Ever since Saika’s post on fairies, I’ve been thinking about one of my most favorite mythological creatures: the tanuki. While the two are really only related in terms of having a non-human morality and magical powers, the resurgence of fairies in popular media through mediums like the Tinkerbell movies from Disney and various young adult novels makes me wonder if tanuki could hold the same sort of interest in the Western market. Not that I’m wishing for authors to appropriate a wider range of cultures, but at some point we’re going to reach an over-saturation of vampire and angel stories—authors are going to start getting creative, and I’d like to be prepared for the possible future.
Depending on who you talk to, one of the main differences between tanuki and other fantastical creatures are that tanuki are real. Indisputably real. The tanuki that most people are familiar with are otherwise known as raccoon dogs, which are native to Japan and look a lot like, well, raccoons. But what’s actually being discussed when we talk about the more supernatural tanuki are bake-danuki, which essentially means “ghost tanuki”. These are the creatures that are responsible for shape-shifting, and yes, they have huge balls. While many areas of Japan have different relationships to these bake-danuki, what seems to remain the same between them is that tanuki reside pretty highly up on the supernatural animal god ladder (ranking near, and even sometimes surpassing, the power of kitsune/fox spirits), they’re almost always directly related to nature (if only by virtue of living in it), and they’re morally ambiguous.
As, perhaps, opposed to many supernatural stories of the ancient era, tanuki aren’t viewed as especially dangerous, or at least not malevolent. Most myths about tanuki seem to focus on their carefree nature; their love for drinking and relaxing, and general good humor about life. They get their kicks from pulling tricks over on humans while enjoying the pleasures of the human world, commonly happening in terms of tanuki transforming into humans to get alcohol or visit brothels, paying with money that turns into leaves. However, tanuki also appear more willing to help humans than other creatures may be, and are willing to pay back a debt to humans that help them. For example, in Bunbuku Chagama (“Happiness Bubbling Over Like a Teapot”), a peasant frees a tanuki from a trap. In return, the tanuki transforms into a fancy teapot, which the peasant then sells. Not enjoying being a teapot, the tanuki eventually returns to the peasant and the two make a fine living for themselves by having the creature perform tricks as a half-tanuki, half-teapot.
While history seems to have no end of interesting tanuki tales, to see how the creatures may translate to a more modern audience, we have to see how they’re used in pop culture. After all, Twilight has Interview With A Vampire to thank for its relevancy, and modern fairy tales have the constant barrage of Disney flicks, as well as films like Labyrinth to keep interest of the fairy realm warm in the back of people’s minds. What do tanuki have? Well, as a Western consumer with comparatively little access to Japanese media: not much. The first thing that comes to mind, honestly, is Mario in his tanooki suit—which allows him to turn into a statue (which could be used to defeat previously invulnerable foes) and grants him the ability to fly. Not far behind is the well-feared miser of Animal Crossing, Tom Nook. As the first animal you see in the original Gamecube game, he makes sure you have a home only to put you into debt for a long time—for some, it’s forever. Nook runs the town’s stores, and well as being in charge of home renovation, so arguably all of your money is going to go to him. Of course, outside of video games, Gekkan Shoujo Nozaki-kun features a tanuki motif in Nozaki’s fellow manga artist, Yukari Miyako’s, work. She is forced to add tanuki in every story she draws because her editor loves them, which causes a negative reaction within the main group of characters—apparently tanuki have no place in shoujo manga. Additionally, Studio Ghibli created an entire movie focusing on tanuki called Pom Poko. While Ace and I may not have enjoyed the movie too much, I don’t think there’s a better modern introduction to the tanuki mythos. Yet this also creates a strange discrepancy between narrative portrayals.
Looking at the more modern reincarnations, there seems to be a shift from considering the tanuki something to watch out for and respect to considering the tanuki an annoyance or an inconvenience. Mario aside, both Nozaki-kun and Animal Crossing connect negative feelings to the tanuki, not out of fear of the tanuki’s supernatural power or morality, but because they are an everyday annoyance the characters must deal with, not unlike having to wake up early and go to school or staying up too late the night before you have something important to do. On a more general level, though, even modern day tanuki seem to be directly connected with the idea of being swindled or tricked, which seems much closer to their origins. However, even in Pom Poko the modern audience doesn’t seem to get that gray morality the bake-danuki should have. One of the most important aspects of the bake-danuki is that while other supernatural entities seem to work to make humans suffer, having motivations that humans couldn’t possibly understand right away (such as the fae), they have a simple way of life in wanting to make humans look stupid. There are no complicated rules, just a desire to have fun and laugh at humans getting tricked by their shape-shifting ways. Some of that shines through in Pom Poko, but given that the plot is about tanuki trying to get humans to stop destroying their habitat, understandably there’s a lot less pranking for pranking’s sake going on.
As far as a possible entry into the YA paranormal book market, I don’t think anyone has to worry about tanuki invading any time soon. While the raccoon-dogs do share a bit of that inhuman morality that fairies have, at the end of the day there’s no danger with tanuki. This isn’t a bad thing: sometimes supernatural creatures just want to have fun and laze around, and I can relate to that on a spiritual level. However, while creatures like vampires could easily be made into having troubled, mysterious pasts, I don’t think it would be in the mythos’ best interest to try that with tanuki. But watch, now that I’ve brought it up there’ll probably be a tanuki novel in the next year. I’ve doomed us all. I’m sorry. (…Okay, maybe I’m a little excited about it now. Whoops.)