Why the appeal of Alice in Japanese Pop Culture?
Wonderland might be very familiar to a culture with lots of shapeshifting creatures and inanimate objects with spirits.
by Michelle "Ms. Geek" Klein-Hass
There are many Alice In Wonderland references in Manga and Anime, from whole series that are riffs on themes from the original Lewis Carroll books, to series that have references to the Alice books but are not specifically based on the books.
The obvious answer is that the two Alice books are full of cute characters that lend themselves well to becoming a part of the kawaii aesthetic. Cute blonde haired girls in Lolita-like dresses, rabbits, cats, dormice, dodo birds, fancy desserts, tea parties...there is a lot of cuteness in Wonderland, and Japan has always seized upon that.
But there's another aspect of Japanese culture, its ancient myths and legends, which might also provide some reasons for the Alice books and their resonance in Japan. The world of shadowy supernatural creatures -- Yokai, Obake, Yurei, Oni -- have parallels with Alice's world, whether it's called Wonderland or Underland.
There is a direct parallel between one particular denizen of Wonderland and the myths and legends of Japan. The Cheshire Cat, who can materialize and dematerialize at will, could be directly compared to the Nekomata and Bakeneko, two types of cat Yokai that share strong shapeshifting powers and the ability to materialize and dematerialize at will. The twin-tailed Nekomata is particularly familiar to Japanese families with young children, because Jibanyan, one of the main Yokai Watch creatures, is based on that particular Yokai.
The most prominent of these shapeshifting mythic creatures are Kitsune, shapeshifting foxes, and Tanuki, which are shapeshifting raccoon-like mammals that are related to dogs. Both foxes and tanuki are real animals, of course...
But of course when you speak of Kitsune and Tanuki as Yokai, you are speaking of something very, very different. Both Kitsune and Tanuki can change their size, take human form, and are both trickster creatures. While the Tanuki is rarely considered malicious, just mischievous, Kitsune can be downright menacing, particularly those that aren't servants of the Shinto deity Inari.
Of course, there are no foxes or tanuki in the Wonderland stories, but certainly there are plenty of creatures that are suggestive of them and other Yokai. The White Rabbit, the March Hare, the Caterpillar, they all have that same sort of blend of earthbound and supernatural, real and surreal, that they share with the creatures in Japanese Yokai stories.
Is this the only element of the Alice books that resonates with the Japanese psyche? Definitely not. But perhaps this is one of the reasons why Japan has been so mad about Wonderland and the realm on the other side of the Looking-Glass.
Speaking of this, our first Disney Manga, Alice in Wonderland, is now available. Follow this link down the rabbit hole to find out more about this beautiful and elegant retelling of Tim Burton's wild sequel to Carroll's classics.