This edition of October Mythology Special comes with a true story from a pretty famous mangaka: Mizuki Shigeru, the creator of GeGeGe no Kitaro. Everything is Scary recounts his story on their site: “In his historical memoir, Showa, Mizuki depicts an encounter that brought him incredibly close to the most senseless of all deaths. While in Papua New Guinea, alone in the pitch dark of night, the young soldier encountered an invisible wall that he could feel with his hands. It compelled him to stop and he slept the night, only to awake next to a cliff’s edge. Mizuki credits the spectral wall, a yōkai called Nurikabe, for his survival. ‘“If the Nurikabe hadn’t been there,” he writes, “I would have run straight off into the darkness and died.’”
There has been another more recent encounter in 2005 as well in the famous Aokigahara forest by the medium Yuuko Sou during the filming for a TV program. Tofugu recounts: “She and the TV crew were just about to enter the forest when a blurry, wall-like thing allegedly rose from the ground, as if the spirits of the dead had come together to say, No further! If you’ve come to commit suicide, you can’t enter!”
The name Nurikabe literally translates to painted wall or lacquered wall. The history of this youkai in Japanese folklore is fairly long and muddled. It was first depicted in a painting by Tourin Kanou in 1802 and was first mentioned in literature in 1938. There is some debate on whether the nurikabe is even a distinct youkai separate from other myths. Tofugu points to references to legends of an invisible wall in Fukuoka Oita prefecture that were explained as the meddlesome happenings of tanuki in the area. It was thought that the invisible wall was actually their scrotum stretched across the path or there is another legend where the tanuki would stand on a traveler’s obi and cover their eyes, creating the same effect of not being able to move forward.
Explanations for the origins of the Nurikabe range from providing a reason for why travelers would arrive late to their destinations to a more scientifically focused theory proposed by youkai scholar and manga writer Bintarou Yamaguchi. Yamagushi theorized that stories of this youkai came about during the Edo period when the poor in Japan mostly subsisted on white rice. This cause a number of problems, one of which was a lack of Vitamin A and B1. Low levels of these vitamins can cause such ailments as night blindness, extreme lethargy, and fatigue. You could conceivably extrapolate that the experience of these ailments could be explained as the experience of encountering a Nurikabe: running into something you can’t see and not being able to walk any further.
In popular culture, by far the most famous depiction of this youkai is by the man who experienced one himself: Mizuki Shigeru in his long-running manga GeGeGe no Kitaro. Shigeru’s depiction of the Nurikabe has pretty much become the standard way people have come to visualize them. His droopy-eyed wall with short, stubby arms and legs can be seen immortalized in bronze in his hometown. In the scope of the anime currently streaming now, the Nurikabe acts as a shield for Kitaro sometimes and is generally seen as a useful character who at some points helps Kitaro’s friends overcome obstacles instead of being one.
On a smaller scale, depictions of the Nurikabe appear in many other anime and manga, like XXXHolic. It only appears for a short time in volume 6 chapter 33, but it does appear to have a similar simplified look to it much like Shigeru’s design. It appears to be a simply white wall with one eye with semi-short arms and legs. It’s not the most significant appearance of a Nurikabe, but I do love showing how even the most insignificant background characters can have a history and mythology all their own.
In the world of video games, you can also see the Nurikabe make appearances in none other than the Mario games. Those Thwomps are, I’m fairly positive, based off of this myth. You can also see a really nice depiction in the game Ookami. The Nurikabe appears as an obstacle that you need to figure out how to get around. The way to beat it is to strike in just the right places and his plaster wall begins to crumble. It’s funny because one of the ways you would presumably get rid of a Nurikabe is to strike it with a stick towards the bottom, right between their invisible legs.
Let me know in the comments if you can think of any other instances and appearances with the Nurikabe.
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