Devils and unicorns. Werewolves and giants. The world is full of stories about creatures that defy our laws of nature. Fantastic beasts like these come in countless shapes and sizes, yet we find similarities in tales of such creatures everywhere.
For example, both dragon and mermaid imagery are found worldwide. They may take different forms, but the relative characteristics remain unchanged. Why is this? How could disparate, ancient people dream up similar mythical animals? And when one region has its own unique beast, what does that say about the culture that created it? These were just a few of the questions I asked myself at “Regnum Imaginarium: Realm of the Marvelous and Uncanny,” the current exhibition at Osaka’s National Museum of Ethnology.
At “Regnum Imaginarium,” you are invited to take a peek into otherworldly territories where gryphons and shapeshifters walk freely. Divided into two main parts — Biota of the Imaginary and Cultural History of the Imaginary — it shows how different societies interpreted the creatures from today’s fairy tales, literature, movies and beyond. It’s a fun exhibition for any kid interested in the history, culture and craft of monsters.
Near the beginning of “Regnum Imaginarium,” you encounter a map indicating places where mermaids or mermaid-like beings are part of local lore. Many of us grew up with the same image of a mermaid: the top half of woman fused to the shimmering lower half of a fish. However, this is not the only version. In the Solomon Islands they can be depicted as a male body with the head of a fish, while both Iran and Italy have been illustrated as a fish with human faces. Then from West Africa there is the “Fish-Legged King of Benin.” There is even video of a traditional dance performance of Sovan Macha, the golden mermaid from Cambodian folktales. Made mostly from wood, stone and ink, these representations of the mermaid accompany the map showing where they originated.
Mermaids are just the first of many chimeral creatures on display at “Regnum Imaginarium.” As you move through the exhibit, you’ll also encounter zombies, thunderbirds and humanoid plants. In the section called Horned Beings, the text on one display panel asks the simple questions:” Why horns? Why are devils, demons and other creatures of great evil and power depicted with features best-known on herbivores like deer or cattle?”
Stop for a moment and think about that. Can you name any dangerous predators with horns? There are very few, and most are negligible to humans.
Anthropologists have their theories, but I won’t give it away because that’s part of what makes this exhibition fun for children of all ages. Whether it’s dragons, Dracula or Dumbledore, the origins of supernatural beings fascinate kids everywhere. This exhibit will fuel that fascination, and unlike many great exhibitions in Japan, there is a decent amount of English for nonnative speakers to read. It could perhaps benefit from even more background in both English and Japanese, though. For example, fabled beings such as Mexico’s nahual shapeshifter, Greenland’s tupilak demon and the East African shetani spirits are labeled without context. Even with Japan’s own homegrown creatures — and there are many — the viewer is responsible for learning more on their own. I suggest Googling them before, during or after your visit (bring a notepad!).
Japan’s relationship with the mythical comprises the largest share of the exhibition space. Indeed, the country’s own yōkai (supernatural creatures) could fill the museum on their own. We see the gargantuan shoes and sword of Yagorodon, a god-like giant revered in Kagoshima Prefecture. Then there is the hakutaku, an ox-like animal sometimes depicted with a human face and extra eyes on the sides of its body. Let’s not forget the famous kappa, the half-turtle, half-human beastie said to lurk near rivers and bogs waiting to pounce on naughty children. A new favorite for us is the kotobuki, whose body contains elements of all 12 zodiac animals: dragon’s neck, tiger’s shoulders, forelegs like a monkey’s, etc. We see these creatures’ images in multiple forms: from paintings and illustrations to masks, carvings and ceramics — dating from the 17th-century to present day.
The final part of the exhibition shows how humankind has incorporated the mythical into its own story. From the wunderkammer curiosity rooms of 17th-century Europe to the digital behemoths that inhabit video games like Final Fantasy XV, the mystical realm remains at the forefront of our imagination.
In the Edo Period (1603-1868), it was believed that some mystical creatures brought good fortune. Talismans with the image of mythical animals were popular gifts, and Dutch traders in Nagasaki made quite a bit of money charging locals to see what they claimed to be mummified remains of demons, mermaids and other creatures. Some of those very mummies are on display here.
In today’s world of “Harry Potter,” fake news and genetic engineering, “Regnum Imaginarium” ignited countless new conversation topics for me and my daughter. Whether it’s via a phoenix, phantom or the Loch Ness Monster, we can learn a lot about life from things that may have never lived.
“Regnum Imaginarium: Realm of the Marvelous and Uncanny,” at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka, runs until Nov. 26; ¥880, ¥450 for college and university students, free for elementary, junior and senior high school students. For more information, visit www.minpaku.ac.jp.