In the Japanese language, there are sooooo many words to describe “monsters”. The variety of terms and the subtle connotations of the words, all so people could talk about something supernatural, probably comes from the rich Japanese history of ghost storytelling. Many of these words may also come from the country’s complex Buddhist and Shinto traditions. Though Japanese might have many words to describe basically the same thing, there are definitely different uses for each one. Though there really is too many names for monsters in Japanese to count, the big three words used most commonly in anime to refer to monsters are: Oni (not to be confused with “Oni san” aka big brother) Yokai, and Bakemono. Though English might not have perfect translations for these words, it does have words or phrases that express something very similar. Thankfully, because these terms are so integral to Japanese culture and traditions, there is a wide variety of anime that have great examples of these words in action! And best of all, you don’t necessarily need to watch a horror anime or a scary anime to find them!
Oni is probably the most common of monster monikers in Japanese. Though English doesn’t have a perfect translation for this word, it could be described as an ogre for troll like creature. Loosely, oni could also be considered like a demon. These creatures are often depicted as living in hell or being from there. In anime they commonly appear with red or blue colored skin, one or two horns on their head, and carrying a club. Oni are rarely depicted in anime as being very smart. Instead, these creatures tend to be extremely strong, hulking brutes that at times can be quite childish. Heroes of anime can usually out smart them easily, and even smarter monsters tend to take advantage of these creatures.
There’s a very cute version of the folktale of the red oni and the blue oni in the anime My Love Story. In this anime the main character Takeo is a big guy, as in he towers over his high school peers and most people are afraid of the sight of him. Though Takeo might look intimidating, he actually has a heart of gold and is very kind. Sadly, because so many people in his life have misjudged him, he often thinks of himself as a red ogre from a fairy tale, and at one point even believed that as long as he was useful to his friends it didn’t matter what happened to him.
Yokai tend to be more intelligent than oni, they usually don’t come from the underworld, and they tend to have more ghostly powers. There are dozens of different kinds of yokai. Some yokai are animal themed, like the nine tailed fox or the trickster raccoon dog the tanuki, while other yokai are created when human items (like lanterns or umbrellas) have gained a spirit of their own and are now mischievous little monsters that cause trouble. In Western cultural terms, the more intelligent yokai that can take human forms at times might be called a vampire, phantom, or even a werewolf. The smaller versions of yokai that come from human items might be called goblins, gremlins, or in Ireland they might be called a fairy or a pooka. Yokai are probably some of the most common supernatural creatures to show up in anime, and there is a huge variety of series that have these creatures as a main character.
In the anime Kamisama Kiss, the male lead and love interest is Tomoe a powerful fox yokai (though he seems to only have one tail instead of nine). Though, he’s supposed to be a fox, he actually just looks like a handsome guy with white fox ears and a tail. Tomoe’s supernatural powers are “fox fire” a floating ball of blue fire that is sometimes sentient and can not only burn things but also work as scouts for Tomoe. He can also transform into other things and people, a common skill for yokai.
Bakemono is a little more difficult to define. In Western cultural terms, bakemono is probably the most like the English word for monster. It refers to a creature that is haggard, beastly, and grotesque. This creature is seen as brutish, violent, and terrifying. Oddly enough, bakemono can also be used to describe a person too. In many anime a grumpy old lady might be referred to as a bakemono. Though I’m certainly not an expert in the Japanese language, I’m assuming that bakemono is being used to loosely mean witch? The term bakemono can be found in the anime movie The Boy and the Beast aka Bakemono no Ko. In this film the main character’s brutish, ill tempered, and haggard sword teacher is most definitely bakemono! Another anime you can see this word in action is the franchise Bakemonogatari, who’s title literally means monster story!