents as an incredibly terrifying form of boogieman; children were warned that if they took a swim without adult supervision, a Kappa would sneak up underneath them, insert its beak into their anus and slurp out their intestines like so much instant Ramen.
Tsukumo-gami are a youkai subcategory of inanimate objects that have sprung to life. Two of the most well-known Tsukomogami are the Karakasa (umbrella ghost) and Chochinobake (lantern ghost), but virtually any object could transform into a youkai at any time. The chances of this happening were said to increase with the object's age and peak at about 100 years. It was also essential that the object be displeased in some way; either through abuse, neglect or abandonment. Your grandmother's sex toys might be one big happy family for now, but once she passes on they'll be crawling right back from the landfill with malice in their eyes.
Another superstar of youkai myth is the tanuki, or raccoon-dog, touched upon in Cracked's Bukkake of the Gods: Japan's Insane Creation Myths. Actually a mythical exaggeration of a very real and once very common woodland animal, these monsters are most famous for the limitless shape-shifting powers they seem to concentrate in their massive, dangling testicles. A tanuki's nutsack can stretch like Mr. Fantastic into positively anything the monster desires, including a tent, a club or a protective shield. That's right--these motherfuckers are so hardcore that their immediate response to an attack is to present their junk.
Of course, the fringe youkai get infinitely stranger and more specific than even these clowns and, like we said, there are hundreds of the bastards. The Nurikabe is an invisible wall-monster that tricks you into taking a wrong turn during extended trips; the Akaname is a goblin that sneaks into your bathroom at night just to lick everything; the Nuppefuhofu is saggy blob of smelly meat that wanders around graveyards; Rokurokubi is a sexy chick whose neck can stretch to indefinite lengths just to fuck with you; Bakekujira is the flying haunted corpse of a rotting whale; Kamikiri is a monster with a fetish for cutting your hair at night... the list goes on and on. These guys are more or less the original Pokemon... but more on those later. I bet you can't wait.
-MIZUKI SHIGERU AND THE WORLD OF KITAROU-
Though there is no one in modern Japan unfamiliar with youkai, their popularity was almost single-handedly (we'll feel bad about this in a moment) revitalized in 1959 by manga artist, Mizuki Shigeru. Forced into military service during World War II, he lost his drawing arm in a U.S. bombing, endured an infestation of maggots and barely survived a bout with malaria, but after re-learning how to draw from scratch, this hardcore motherfucker did what artists are wont to do and channeled all the tortured darkness of his war-torn soul into the creation of a couple children's heroes: The supernatural goblin-boy Kitarou and the walking, talking eyeball of his long-dead father.
Battling and befriending a host of classic critters on their numerous adventures, Kitarou and his disembodied daddy sparked a youkai renaissance and continue to enjoy massive success to this very day. And you would be hard-pressed to find someone in Japan who can't name at least its central protagonists or hum its catchy little theme song, which is regularly updated to rock harder for every new generation. Also, it says you're gay.
Now considered a professional folklorist and the modern authority on youkai lore, Mizuki Shigeru has been honored with his own museum, a Kitarou amusement park and a street adorned with over 100 statues of his youkai interpretations. And he did it all with one hand tied behind his... that is... we mean... joke.
Please don't fly across the sea and judo chop us.
Even before Kitarou up there crawled from the wreckage of Hiroshima, Toho Studios was already cashing in on the recent apocalypse with the theatrical debut of GOJIRA in 1954, a nuclear-powered mutant dinosaur that the rest of the world has come to know as Godzilla. At the time, a monster large enough to kick over skyscrapers was a pretty novel concept, and the film earned its street cred by integrating the atomic bomb itself into the monster's origin story. Keep in mind that Hiroshima was bombed only nine years prior. People were still scraping irradiated flesh off the sidewalks when some asshole decided to turn it into a big-budget horror movie. Needless to say, Godzilla generated unheard-of publicity and continues to be a household name throughout the known universe.
Following this Tokyo-smashing success, Toho would pit their cash cow against another titanic beast, the spiny-shelled Anguirus, and set a trend that would continue for generations, inventing an entire recognized genre of "giant monster" or "daikaiju" films.
In 1956, Toho's attempted to re-create Godzilla's impact with Rodan, a supersonic bird monster that generated decent but hardly groundbreaking buzz. In 1958, they essentially tried to put Godzilla and Rodan in a blender with Varan the Unbelievable, a flying lizard that would quickly fade to obscurity. In 1961, they finally struck gold once again with Mothra, the first giant cinematic insect to be written as a hero (or heroine, in Mothra's case). All of these monsters would make subsequent appearances in numerous Godzilla films, but only Mothra would soar to a close second in giant monster stardom. The big bug has co-starred with the big lizard more frequently than any other character in the Toho roster, and has even managed to break back out into some films of her own.
Godzilla demands a paternity test.
Toho would make many other monster films outside of the Godzilla universe, including such weirdos as the jellyfish-like Dogora, YOG the space amoeba and even non-giant monsters such as Matango, the Killer Mushroom People.
A killer mushroom person doing what Japan thinks a killer mushroom person probably does.
-GAMERA THE INVINCIBLE-
Fuck yeah! Let's watch this goddamned movie right now!
In a shameless attempt to cash in on the success of Godzilla, rival company Daiei created their own city-stomping reptile to star in 1965's Gamera; whose star was a fire-breathing turtle with the hilarious ability to fly like a rocket. Though originally a straight-up villain, Gamera found a more distinct niche by targeting a much younger audience, even being billed as "protector of children" in his later films.
Everyday problems facing Japanese children.
-THE X FROM OUTER SPACE-
In 1967, yet another studio would attempt to throw its giant hat into the giant monster ring with the debut of Guilala (fancy that, another G-word), or The X From Outer Space--a sort of weird-ass space chicken made out of alien fungus. Guilala would be quickly forgotten and remain a footnote in monster history until nearly 40 years later, when an American job search website inexplicably resurrected the moldy beast for a series of TV ads.
In 1966, television writer Eiji Tsubaraya sought to give Japan its own equivalent to such Western programs as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits and Doctor Who. Due to the wild popularity of Godzilla and Gamera, Tokyo Broadcasting agreed to the show only if it could incorporate monsters into every story. The weird tales of Ultra-Q were met with moderate success, but the real ratings-grabber turned out to be an episode featuring a giant, silver superhero named Ultraman.
An intentional response to America's Superman, Ultraman debuted in his own spinoff series only a week after Ultra-Q's finale, and the rest is history. An ongoing line of Ultramen and Ultrawomen have starred in at least 30 television series totaling over 1,000 fucking episodes, dozens of films, video games, comics and more spinoff specials than we even care to count--every last one of which pits his shiny spandex ass against one or more gigantic, rampaging monsters.
Monsters from space, monsters from the sea, monsters from the Earth's core, monsters from Hell, monsters brought to life from a child's imagination, robotic monsters, parasitic monsters, monsters made of energy, monsters made of fungus, monsters that used to be people until they tried to play God, monsters that used to be people until they were fucked over for no good reason, monsters that didn't mean us any harm but get slaughtered like animals anyway, monsters made of a billion little monsters locked together and probably at least one monster that banged your mom.
-"TOKUSATSU" MONSTERS OF THE WEEK-
Come back! It's legal here!
Like Godzilla, Ultraman more or less created an entire new genre of entertainment as dozens of studios scrambled to market such monster-mashing heroes as Kamen Rider, Kikaider and the Go Rangers--many of which would later be spliced with new footage to create weird American knockoffs like The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers and Big Bad Beetleborgs. Known as "tokusatsu" or literally "special effects" heroes, all of these characters existed almost solely as vehicles to introduce (and pummel) an endless procession of new monsters week after week after week; creating such a mind-boggling glut of creeps and weirdos that if you've ever had a nightmare in your life, a Japanese superhero has already punched it in the face for you.
AHHHH WHAT IS HAPPENING AND WHY
Referred to as the "mon" genre by TVtropes, Japan's most recent addition to creature culture is the collectible battle monster phenomenon. Whether starring in a cartoon show, trading card game or (most commonly) video game; these monsters exist solely to be hunted down, captured and enslaved by humans (usually plucky children with everything to prove) as pets or underlings on a wide range of zany, epic adventures. While several different games are said to have started this trend as far back as the late 80s, the free world's most famous introduction to the concept was right around 1995...
If you can't see the appeal you were never a child.
Beginning as a graphic novel and video game, Pokemon or, Pocket Monsters, was the brainchild of writer and artist Satoshi Tajiri, who drew inspiration directly from youkai mythology, giant movie monsters and Ultraman villains alike to create his monster-hunting masterpiece--which proved to be concentrated crack cocaine for kids and would rake in billions of dollars as a loosely connected video game, manga, cartoon show, trading card game and more. There are currently around 500 different monsters in the Pokemon canon, with another hundred or so added every few years for good measure.
Typical pocket monsters. We can relate to Slakoth, but keep Tentacruel the HELL away from us.
Near as anybody can tell, Pokemon is set in some weird, alternate Earth populated by super-powered monsters instead of regular animals; including unholy abominations like psychic starfish, lava snails, hypnotic frogs and samurai trilobites. These monsters speak entirely by shouting their own highly marketable names, occasionally "evolve" into entirely different monsters, live for the thrill of battle and are trained by humans to participate in public tournaments, A.K.A. cockfighting with eye-lasers.
OUR PARENTS DON'T CARE WHERE WE ARE
Developing independently from Pokemon around the same exact time, Digimon: Digital Monsters chose to target the "big kids" and focus on a more dramatic, more serialized television show; leading to the development of a depressingly hardcore following among English-speaking teens and adults. According to Digimon lore, everything we humans upload as computer data generates some sort of monster in the "digital world," which just leaves us pondering which digimon represents our two gigs of transvestite bondage and which one represents Cracked.com.
Oh... well alright then.
Can we just get a few more more goddamn monsters in here?
While the pokedigiphenomemons generated hundreds of imitators over the years, the early 2000s saw the mighty Pokemon trading card game all but dethroned by an even geekier gaming franchise with an even less watchable cartoon show known as Yu-Gi-Oh!
We would try to describe what Yu-Gi-Oh is about, but we honestly have no fucking clue, even after wasting a good half an afternoon on its Wikipedia page.
Japan's legal age of consent is 13 for humans, zero for giant cephalopods.
If ever you doubt that Japan is a monster's paradise, look no further than the twisted sub-sub-sub-genre that is "tentacle hentai" or simply "tentacle." Until nearly the 1990s, Japanese regulations strictly prohibited the portrayal of male genitalia in artwork of any sort, but women, who apparently weren't people anyway, were free to be depicted in any depraved situation the mind could conjure. Enter the tentacle (wherever there's a hole), which allowed naughty artists to wantonly violate imaginary women without having to draw the dreaded wang (because that would be pornography). Early examples date as far back as the early 1800s, with erotic woodcuts like The Dream of the Fisherman's Wife, shown above.
THANK GOD there aren't any dicks in this picture!
By the time these lopsided regulations were lifted, tentacle-monsters had become such a staple of pornography that many people had grown to prefer them over puny human-on-human action, and the demand for monster smut shows no sign of shrinking. Assuming you aren't at work, school or your grandma's house, go run a Google image search for "tentacle." Just "tentacle." You don't even need to turn off "safesearch." We'll wait.
What are you doing? Those noodles are way too big!
The freedom to portray an actual penis now just means that we can watch girls get buggered by actual penises on the ends of cartoon tentacles. And when an anime chick isn't getting brutally raped by Squiddly Diddly, she's getting brutally raped by zombies, orcs, demons, minotaurs, ghosts, cyborgs, mutants, giant insects, werewolves, dragons, snake people or gelatinous cubes. Demand for monster action is even so great that what was once a mere stand-in for the real thing is painstakingly re-created with actual, flesh and blood women in actual, live-action pornographic films.
At this point, one might think that Japan's adoration for the monstrous has gone about as far as it can possibly go; but, thus far, it's been strictly limited to the realm of make-believe, leaving at least one frontier to be conquered. Incidentally, Japan is a pioneer of genetic engineering. Sleep tight.