Monster of the Week: Tanuki (狸)

Being one of the most popular creatures in Japanese folklore, the Tanuki  (狸), or raccoon dog, is the perfect subject for Monster of the Week. Not only does it have a rich background, it is also still very popular in modern Japan. Tanuki statues are a common sight in Japan and they are even regarded as luck bringers for restaurants and pubs. The tanuki is also popular in animation films, Studio Ghibli even made an entire movie about them called “Pompoko”.

A real tanuki

A real tanuki

What is the tanuki?

The tanuki is based on the raccoon-like typical Japanese animal that once was a common sight in the Japanese fields and forests. But urban growth and pollution has sadly had a big influence on their natural habitat. Tanuki in their natural form are mostly recognised by conical straw hats and enormous testicles. These testicles are very important for the tanuki as they are totally flexible, extensible, mobile and can be used for shapeshifting.

A ballsy move to catch birds

A ballsy move to catch birds

What does the tanuki do?

This monster loves to shapeshift. They can shift into any form that they like. Most of the time, they transform themselves into inanimate objects, this way people don’t know that they are being watched. They can also transform into humans. Their biggest “tool” is their testicles. These ultra-flexible balls can stretch out to almost 12 square meters and can be transformed into anything. They can be used as a raincoat, drums or even a disguise to impersonate other monsters.

But why do they shapeshift? They actually like to play pranks on humans and steal their money. Although they can really turn into anything, their pranks never turn evil. This gives them the title of “wild card” in the yōkai world. They are so extremely fond of good food and rich drinks, that they often kidnap and then impersonate brides or grooms so they can eat at the banquets of the weddings.

Tanuki fishing skills

Tanuki fishing skills

How can you escape?

Tanuki are more mischievous than evil so they will never put your life in danger. The only things that you have to worry about are your money and your pride. Since they are the “wild card” of the pranksters, their plans often go wrong and backfire. So if you ever find your wallet filled with leaves, or if you find your groom in the closet after the weddings, you’ve probably been pranked by a tanuki.

Famous tanuki statues

Famous tanuki statues

Tanuki in modern time Japan.

As mentioned before, the tanuki are seen as luck bringers. There are quite some businesses, mostly restaurants and pubs, that have a tanuki statue outside. In older times, craftmen even wrapped golden nuggets in tanuki pelts and sold them as lucky tanuki testicles. This is a lucky charm that is still very common in Japan today.

Also, in the famous Studio Ghibli movie “Pompoko”, a clan of tanuki work together to stop the humans from destroying their home and their habitat. They are often used as a symbol for nature in the constant struggle between urbanisation and nature.

Finally, two of the most popular noodle dishes in Japan are called tanuki soba and tanuki udon. These are both noodle dishes that just have tiny chunks of fried batter in them. These tiny chunks are traditionally left over batter from making tempura. It is said that these dishes get their name because the thought of paying money for empty bits of batter is the perfect tanuki prank.

Tanuki soba!

Tanuki soba!

Just remember, prepare some code words with your bride or groom before the wedding. You never know if the person next to you who’s stuffing his or her face with food is a tanuki or not.

Monster of the Week: O-dokuro (おどくろ)

Imagine walking around on an old battlefield in Japan around sundown, the wind is blowing through your hair, the eerie silence is piercing your bones and suddenly you hear a rattling sound. You feel a chill run down your spine as you turn around to face a giant skeleton. Congratulations, you have encountered an O-dokuro (おどくろ), or giant skeleton and with no shelter to hide in, it will probably be your last encounter ever.

O-dokuro in the mist

O-dokuro in the mist

 

What is the O-dokuro?

The O-dokuro is a spectre that mostly appears at night in areas where a lot of corpses have been left to rot. An old battlefield or an area that was used for genocide is the ideal location for an O-dokuro.  Because these bodies were denied a proper burial ritual, they were reanimated as a vengeful spirits. When 100 of these spirits came together, the powerful energy that was released formed a giant and especially hungry skeleton. It can also appear in a location where a lot of people are infuriated, sad or feel neglected.

This monster has different forms. The first form is just a giant skeleton but the second form is a skeleton made out of parts of innumerable other skeletons.

The tale of the O-dokuro or Gashadokuro is more than a 1.000 years old and the most famous depiction of it is Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre” (相馬の古内裏).

Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre”

Kuniyoshi Utagawa’s “Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre”

 

What does the O-dokuro do?

Hungry for more bones so it can grow even bigger, the O-dokuro hunts for people. It mostly hunts on two legs but if it wants to go faster, it gets down on all fours and chases everyone down who is near him. Once it catches its prey, it devours the skin, guts and all the other soft parts. Afterwards it takes the freshly flayed-clean bones and attaches them to its own body. The O-dokuro is always looking for more bones and loves to feast on human flesh.

Attack on O-dokuro!!

Attack on O-dokuro!!

 

How can you escape?

Here’s the problem, it’s actually very difficult to escape the O-dokuro. Once it has chosen its prey, it will do everything to catch it. Your best chance is to find a suitable hide-out where it can’t find you and wait until the sun comes up. But even then, you might be in danger. The O-dokuro can partially disassemble itself to reach into places that are too small for it to enter, so make sure that your hide-out is chosen wisely.

Statue at the Mizuki Shigeru Museum in Sakaiminato

Statue at the Mizuki Shigeru Museum in Sakaiminato

 

Can the O-dokuro be killed?

Being practically invulnerable, it’s impossible to kill the O-dokuro. Its size and invulnerability makes the O-dokuro a very strong opponent but due to the amount of bodies that are required to form an O-dokuro, this monster is very rare in the modern age. During its life, it constantly burns up the maleficent energy that was created when it was born. Once this energy is burned out, the O-dokuro will disappear and stop existing.

 

Drawing by Mjx20 at Deviantart (http://mjx20.deviantart.com/)

Drawing by Mjx20 at Deviantart (http://mjx20.deviantart.com/)

O-dokuro in the popular culture

Even though the occurrence of O-dokuro is rare, they still are depicted in Japan’s popular culture. They are often used as a motif in tattoo’s and prints on silk jackets. In the famous Studio Ghibli’s animated film “Pompoko”, a clan of shapeshifting tanuki (タヌキa raccoon dog with magical powers that we will tell you about in future articles) shift into an O-dokuru to scare away the people who threaten their home.

 

O-dokuro in the Studio Ghibli film "Pompoko"

O-dokuro in the Studio Ghibli film “Pompoko”

Just remember, don’t try to visit an ancient battlefield in Japan when it’s dark, you might just become part of giant, vengeful skeleton for the rest of your life. If you do decide to visit a place like that, make sure there is a good hide-out, otherwise you’ll be skeleton food.

Monster of the Week: Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女)

After a small break to open our Ghent – Kanazawa Art Exchange Project (http://www.inarivzw.be/projecten/ghent-kanazawa-art-exchange-program/), Monster of the Week is back. This week Inari decided to tell the tale of the Kuchisake Onna (口裂け女), or slit-mouthed woman. It’s a monster that is quite young; the first “sightings” are dated in 1979 in the Nagasaki Prefecture (長崎県). Even though this onryō’s tale is quite new, she has appeared in quite some movies and other media.

 Reader discretion is advised because the kuchisake onna can be very explicit.

The faces of Kuchisake Onna

The faces of Kuchisake Onna

What is the kuchisake onna?

This monster is an onryō (怨霊), or an avenging spirit. She was killed by her husband after cheating on him. He killed her by cutting open her mouth from ear to ear; this violent death made her come back to avenge her death. She mostly appears in dark alleys and badly lit streets while wearing a mouth mask and a long raincoat. Classical onryō have long black hair and white skin and the kuchisake onna is no exception. Because these two features are considered as a beauty norm, this makes the onryō even more terrifying; the thought that someone so beautiful can be a violent spirit is pure horror.

Weapon of choice: Scissors

Weapon of choice: Scissors

What does the kuchisake onna do?

This onryō appears in dark alleys or badly lit streets and mostly attacks young children. She suddenly appears in front of them wearing a mouth mask and asks: “Am I pretty?”. Being polite, the victims will answer “Yes.”. The kuchisake onna will then take of her mouth mask, revealing the horribly ripped mouth and ask: “How about now?”. What happens next depends on the answer. If the victim answers “yes”, she will take out her scissors and give the victim the same slit mouth like she has. If the victim says “no”, she will kill the victim with the scissors. Trying to run away is useless as the kuchisake onna has superhuman speed and will catch up to the victim instantly.

Slit-mouthed

Slit-mouthed

How can you escape?

There are multiple ways to escape the kuchisake onna. You could always try to confuse her by saying she looks average. The kuchisake onna will be shocked by that answer and will not know what to do, giving you the chance to run away.

Another option is throwing hard candy at her. Apparently the kuchisake onna loves hard candy and will thank you for the treat.

If you say that you already belong to someone else and that you cannot answer her questions because of that, she will apologise and leave you alone.

Finally, you could just return the question and ask her whether she thinks you’re pretty or not. This will confuse her, giving you the opportunity to run away.

Drawing by Cageyshick05 on Deviantart

Drawing by Cageyshick05 on Deviantart

Is she real?

There were a lot of sightings after 1979, causing panic all over the Nagasaki prefecture. The cities were forced to issue curfews and to let the teachers guide the children to their homes.  Since the 2000’s, she was also sighted in South-Korea where she wears a red mouth mask and chases children.

 In 2007 a coroner found old records about a woman with a mouth mask who was chasing a couple of kids; she was run over by a car and when they took off her mouth mask, she had a mouth that was sliced open from ear to ear. Some people today think it was a serial killer who wanted to take revenge for what was done to her.

Just remember, always keep some hard candies on you, you never know the kuchisake onna wants to share her beauty complex with you.

Tell me I'm pretty!

Tell me I’m pretty!

Monster of the Week: Kappa (河童)

To start off our first real ‘Monster of the Week’, we decided to tell you more about the kappa (河童), one of the most famous monsters in Japan. This creature lives in rivers and many Japanese people still claim to see them often today. They are also portrayed in popular media and in some cities there are still warning signs concerning the kappa. There even is a type of sushi that is called a kappamaki (河童巻) which is just a roll filled with cucumber. Why the cucumber? Find out in this article.

Kappa surprise

Kappa surprise

What is a kappa exactly? The kappa can best be described as a humanoid form with childlike measurements. They seem to have reptilian skin and different colours, some are green and some are blue. Even though their description varies from region to region, the kappa has certain features that never change. First of all, the kappa has a beak as a mouth. Secondly, it has a sturdy shell like a turtle, and finally, every kappa has a flat, hairless surface, or a sara (皿), on the top of his head that is filled with water of the river he lives in. This water is the source of the kappa’s power. If the sara ever gets dry, it is said that the kappa will lose its power. Beside those features, the kappa has a body that is adjusted to living underwater; he has webbed hands and feet and can swim like a fish.

Different kinds of kappa

Different kinds of kappa

The kappa is of course considered a monster for a reason. It is known for its mischievous nature and it perform a lot of pranks. Some of these pranks can be harmless like looking up women’s clothing or loudly farting next to people, but sometimes they’re just plain evil. The kappa is for instance known for kidnapping children, drowning people or animals and raping women. It is said that they take humans for multiple reasons; drinking their blood, eating their livers and many more. The most interesting reason is that they want to eat the human’s shirikodama (尻子玉), a spiritual ball that has the human’s soul in it and that is located in the anus.

Some shirikodama action

Some shirikodama action

How can you defeat a kappa? Luckily there are a lot of ways to defeat a kappa. First of all, you could try to defeat it in a sumo match or by playing shogi (将棋), which is Japanese chess; kappa love challenges and will always go out of their way to accept one. If they win, you’re kappa food but if they lose, they will honour the challenge and leave you alone.

Challenge

Challenge

Another way to defeat a kappa is to make a deep bow towards it,; kappa have a strong sense of politeness and will bow back to you making the water spill from its head. The kappa gets its power from the water in the sara so it will be powerless. If you then fill it with water from the river, it will be in your service for as long as it lives.

Or you could just give it a cucumber. It is said that kappa love the taste of cucumbers even more than children’s flesh. If you give it a cucumber, it will leave you alone and just enjoy its cucumber in the water. Japanese people still write the names of their children on cucumbers and then toss these cucumbers in a river to protect their children from kappa. And that is why they call that sushi a kappamaki.

Kappamaki sushi

Kappamaki sushi

That being said, the kappa isn’t always that bad. It is said that kappa taught us how to set bones and how to irrigate fields. They also know a lot about medicine and will sometimes watch over an entire family. They often befriend humans in return for gifts and offerings. For these reasons, shrines were built to worship the kappa and kappa are still a very famous aspect of Japanese folklore.

The animation film "Kappa no Kū to no Natsuyasumi" (河童のクゥと夏休み) or "Summer Days with Coo"

The animation film “Kappa no Kū to no Natsuyasumi” (河童のクゥと夏休み) or “Summer Days with Coo”

So moral of the story? Always take a cucumber with you while walking next to a Japanese river.