The Tanuki: An Obscure yet Enduring Legacy of Shape-Shifting Tomfoolery… and Big Balls

Yuko Shimizu, “The Tanuki”

 

Japan’s youkai are a veritable pantheon of assorted oddities and wondrous creatures, which is a commonality in mythologies from all around the globe. As such, it comes to reason that the intermingling of other cultures with Japan – particularly Western cultures – would allow them to become acquainted with at least some of the youkai present in Japanese myths and legends. To some extent this has indeed happened, as especially popular youkai like kitsune (fox spirits) and yurei (human ghosts) have been able to somewhat cross over into foreign media. But obviously, they are only two examples from an entire mythology’s worth of entities, and even with the foreign attention that their fame has won them, not all famous youkai have been so lucky. One of the foremost examples of just how difficult it can be for a youkai to really “make it” non-domestically is a creature that has basis both in myth and in reality, yet most people outside of Asia likely haven’t heard of at all: the tanuki. An uncommon concept to foreigners but a household name in native Japan, tanuki are one of the most well-known examples of youkai in Asian folklore that have unfortunately gotten the short end of the stick in terms of depictions of popular youkai worldwide. This is largely due to dissonance in cultural translation or the sheer absence of tanuki in the eye of Western culture, period, but despite their obscurity, the tanuki have a enduring legacy that has made them iconic in their native Japan. What are they, and how do they figure into Japan’s overall mythos of supernatural beings? Let’s have a look.

General Characteristics & Common Depictions

Physically, tanuki are dog-like creatures with thick fur of different shades of brown, and bushy tails. As seemingly normal animals, they walk on four legs by default, but as youkai they can become bipedal at will. In older depictions they were shown as being small or compact in comparison to other animals such as foxes, but this depiction has since escalated to the point where modern media typically portrays them as being downright potbellied (Smith, 251). The portrayal of tanuki as fat creatures has become symbolic over time, signifying calmness and a bold personality, but it also has practical uses in some myths where tanuki will drum on their rotund bellies for fun, or to pique the interest of curious passersby. This is is a common enough trope in stories about tanuki that the Japanese even gave it it’s own name, hara-tsuzumi, which translates literally to “belly hand drum” (Weinstock, 527).

The most prominent part of the tanuki, which can seem incredibly off-putting to those unfamiliar with the creature, is its cartoonishly large scrotum. Even with the advent of more stern censorship policies, it’s still quite difficult to hear about the tanuki without it being mentioned that the creature has very large testicles, which it can manipulate at will and use like a makeshift tool (Ashkenazi, 119). While it seems too outlandish to be based on anything in real life, this aspect of the tanuki myth actually does have basis in the Japanese language, being derived from a Japanese play-on-words that was coined by feudal metalworkers. At the time, it was common practice to use the skin of tanuki in the process of smelting gold nuggets, which are called kintama in Japanese. This word can also mean “testicles” in Japanese, which was acknowledged so often that the tanuki became heavily associated with the body part in myth. Fittingly, this has also earned the tanuki some status as a symbol of fertility & prosperity, which is why it’s not uncommon to see statues of them adorning stores and restaurants in modern day Japan (Foster, 187).

In terms of personality, tanuki are quintessential in their characterization as trickster archetypes (Foster, 186). Mischief is an extremely common raison d’etre for youkai in legend, with countless tales concerning people being subjected to their fun-fueled torment, but few are reputed as being as prone to it – or adept at it – as the tanuki. A masterful shapeshifter, tanuki are able to transform both themselves and other things into any shape or form, in particular changing the shape and size of their oversized testicles to perform any number of tasks. They often make use of this transformative ability in folklore to either help or hinder people, depending on their portrayal. It’s somewhat difficult to apply a certain morality to tanuki in general, as tales throughout history have varied their exact alignment broadly between being kind & helpful, ambivalent & bumbling, or explicitly malicious (Weinstock, 528). Two famous Japanese stories that present tanuki with very different temperaments are Kachi-Kachi Yama and Bunbuku Chagama. The former story depicts the tanuki as an malevolent beast that murders an innocent woman and tricks her husband into eating her remains before being slain for its evil, while the latter depicts it as a benevolent acquaintance to an impoverished monk who brings him fame and fortune in exchange for a home (Foster, 187). However, modern Asian culture generally chooses them to represent a more light-hearted and fun-loving prankster than smiliar youkai like the kitsune, which has a much more cunning and dangerous reputation in folklore and contemporary media. In fact, tanuki and kitsune have been compared so heavily that they have come to represent a sort of duality in the popular trickster archetype of Japan. They are often shown together in artwork, and their collective legacy has caused them to even lend their names to a Japanse word, kori, which can refer to a sly or deceptive person and is simply a compound of the kanji for tanuki and kitsune.

Origins & Evolution of the Myth

Just as the mythical kitsune is analogous to real-life foxes, the mythical tanuki is a direct analogue to the real life animal of the same name, which is typically referred to as a “raccoon dog” in other parts of the world due to its passing resemblance to a raccoon. This comparison is sometimes taken so far that tanuki are expressly referred to simply as “raccoons” in the West, even though this is inaccurate. Contrary to that moniker, tanuki are not closely related to raccoons at all. They are instead canids with close evolutionary relations to some species of fox, such as the bat-eared fox, which is oddly appropriate considering how tanuki and kitsune are often depicted together in folklore. The first documentation of the tanuki was recorded in the Nihon Shoki in the 8th century. One of the oldest known texts on Japan’s history, the Nihon Shoki describes the tanuki changing into humans and making merry, showing that the representation of tanuki as magical beings dates back almost two millennia (Weinstock, 527).

Tanuki began appearing in short stories in the Heian (794-1185 CE) and Kamakura (1185-1333 CE) periods of historical Japan. The Uji Shuui Monogatari, a well-known collection of such short stories, contains a specific tale in which a Buddhist hermit is visited by the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, which turns out to be an illusion created by a tanuki (Weinstock, 527). Stories like Bunbuku Chagama and Kachi-Kachi Yama, where they where starting to be depicted in specific character roles, became prominent later on during the Edo period (1603-1868 CE). By the Meiji period (1868-1912 CE), they had obtained a similar spot in Japanese culture as the ghosts or aliens have in America, being a catch-all fantastical explanation for any odd phenomenon. An incident in 1889 involving an incident with Japanese steam trains was attributed to tanuki, wherein the driver of one train reported seeing another train on the same track set to collide with his own, but this second train suddenly vanished at the moment of impact. Two tanuki were found to have been run over by the driver’s train during the event, which resulted in many attributing the ordeal to the creatures trying to frighten the train driver with their magic (Foster, 190).

Modern Interpretations & Exposure to Other Cultures

Today, tanuki are still very present in Asian culture. As previously stated, Japan has adapted them as popular symbols of various positive character traits, and they crop up frequently in many facets of contemporary media such as advertising and fiction. They remain the subject of some superstitions and religious practices in different parts of Japan, with shrines dedicated to them still existing even in the capital of Tokyo. In effect, they have evolved from simple mythological beasts into icons of a sort.

However, this generous cultural attention doesn’t extend far beyond Asia, wherein tanuki are comparatively obscure. While they have been introduced in limited numbers to specific parts of Europe (Foster, 186), tanuki remain distinctly absent in most of western nature, which has been a large contribution to the limited exposure of Western media to the mythical creatures or the real ones. In light of this, pop culture in the past few decades has been able to better establish and improve the tanuki’s image in the Western world, primarily through their modern depictions in animation and video games. Japanese animation or anime, as well as products made by Japanese gaming companies (i.e. Nintendo), have exploded in popularity in the West, making it inevitable that a creature so prominent in Japan’s folklore would make it into those mediums, and would therefore be introduced to other cultures where such things gained lots of attention.

Some examples of Tanuki appearing in

  • The Mario Bros. franchise created by Nintendo, a franchise so popular the world over that it’s synonymous with video games in general to many, contains some homages to tanuki folklore. Tanuki appear in some entries of the series as supporting characters, and Mario himself has among his many abilities a form known as the “Tanooki Suit”. With it, Mario can levitate and transform into a Buddhist statue, both of which are skills which are commonplace in the repertoire of mythical tanuki. This homage is taken even further in that Mario’s brother Luigi instead has the ability to adopt the form of a kitsune, referencing the closeness of the two youkai in culture.
  • Nintendo has made references to the tanuki in some of its other popular game franchises, as well. The Pokemon series has the Pokemon species Zigzagoon and Sentret, which are designed to resemble different depictions of the tanuki. Animal Crossing is a series of games that all feature the character Tom Nook, who is presented as a raccoon in English translations but is obviously a tanuki regardless, as his name and appearance suggest. While not explicitly magical, Tom Nook still shares some of the tanuki’s reputation as a trickster by forcing the player into massive debt, and also has his own kitsune counterpart named Crazy Redd.
  • Masashi Kishimoto’s Naruto is an anime that has become one of the most popular examples of the medium since its inception, garnering a huge fan base in the West. In it, one particular antagonist is the chaotic Shukaku, a giant demonic entity made of sand in the form of a tanuki, which weaponizes the tanuki’s hara-tsuzumi as a method of firing deadly air bullets.
  • The Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli, most famous for films like Spirited Away and Princess Mononoke which have garnered praise in many foreign audiences, released the film Pom Poko in 1994, which directly addresses the relationship between tanuki (and to a lesser extent, kitsune) and modern Japanese culture. In it, a clan of tanuki youkai must find a way to stop their natural habitat from getting demolished to build a golf course, and in the process they invoke a huge array of tropes from different tanuki myths, as well as many other Japanese folktales. The film depicts modern society as having lost touch with myths and legends as a legitimate aspect of itself, in favor of presenting it as merely a part of popular culture, which is a blatant reference to the modernization of many myths into cultural icons.
  • Tom Robbins’s novel Villa Incognito is an example of the tanuki actually appearing in a standalone Western work. The novel features a tanuki as an important character in its backstory and makes many references to the multiple uses for it’s scrotum.

Conclusion

Even with all this background, it’s still impossible to say with absolute certainty why the tanuki remains comparatively more obscure in world pop culture than some other youkai. Once again, the fact that tanuki don’t exist in most western habitats and thus haven’t been seen by most people in the West likely has something to do with it. It may also have to do with censorship, as the tanuki’s deep-seeded link to genitalia is treated with far more tolerance in Japan than it likely would be in other places. The lack of a centuries-long cultural backbone in the form of old legends doesn’t help, either, though as we’ve seen here, none of this truly stops the tanuki from being introduced to the world as it does slow the process considerably. Regardless of whether the tanuki ever truly catches on in other places or not, it’s evident that Asia has every intention of keeping its legacy preserved in some way or another. In addition, the mere existence of this article (written by an American college student) shows that, in an age of information, the tanuki and potentially all youkai can be introduced to people all around the world, if they so choose to become informed on such things. In short, the tanuki may be able to vanish into thin air, but it’s definitely not going anywhere any time soon.

 

Works Cited

Ashkenazi, Michael. Handbook of Japanese Mythology. ABC-CLIO, 2003. Print.

Foster, Michael Dylan. The Book of Youkai. University of California Press, 2015. Print.

Yuko Shimizu, The Tanuki. Discovery Channel Magazine (Singapore): http://yukoart.com/work/discovery-channel-yokai-feature/?work_subject=asian-theme#4

Smith, Evans Lansing and Nathan Robert Brown. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Mythology. Penguin, 2008. Print.

Pom Poko (Heisei Tanuki Gassen Ponpoko). Directed by Isao Takahata, Studio Ghibli, 1994.

Weinstock, Jeffrey Andrews. The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2014. Print.

“Yanagimori Shrine: Going balls out in Akihabara.” Yoda, Hiroko. CNN Travel. Cable News Network, 21 April, 2010, http://travel.cnn.com/tokyo/play/unseen-tokyo-akihabaras-yanagimori-shrine-606404/.

The Forest Spirit and the Kirin: Between Dragons, Unicorns, and Nature Itself

Yes, I know the Forest Spirit looks creepy here, but it's the best picture I could find. The Forest Spirit IS creepy, anyway. Have you SEEN the movie?
Kirin (Left) and the Forest Spirit (Right)

 

Group Mononoke is hard at work putting the pieces together as to how Studio Ghibli’s film Princess Mononoke  relates to Asian history and mythology, and in the process of analyzing entries about youkai and the like, it became apparent that a particularly crucial figure in the film drew considerably from certain legendary creature. Princess Mononoke‘s central deity in its mythos is the placid yet ominous Forest Spirit, a shapeshifting elk-like being which holds dominion over nature and therefore serves as opposition to all in the film who conspire against nature. As it has multiple forms, it is somewhat an amalgam of different mythological ideas from Asia, with a healthy portion of Studio Ghibli’s originality added in to keep with the stylistic senses of the rest of the film. But even so, the Forest Spirit’s underlying manor bears a striking similarity to an Asian mythological creature of similar status: the Kirin. The Spirit’s likeness to the Kirin isn’t exactly one-to-one, and looking at both creatures might prompt someone to ask if they have any real similarities whatsoever, but what similarities do exist between them are very important to the film, and hearken to myths in a way that requires further study to comprehend. As such, it seems appropriate to give greater attention to this creature and its place in Asian myth, in order to better understand how its inspiration manifests in the film proper.

 

Origins of the Myth and Historical Context

The Kirin (or Qilin if you want it romanized in Pinyin) is a creature that was first referenced in the old Chinese narrative, the Zuo Zhuan, which was a well-regarded commentary on parts of the Zhou dynasty of ancient China. In it, the creature’s arrival is said to have marked the impending birth and death of Confucius, an event that thenceforth closely associated the Kirin with the concepts of mortality and – following the widespread adoption of Confucianism throughout China in later centuries – good omens. Its connection to life and death eventually earned it the status of a being connected to the gods, or even a divine being itself. It gained a reputation as a beast of purity and justice, able to peer into people’s hearts and judge their moral character, and only punishing the wicked while never harming the innocent. Later Buddhist influence on the creature’s lore went so far as to describe it as never partaking in another creature’s flesh or stepping on greenery for fear harming the plants, and gave it the ability to walk on water or air instead. Today it remains as powerful symbol of morality and respect for nature, which is clearly evident in the Forest Spirit’s role as protector of nature and the veritable linchpin of life or death in the film.

 

Physical Appearance

As would be expected for a creature that’s existed in human consciousness for over 2000 years, the Kirin’s appearance has seen some changes over time due to inevitable shifts in aesthetic, influence of the appearances of real animals, and intermingling of myths from other cultures. However, there are some features that have remained fairly consistent. The Kirin is almost always depicted as a hooved and horned animal with a body shape similar to that of an ox, horse, or deer. Traditionally it borrows much from the appearance of Chinese dragons by having scales, a fearsome leonine visage with tapering whiskers, and sometimes the ability to manipulate fire. This interpretation persists today, but permutations of it became popular once the Kirin’s name was adapted as a term for a particular real-life animal that was foreign to historic Asia: the giraffe. According to legend, giraffes were to referred to as Kirins once they were brought to Asia from Africa, on the grounds that they were magical creatures not unlike the Kirin itself. As such, their appearance gradually seeped into interpretations of the Kirin as a more mammalian animal, akin to a reptilian steed rather than a draconic beast. This trend was reinforced by the influence of European myths about creatures like the unicorn, which spread to Asia centuries later. The Kirin thusly underwent a “westernization” of sorts to the point where it is now often referred to as “the Chinese unicorn”; it’s quite common to see the creature depicted as an equine or cervine being with a single horn instead of multiple ones. Again, depictions vary, but it goes to show that Kirin is certainly capable of inspiring a creature that may not resemble it clearly, and in time that inspired creature may even become part of the Kirin’s lore.

 

Thematic Connections to the Forest Spirit

Furthermore, the idea to take away from this is that the Kirin’s inspiration for the Forest Spirit in Princess Mononoke is less physical and more practical. The Forest Spirit mirrors the Kirin’s legacy accurately by being a divine being which concerns itself intrinsically with the birth and loss of life. Its every footstep grows and then kills plants in its wake, which may be a reference to the Kirin’s aforementioned aversion to stepping on plants for fear of unjustly harming or killing them, and it can also walk on water. It is trusted to be able to judge the purity and content of others’ hearts, just as the Kirin can, and just as it protects life, it takes away life only in situations where innocence is in danger just like the Kirin is said to do. Summarily, while the Forest Spirit is not quite as explicit in its judgement of others’ moral righteousness, its wrath which is incurred on the entire cast by those who wish to harm nature can be seen as a form of punishment not unlike how the Kirin is reputed to punish the wicked. Only an act of bravery and kindness is able to sate its destructive rampage, and once it’s been appeased, it immediately sets things right as a symbol of justice would.

In conclusion, Princess Mononoke‘s forest spirit can be interpreted as another modernized incarnation of the Kirin with some other elements mixed in. This is far from the only instance of correlation between the film and real-life context (historical or mythological), but given the Kirin’s long-standing legacy and the Forest Spirit’s integral part in the movie, it looks like a particularly latent yet profound reference is made.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Skye. Unicorns: The Myths, Legends, & Lore. Adams Media Corporation, 2015.

Chan, Joan. East Meets West. Author House, 2009.

Zuo, Qiuming. The Chronicle of Zuo (Chunqiu Zuo Zhuan). JiaHu Books, 2013.

Kubo and The Two Strings

Since we spent most of the day talking about films and how they re-tell stories or bring stories to life I wanted to throw one of my recent favorites into the pot. Kubo and The Two Strings is certainly more of an adventure film than a horror film, but this stop-motion journey from the studio that created Coraline is steeped in Japanese mythology and imagery. Kubo and the Two Strings, set in late-ancient Japan is, at its core, a story about family. It just so happens that Kubo is a descendant of the Moon King, and in that lies the conflict. Kubo’s mother wants for her son to live the life of a normal human, experiencing the feelings of humanity for better or for worse. Kubo’s grandfather wants to bring Kubo into the family business of ruling over the heavens in a cold, dispassionate eternity. When the Moon King finally gets wind of where Kubo and his mother are hiding he begins an arduous search which thrusts Kubo into a journey helped only by a monkey and a samurai beetle. Not to mention Kubo’s own magic powers which he channels through his trusty shamisen (pictured below). For fear of giving away the rest of the story that is where I will end my summary.

Given the setting of late-ancient Japan, the story is rich with the ideas, practices, and mythologies of the Japanese around this time. Ancestor worship, Yokai, and magic play a major role in the plot. There are many scenes in which characters of varying importance speak about the importance of honoring ancestors and conversing with those that have departed. Also, the outcome of a climactic scene is directly impacted by the bonds of the characters and their ancestors. As for Yokai, the giant skeleton that is represented on our syllabus is a key antagonist, as well as dragons and sea monsters. Most importantly the magic shamisen that Kubo plays is almost a character in its own right. This shamisen is the vessel of Kubo’s magical power which creates a very interesting dynamic and an even better soundtrack. The creators of the film showed care and attention to detail when crafting this tale and its setting. So much so that I was able to watch it and pick out points that we explicitly went over in class.

Overall, Kubo and The Two Strings is a very good film with a lot of heart and excitement. It is a gorgeous film that is very easy and enjoyable to watch, while also keeping the mind engaged about how we understand storytelling in our modern age. Also, it gives wings to the words and lectures we read and hear in class, driving the points just a little bit closer to home. Overall, Kubo and the Two Strings is great viewing for anyone who likes adventure and has enjoyed the class so far. Stay tuned for more updates from Shudan Borei on the podcast and other interesting posts.

 

Attributions:

By Ryukei at the Chinese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3128248