It's almost Halloween. They may not celebrate it in Japan, but trust me, there's no shortage of things that go bump in the night here. They're called yokai. They're Japan's traditional creepy-crawlies, the sorts of monsters that have haunted generations of Japanese kids' dreams... and nightmares. If you've been following this blog, you know that Hiroko and I just published a guidebook about them called Yokai Attack! The Japanese Monster Survival Guide.
Even if you aren't Japanese, you're probably more familiar with the yokai than you think. They started life as rural folktales, but in the modern age they lurk in all sorts of unexpected places, from comics to anime to video games. So chances are you've been getting a healthy dose of Japanese mythology without even knowing it. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at a short list of yokai spotted in video games, compared to their folklore counterparts!
Mario's "Tanooki Suit" -- Super Mario Bros III
The tanuki, or "raccoon-dog," is a staple of Japanese folkore. They're known as tricksters, shape-shifters (as seen in the Studio Ghibli film Pom Poko) and as a symbol of good luck. You can find statues of them outside of restaurants throughout Japan. They're considered lucky because their enormous scrotums (which are called "kintama," or "golden balls," in Japanese) are the source of their supernatural powers. Too bad Mario didn't get a nice super-sized sack when he suited up in his "tanooki suit" (as it was spelled for the English language release of the game.)
Tails -- Sonic the Hedgehog Series
Kitsune, as foxes are known in Japan, are another famed trickster of Japanese folkore. They tend to be more devious than their tanuki counterparts, and the older and smarter they get, the more tails they grow. A nine-tailed fox is at the peak of its mystical powers. I guess that means Tails is just getting his supernatural groove on.
Nue -- Breath of Fire 3
Nue are Japanese chimaera. They're often described as being composed of a monkey's head on a tanuki's body with a tiger's legs and a poisonous snake for a tail. (Got all that?) For a perfect example of one, look no further than Breath of Fire III. (Anime freaks also know this yokai for another reason: it's the origin of the name of famed Studio Nue, which created Macross, Orguss, and most recently, the mecha for the Armored Core series.)
Drifter -- Kirby's Dream Land 2 and 3
One-eyed umbrellas called Drifters are found throughout the Kirby's Dream Land games. The combination of an eyeball and an umbrella seems weird, but it's based on the Kara-kasa, a cyclopean yokai parasol from Japanese folklore.
Kappa Mountain -- Super Mario World
Another yokai reference in the Super Mario series! Kappa are amphibious creatures that live in lakes, rivers, and coastal waters. They have humanoid bodies, frog-like skin, tortoise-shell backs, and most importantly, a dish of water atop their heads. If it spills for any reason while they're out of the water, they're totally defenseless. Kappa Mountain is designed to look like a kappa's head. If you're a fan of Japanese food, you're familiar with kappa for another reason: kappa maki! Cucumber is the kappa's second-favorite food. (The first is human entrails, but we'll save that discussion for another time...)
"Tengu Man" -- MegaMan 8
In Japanese folklore, Tengu are ferocious masters of martial arts. Tengu Man is specifically based on a "Hanadaka Tengu," which are generally human-looking save for a pair of wings, bright red skin and enormous noses. Note the green blades on Tengu Man's left hand -- they're reminiscent of the leaf-fans Tengu use as weapons (it's said that with a single hand-wave, they can use the fans to generate hurricane force winds.)
The Tengu -- Dead or Alive
Speaking of which, Tomonobu Itagaki's Dead or Alive games feature a pure, unadulterated Tengu straight out of Japanese folkore. The single-toothed geta sandals he's wearing are trademark footwear of the Tengu, and the outfit is reminiscent of Japanese Yamabushi warrior-monks. (Come to think of it, there's a Tengu Soldier in Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops as well. These guys are everywhere...!)
That's just a few to get you started. The yokai are out there, haunting your television screens. Now you know. And as they say, knowing is half the battle.