The Meaning of the Gashadokuro’s Name
Kanji: 餓者髑髏 . Gashadokuro literally means “starving skeleton”, where 餓者 means “starving” and “髑髏” means “skeleton”. Also known by 大髑髏, or O-dokoro, which directly translates to “big skeleton”.
The Gashadokuro’s appearance
The Gashadokuro is one of the most easily recognisable of Japanese yokai. It is often seen as an enormous skeleton (about fifteen times the size of an ordinary person), but can also appear an army of a thousand normal sized skeletons. They roam about the countryside at midnight, their approach preceded by a loud rattling sound or a ringing in the ears. They are also able to turn invisible, and are supposedly indestructible. The Gashadokuro consumes human flesh, being said to bite off the heads of nightly travellers to drink their blood. Their only weakness is against shinto charms, which can keep them away, but cannot destroy them.
The Origins of the Gashadokuro
The original legends of the Gashadokuro do not describe one enormous skeleton, but rather an army formed of a thousand of ordinary skeletons, risen from the dead. The unrestful skeletons are the bodies of those whose bones went unburied, or whose corpses were not disposed of properly, the bones of those who died during famines or during battle. Filled with resentment, the souls of those who could not pass on reanimate their bodies to take revenge on the living who forgot them.
This idea may have its roots in Buddhism, as it was usually believed that if a body was lacking a proper burial, its soul is fated to forever remain roaming the earth.
But how did an army of undead turn into a single enormous skeleton?
The Modern Gashadokuro
The modern depictions are actually inspired by Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s (link) ukiyo-e print, Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, created in 1844. The print features an enormous skeleton, summoned by Takiyasha-hime during her battle agains the samurai Ooya Tarou Mitsukuni. Although, in the original legend, the skeleton is not explicitly called a Gashadokuro, the original legends of the event also describe Takiyasha-hime summoning, not a single skeleton, but rather an army of skeletons. It was then Utagawa Kuniyshi’s artistic choice to then represent the many skeletons as a single giant one in his famous print, a choice that inspired the modern day Gashadokuro.
The first true depictions of the Gashadokuro as a giant skeleton in print weren’t until the Showa era. Its first appearance was in Shigeaki Yamauchi’s World’s Bizarre Thriller Complete Works 2: Monsters of the World (Akita Shoten, 1968). It also appeared in Satō Aribumi,’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Japanese Yōkai (1972) and subsequently in Shizeru Mizuki’s well known series Gegege no Kitaro, in the first chapter, published in 1985. Both Satō Aribumi and Shizeru Mizuki were supposedly inspired by Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s ukiyo-e print.
The Gashadokuro in Media
Today the Gashadokuro has been depicted numerous times in literature, comics and films:
- Briefly in the Ghibli film “Pom Poko”
- The stop motion film Kubo and the Two Strings
- The anime Inu x Boku SSThe animated movie GeGeGe no Kitarō: Gekitotsu!! Ijigen Yōkai no Dai-Hanran
- With episode #71 of the 1985 GeGeGe no Kitarō anime. Again, in episode #11 of the 1996 GeGeGe no Kitarō anime
- And, finally in episode #2 of the 2007 GeGeGe no Kitarō anime
- Muramasa: The Demon Blade
- AdventureQuest Worlds
- As a villain in Nurarihiyon no Mago, Ch.74
- In Gegege no Kitaro, Ch.1, The Return of the Great Yōkai Gasha-Dokuro
- Not exactly Gashadokuro, but the artist Boris Groh’s giant skeletons look eerily similar to one https://borisgroh.artstation.com/
- And, of course, Kuniyoshi’s famous ukiyo-e print, even if it is technically not a Gashadokuro
If you have spotted the Gashadokuro anywhere else, please let me know in the comments below!