Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spookey Month: Kappa, Kitsune and Tanuki

Kappa are some sort of spirits or creatures that live in various bodies of water here in Japan. They're generally small, have physical features such as turtle shells and web hands and feet, are sometimes helpful... and are always polite.

This can come in handy. For a kappa also has a bowl-shaped depression on top of its head. It's filled with water and is the source of the kappa's power on land. If you meet a malicious kappa, one way to defeat it is to bow deeply. The etiquette-happy kappa will feel compelled to return the bow, spilling its head-water and becoming quite helpless.

Kappa are a mixed lot. They're credited with teaching the Japanese the medicinal art of setting broken bones, but also frequently steal children to eat them. Interesting trade off, huh? Kappa are also known for their delicious kaiten-zushi, or conveyor belt sushi. In downtown Hamamatsu, there is a homeless man sometimes found sitting on a bucket in front of the 7-11 on Yuraku-gai; he has a large domed head fringed with hair and bears the nickname "Kappa."

Kitsune are magical foxes. Like foxes in Western folklore, kitsune are tricksters. Highly intelligent, they sometimes assume human form, usually that of a bewitchingly beautiful young woman. In this guise, they sometimes marry mortal men. Kitsune have been known to possess people; again, usually young women.

Rain while the sun shines is known in Japan as kitsune-no yome-iri, or the "fox's wedding." Master filmmaker Kurosawa Akira includes a striking fox wedding in his film Yume (Dreams):

This proves unfortunate:

Tanuki, or "raccoon dog," is another magical Japanese animal spirit. Like the kitsune, tanuki are shapeshifters. They are frequently mischievous, but at least one was downright malicious-- this wicked tanuki clubbed an old woman to death and made her into soup which he then served to the woman's husband.

But most tanuki are relatively harmless, preferring a life of alcoholism and gluttony. Tanuki are also known for their oversized scrotums, referred to as kintama. Sometimes these scrotums are larger than the tanuki itself.

I first learned of tanuki from Tom Robbins' delightful novel Villa Incognito, part of which is set around the Lake Biwa region of Japan. This novel features a young woman who may or may not be descended from a tanuki. Japanese noise band Melt-Banana has a song called "Chicken Headed Racoon Dog;" it wasn't until after I read the Robbins novel I realized the song was about a tanuki... sort of. Tanuki statues are a fairly common sight around Japan. They and their magical scrotums typically stand in front of restaurants or shops to invite commerce and prosperity. Sing it now:

Tan-Tan-Tanuki no kintama wa
Kaze mo nai no ni
Bura bura bura

(Tan-tan-tanuki's balls
there isn't any wind
but still they swing swing swing)


Slappy said...

I'm loving this months theme.

Joel Bryan said...

Thanks! I really like the scene where the kid's mother tells him, "You went and saw something you shouldn't have."

Isn't that always the way?

Some awesome bands in the mix, too.

Hope you're feeling better. On the plus side, now that you have it you'll be finished with it and can forget about it.