Calling Every Odd Creature a Demon

Dream Eater Merry recalled a qualm I have about people who sub and dub anime. They translate most supernatural creatures from Japanese folklore as “demon.” The word demon points to a specific kind of creature: an intellectual spirit who refused to serve God and was damned for all eternity. They now roam the earth in order to tempt others into the same fate—for ultimately the same crime.

You might point out that the word demon did not originally mean devil. The ancient Greeks imagined that various places in the natural world had deities attached to them. These spirits were unknown within standard Greek mythology, and the pagans called them demons. Yet, it’s good practice to spell this kind of demon as daimon or daemon in order to help the reader separate this kind of spirit from a fallen angel. After all, Socrates claimed that he had a daemon who would tell him not to do wrong. The notion of a demon telling someone to avoid sin strikes one as preposterous.

Obviously a demon.

Very often, the same creatures referred to as demons in anime are more accurately called fairies. Yes, the Japanese do have a word which tends to get translated as fairy—yousei. But, if you look at European folklore, you’ll see that fairies or the fair folk or the longaevi cover a wider spectrum than small humanoids with tiny wings. Also, fairy can describe a malevolent, benevolent, or indifferent kind of creature—unlike the malevolent beings we call demons.

Still, I do imagine audiences would laugh at seeing Inuyasha boast that he wishes to become an “honest-to-goodness full fairy.” (There are at least two senses in which the above is funny; though, the slang for a man with same-sex attraction might be far from their minds when dealing with youkai.) Why not simply use the word youkai? English does this all the time when we come to unfamiliar concepts. Just make the word English with a properly Anglicized pronunciation. Let the viewer expand their horizons. Only use the word demon for akuma, which is how the Japanese translate the Christian concept of a fallen angel.

In Dream Eater Merry, the supernatural beings are not exactly “dream demons” but muma.  According to my big, fat kanji dictionary, muma is simply Japanese for nightmare or a disturbing dream.  Why not then translate muma as “nightmare”?  The heroine Merry originally calls herself a nightmare, but later becomes known as a baku for defeating nightmares.  Baku are spirits which eat nightmares but might turn around and devour a child’s hopes and dreams if called too often.  Oddly enough, there is one nightmare in the series who only does the later.  One might describe the battle between her and Merry as one between two baku–one good and one evil.

True enough, nightmares are not usually beings with personal agency.  In that way, the nightmares in Dream Eater Merry are more like demons in having agency.  But, the author is obviously personifying nightmares, and a viewer would eventually go along with this personification.  My main gripe still stands: stop calling every odd creature in anime a demon!

9 comments on “Calling Every Odd Creature a Demon

  1. Foxfier says:

    I’d go with ‘fae’ over fairy, but that has the same sounds-like issue as fairy and I’m pretty sure it’s mostly from 70s fantasy novels, though the same root as fay and fey…and fairy….

    Elves are scary, blast it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Elves were definitely scary to the Norse and others. In Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter, the heroine meets an elf and nearly gives up the ghost out of fright. It’s thanks to Tolkien that they are now thought of as one of the good guys. Though, I will say that the King of Mirkwood was pretty greedy.

      It would be cool to see someone refer to the supernatural beings of Japanese mythology as the fae. We’ll just have to wait and see whether that happens. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Aggelos says:

    The Post is Good,it also reminds me of Disney’s series Gargoyles.Certainly the protagonists are nocturnal creatures,with the weird luck of resembling to Demons.However Goliath’s Clan had to fight against Evil and help out the humans.
    They really did,albeit they could make selfish choises and adjust to ill mentality.Which was a tough decision.Not only they dealt with supernatural Menaces,but also with the now Evil Demona(ex Goliath’s flame)and with Nasty Humans.They remained Benevolent even to last moment:)
    The series ended providing us the sense of closure for straitening the gargoyles-humans relations.

    My Praise for your Post.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I’m glad that you liked this post. It’s been too long since I have seen Gargoyles, though I remember enjoying the series. Rewatching it might be fun; though, watching an episode of Swat Cats, which I loved as a kid, made me wonder why I ever liked that show. The experience has made me leery of watching any cartoons I feel nostalgic about. 🙂


    • Those are some nice sketches. I like the second one in particular.

      The Rent-a-Girlfriend one was interesting in how Mami’s glare lends a menacing presence to the picture. I wonder when we will meet the other two girls shown in the ending song?


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