Wednesday, October 19, 2011



Fu fu fu...

Warning: Certain aspects Japanese folk culture can seem strange or even offensive to Western audiences. This is gonna be a strange article.

Before we begin, here are some useful definitions:

yokai [yoh-kai]
1. a Japanese spirit, demon, or monster.
tanuki [tah-noo-kee]
1. a Japanese raccoon dog.
2. a highly mischievous, jolly but somewhat gullible and absentminded creature of Japanese myth, that usually takes the form of a raccoon dog but is master of disguise and shape-shifting.

Many Americans, at least those who owned Super Mario Bros. 3, have heard of the word tanuki and probably even used it. Mario in his "tanuki suit" is the most iconic image from the game. Yet, the costume's meaning is probably confusing to most Americans. To use Mario's tanuki suit you have to find a leaf, pick it up, and poof, you can hover with the use of the ring-tail. Some people call this the raccoon suit without knowing/considering two things; tanukis, though called raccoon dogs, are neither raccoons nor dogs and they can't fly. So why tanuki?
Look at these chubby, adorable bastards!

Somehow less adorable in Pom-Poko...
It is because tanuki are one of the most beloved creatures, or yokai, of Japanese mythology. They are Japan's match to the English Leprechaun. Tanuki are chubby, mischievous and jolly creatures who use their shape-shifting powers to trick humans. Luckily, they're more often mischievous than mean-spirited. There is one feature about tanuki that is far less palatable to the West. That would be the tanuki's kintama.

Holy s***! Look at those bullocks!

The kintama is actually are WTF subject of the week. The kintama are the tanuki's bullocks (or for those of your at home who don't know British expletives, kintama are their testicles). They are quite prominent on the real-life animal but on the mythical creature they take an even more bizarre size and use. Firstly, they represent good fortune, as kintama literally translates to "golden spheres," implying their worth. They're not only a symbol of good fortune but are practical.In fact, they are said to have literally fifty uses for the kintama. You can see some of these uses in traditional Japanese art.
Not only are they the tanuki's preferred weapon of choice but they can also be used for catching birds and fish.
Now, I know what some of you are probably thinking right now, "those kooky Japanese! With all their perversions and such!" Yet, you're not really being fair. This is not intended to be sexual. If anything, it is parody and humor. Furthermore, at the very least, it is very original and interesting. You may also believe tanuki are just for adults. You're dead wrong. Just to remind you that they're for kids and no different than say, unicorns, to our children....
Studio Ghibli, the same company that brought us My Friendly Neighbor Totoro, Kiki's Delivery Service, and Spirited Away made a film in 1994 dedicated to the little creatures. It makes a lot of sense. Studio Ghibli's films commonly have a pro-nature message and the film is about a clan of tanuki trying to survive as human civilization is encroaching on their territory. The tanuki stand on the line between the human realm, due to their personalities and the animal realm, they are animals, and thus can serve the nature message as well as serving as an analogue for rural Japanese society. If you can get past the kintama, and believe me they use a lot of it in this movie, Pom Poko is a solid animated film.
Before we finish, let's look at the 8 Special Traits that tanuki believe bring good fortune. Interestingly enough, tanuki commonly carry items with the Japanese kanji (Japanese symbol) for the number 8 painted on the side.
8 Special Traits for Good Fortune
1. A hat to be ready to protect against trouble or bad weather.
2. Big eyes to perceive danger and help make good decisions.
3. A sake bottle that represents virtue and generosity.
4. A big tail that represents steadiness until success is achieved.
5. Big bullocks to symbolize financial luck.
6. A promissory note that represents trust or confidence.
7. A big belly that symbolizes bold and calm decisiveness.
8. A friendly smile.

And with that, I bid you sayonara.

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