Hello and welcome back to Hotsui Matsuri! Today is day five of Hotsui Matsuri and we’re also going to be doing yet another Nihongo Legends post! And this time? This time we’re going to be talking about a folklore legend that is seeped in actual truth: the legend of the Tanuki.
What is a Tanuki? And why is it a truth seeped in folklore? Well because the tanuki is an actual living creature known as the Japanese raccoon dog. And no, the Japanese raccoon dog is not actually a half breed of a raccoon and a dog, it is actually an animal that is part of the canidae family making it surprisingly more of a dog than a regular raccoon (which is part of the procyonidae family). The tanuki animal is a surprisingly cute animal–I mean just look at it. Adorable. But they are wild animals and even though they are part of the canidae family, they kind of act more like cats at times. And these adorable wild creatures have had deep significance in Japanese folklore.
In folklore, the tanuki yokai, or better known as the bake-danuki, are extremely prominent. The bake-danuki are found far and wide, and they are mostly known as mischevious but peace loving creatures. Like the kitsune, they are known as shapeshifters, though whereas kitsune trick people, the earliest mention of these tanuki yokai simply sing songs. These creatures aren’t exactly manipulative and cunning like other yokai, and they are often both the butt of the joke in the yokai world. However, they also like to be the jokesters of the yokai world and enjoy playing pranks on people to make them look stupid or just to have a good time. Never to harm or cause ill intent. In this manner, the bake-danuki are often showcased in lighter anime, and are often portrayed as adorable (which they are) and used for comic relief. These creatures are well loved in most anime, games, and more.
One of my favorite portrayals of tanuki in anime comes from the feel good, slice-of-life anime Poco’s Udon World. In this show Souta, a young man who has recently lost his father and returns to his hometown, essentially adopts this boy he found inside his family’s old udon shop. The boy, whom he names Poco, ends up actually being a shapeshifting tanuki. Though the series depicts daily life with these two, I found that Poco was cute and funny–kind of what is expected from tanuki to begin with. But I also enjoy how in the show, Poco taught the MC something–he popped into his life for a bit but wasn’t there to stay, which feels very much like how bake-danuki would shapeshift. They aren’t there to mess with you like other yokai, but perhaps to help you.
Of course tanuki, being well loved, show up in a plethora of anime. There’s Hashi in Inuyasha who is more raccoon dog than human shapeshifter, there’s Inugami from Kemono Jihen who is less mysterious and more overall helpful as a tanuki shapeshifter, and then there’s all the characters in what is probably the best tanuki anime related content out there: Pom Poko. Which, since this isn’t a review post of any kind, I’m not going to go too far into what Pom Poko is about, but the name of the film is derived from the drumming sound that tanuki supposedly make and it is REALLY good. Watch it if you haven’t already. When mentioning tanuki, I also HAVE to mention Uchouten Kazoku, also known as The Eccentric Family, which is about a tanuki family. Tengu are also in The Eccentric Family, and if you don’t know what a tengu is, no worries. I’m sure it’ll be a future Nihongo Legend post.
The most interesting thing to me about most stories surrounding tanuki, is that they are often involved in deeply human stories–or rather, stories that don’t just depict them as yokai separate from the real world, but rather they are slice-of-life stories. They are stories where the tanuki feel just as any human would, they are stories where they have traits that we as humans see in ourselves. Whereas kappa and kitsune are beyond the mystical in stories, tanuki, despite being just as mystical are portrayed with struggles more like ourselves. It’s a curious thing. Is this why they are well loved? Or is it because they are well loved that they are portrayed so. I guess that’s a question I might never know the answer to.
Well, I think that about wraps up my post about tanuki! I hope you enjoyed this Nihongo Legend and maybe learned a thing or two about tanuki (or maybe not). I certainly enjoy their cameos in anime and games alike (even when they’re trying to sell me property and make me pay off my mortgages). But tanuki’s aside, don’t forget to join us tomorrow on the blog for even more Hotsui Matsuri fun!