Japanese Folklore and Mythology in Video Games


Japanese media are often dismissed by westerners as simply being crazy, but this is often the case because of cultural references or allusions that non-Japanese persons simply cannot understand right off the bat. Even an outlandishly off-the-wall video game will appear more sensible once the player examines the origin of certain elements in the game–and that is exactly what I’m about to do. I’ll show you several instances of mythology and folklore in Japanese video games. These instances shall be put in three categories: First, a concept or figure from folklore or mythology that is mentioned by name but does not actually appear; Second, a figure or concept that appears but is not specifically identified as that figure or concept, and may be based off that figure rather than being the figure itself; and Third, an appearance of the figure or location itself, dramatized for use in that video game.

The first category is sparse because video games are in general very visual, but there are some examples of a mention or allusion. The game Toukiden: The Age of Demons (討鬼伝), developed by Omega Force, is replete with such references. The game is based around hunting down and defeating a wide variety of monsters, called oni (鬼), but there is an important aspect that the player might not at first consider. Rather than simply being slain with weapons, the monsters in Toukiden must be cleansed in order to be truly defeated. Every monster is impure to some degree, and the player must cleanse them of this impurity. In Shintou belief the term kegare (穢れ) refers to a state of pollution or defilement.[1] Almost all of the monsters in Shintou were ordinary humans or kami who were consumed by kegare and transformed into beasts. Toukiden requires the player to perform “the ritual of purification” during battles with monsters in order to free the soul trapped within them. Now, none of the monsters in the game are a clear allusion to any monster from Japanese folklore or mythology, but their function and behavior in the game are perfectly in line with Shintou beliefs.

The soul of a person which has been freed from a monster, known as mitama (御魂) in both Shintou and in Toukiden, will aid the player by lending their strength to the player’s weapons. This makes perfect sense when considering two traditional Japanese beliefs: One, that a weapon can be imbued with the spiritual power of either its wielder or its smith, and Two, that the kami and the spirits of the dead can intervene during times of trouble. In Toukiden, the player can select a certain mitama to inhabit the weapon and give it certain traits. Every single one of these mitama is named after a real historical figure. They include Takeda Shingen, who was a Daimyo during the Sengoku Jidai, Tokiwa Gozen, who was a noblewoman of the Heian Jidai, and Masamune Date, a warrior and daimyo who founded the city of Sendai. The basic idea of freeing mitama is echoed in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, although it is not known whether this resemblance is intentional. In the Sonic games, the evil scientist Dr. Eggman imprisons animals inside robots, and the titular hedgehog must destroy the robots to free the animals. In the Sonic series there is also the pervasiveness of the Shintou idea of living harmoniously with nature. The player may initially get the impression that Sonic is anti-technology or anti-industry, but this is dispelled by the later knowledge that Sonic and Tails own and fly a biplane. It is not the machine itself, but the excessiveness of pollution, etc. that is seen as evil in the series.

The second category of allusions is much more plentiful. The Super Mario Bros. series alone can supply countless examples. Perhaps the most well-known is the power-up item from Super Mario Bros. 3 called the tanuki (spelled “tanooki” in the English release) suit. This power-up causes Mario to wear a raccoon suit that enables him to transform into a statue. Although the tanuki (raccoon dog) is a real animal, there is a rich history of fictionalized depictions in Japanese folklore. Tanuki typically are depicted as jolly and somewhat mischievous, having supernatural powers including shapeshifting, and are often associated with wealth.[2] It is the ability to shapeshift which is put to use in SMB 3. However, Mario does not become a tanuki; he only wears a suit that gives him shapeshifting powers.

The association between tanuki and wealth came about partly due to wordplay—goldsmiths in real life would often use tanuki pelts while hammering out gold nuggets. The word for gold nugget, 金玉, (kintama) is also used as a slang word for testes, and tanuki have a disproportionately large scrotum, so the tanuki came to be associated with wealth. In the Animal Crossing (動物の森) series there is a character named Tanukichi (but Tom Nook in the English version) whose main purposes in the game are to run the town store and to lend money to the player. There is no evidence either way to suggest that Tanukichi is a supernatural being, and he may simply be an anthropomorphized real-life tanuki. Nevertheless, his role as the player’s source of money is quite relevant.

In Super Mario Bros. 3 we also see the introduction of an enemy called バッタン (known in English as the Thwomp). The Thwomp stays on the ceiling until Mario comes close, then it crashes down in an attempt to crush Mario. The Thwomp is based on the folklore monster called Nurikabe (ぬりかべ).[3] The Nurikabe were wall-like monsters (and in fact, かべ means “wall”) that sought to trap or mislead travelers at night by appearing out of nowhere and blocking the traveler’s way through a certain corridor.[4] The Nurikabe had the ability to expand, contract, etc., at will. This ability can be seen in the Monster Rancher games, where enemies called Monols can change their dimensions during battle. And in several Final Fantasy games there is an enemy called Demon Wall which traps the player by moving slowly toward them down a corridor, in an attempt to crush them into the wall behind them. In a way, the Demon Wall can be thought of as a slow-motion Thwomp turned sideways. Monsters from folklore can serve as inspiration for a wide array of interesting enemies. In Bayonetta, for example, there is an enemy that is just a head on a flaming wheel. This enemy is inspired by the folktale of Wanyuudou (輪入道, literally “wheel monk”), a man who was either a tyrannical daimyo or a monk who neglected to purify himself—in either case, the person was consumed by kegare and transformed into his monster form, a flaming wheel with a tortured head mounted in the middle, forever condemned to roll around back and forth between the underworld and the land of the living.

Finally in SMB3, there is a very rare occurrence of a treasure ship with the kanji 宝 on its sail. This is a very clear allusion to the takarabune (宝船), or “treasure ship,” of myth. This ship was believed to be occupied by the “Seven gods of Fortune,” kami who bring good fortune and gifts to children once per year. In SMB3 the ship is unoccupied, but it is filled with treasure for the taking. True to the myth, however, it is on a time limit. The level automatically scrolls to the right, meaning there is limited time to grab the treasure. If the player is greedy, he may be crushed to death, and the ship will disappear.

In the much later game Super Mario 3D Land, there is a power-up item called the “Lucky Cat Bell” which equips the player with a cat suit. This cat suit is modeled after the maneki neko (招き猫, meaning “beckoning cat”), a popular cat figurine that graces businesses across Japan. It is not clear from which folktale the maneki neko originated, but its endurance as a good luck charm means that it fits the bill rather well for the purposes of this paper. In the figure below, both the typical maneki neko pose and coin are modeled accurately by Mario.

 

Mario’s cat suit is gold for a very relevant and specific reason. Although the most common maneki neko is calico, there are different colors that convey different ideas. Gold conveys the idea of financial luck or well-being, and in SM3DL, Mario can perform a special move while wearing the golden cat suit that causes gold coins to appear out of thin air, which he then collects. The other playable characters in the game have the same suit albeit with different colors. Luigi wears a cat suit that is green, Toad wears a blue suit, Princess Peach wears a pink suit, and Princess Rosalina wears a black suit. As far as I know, there is no significance to the first three; the colors are chosen simply because they fit the characters. For example, Luigi always wears green so he has a green cat suit. But Princess Rosalina, on the other hand, serves a very important role as the protector of the galaxies in the Super Mario Galaxy games, and the color black on a maneki neko signifies the power to ward away evil spirits. Thus, even though Rosalina wears a teal dress, the black maneki neko suit fits her as a character.

Next, let us look at a creature from folklore who is less well-known. In The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (ゼルダの伝説 神々のトライフォース), Link comes across a large, talking catfish in a lake called The Lake of Ill Omens. The catfish in question is trapped inside a circle of stones that extend all the way to the lake bottom. If Link throws a rock into the circle, the catfish which had been napping will rise to the surface and cause an earthquake in the process. He will give Link an item called the Quake Medallion, which will allow Link to perform a special move that causes an earthquake. This catfish is a namazu (鯰), or at least based on it. “Namazu” is the Japanese word for “catfish,” but there were supernatural namazu in Japanese myth too. The mythical namazu were catfish who were believed to cause earthquakes by wriggling around in the mud under Japan. The earthquakes eventually became so bad that the god of thunder and swords, Kashima, had to restrain the namazu by pinning them down with heavy stones. If Kashima ever lowered his guard, the namazu would break free. In A Link to the Past, the namazu is incapable of leaving the circle of stones inside the lake—it is his prison. The Pokémon Namazun (known in English as Whiscash) resembles a catfish and performs a signature move called “earthquake.” And in Lufia II one of the bosses is a giant catfish that causes earthquakes.

The cultural elements in The Legend of Zelda series are varied, with some allusions being very obscure or from countries other than Japan. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, for example, is heavily based on several African tribes. Nevertheless, Majora’s Mask contains another good Japanese allusion as well. There is a fox mask, called the Keaton mask, that Link can wear as a disguise. At one point in the game Link can actually come across Keaton, after whom the mask is modeled. Keaton is a three-tailed talking fox. The idea of a multi-tailed fox is a somewhat popular one in video games, with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 featuring a two-tailed fox named Miles “Tails” Prower. Tails, Keaton, and others are based on the mythical creature kitsune. Just as the tanuki is a real-life raccoon dog and the namazu is a real-life catfish, the kitsune is a real-life fox. However, the kitsune have also been fictionalized as supernatural beings in Japanese folklore.

The kitsune were believed to have magical powers that grew stronger with age, and that the number of tails they had (up to nine) was an indicator of their age/power. The Pokémon Vulpix and NineTales are also clearly inspired by the kitsune. According to Japanese folklore, one of the abilities that the kitsune had was shape-shifting and disguise, which is why the Keaton mask from Majora’s Mask can be used to make Link unrecognizable to everyone but Keaton himself. Kitsune also have the ability to emit fire and lightning from their mouths and tail(s). This ability is called kitsunebi (狐火), literally “fox fire.” In the Super Smash Bros. series, Fox McCloud is able to move very quickly and combust in a fiery explosion. He does not have this ability in the Star Fox series, but Nintendo, when choosing to include him in the SSB series, needed to give him an extra power to round out his move set, and decided to give him a power belonging to the kitsune because he is a fox. Nintendo is very adept at using elements from various sources, especially Japanese mythology and folklore. Of course, the prime video game treasure trove of cultural allusions is Ookami, about which an entire paper could be written.

This brings us to the third category, in which mythological persons/things appear as themselves. In Capcom’s magnum opus Ookami, you play as the head of the Shintou kami Amaterasu herself, in lupine form. The title Ookami is a play on words, as it can either be read as 狼 (“wolf”) or 大神 (“great god”/”[honorific] god”). Amaterasu is the greatest and most honorable god of Shintou, and she is incarnated as a wolf in Ookami, so both readings are quite applicable. Every honorable NPC (non-player character) who speaks to Amaterasu speaks with reverence. The game makes it abundantly clear that the player has very big shoes to fill, so to speak.

The main antagonist of the game is Yamata no Orochi, an eight-headed serpent. His name in Japanese, 八岐の大蛇, literally means “eight-branched giant snake.” Orochi also made an appearance in Dynasty Warriors and Samurai Warriors. In the Shintou myth, Amaterasu’s brother Susanoo learned of Orochi’s reign of terror, wherein he selected maidens to be sacrificed to him. Susanoo sprang into action and sought to intervene before the next maiden could be killed. He saved the maiden by having her parents brew eight vats of sake. Orochi came and drank from all eight vats at once and fell asleep, whereupon Susanoo severed each of Orochi’s heads. In one of Orochi’s tails was a sword, which is called Kusanagi no Tsurugi (“grass-cutting sword”), but was originally called Ame no Murakumo no Tsurugi (“Heavenly sword of gathering clouds”). Susanoo presented this sword to Amaterasu, with whom he had been feuding, as a peace offering.[5] This sword was one of the three Imperial Regalia of Japan, which Japan considers to be among their greatest national treasures. The other two regalia are a mirror and a necklace, given to Amaterasu by her parents Izanagi and Izanami.

In Ookami there are two characters named Nagi and Nami, obviously based on Izanagi and Izanami. Nami had passed away and her husband Nagi traveled to the underworld, Yomi, to rescue her. In the original mythology, Izanagi was unsuccessful. The time that Izanami spent in Yomi transformed her into a demon (recall the concept of kegare discussed earlier). Fortunately for those who enjoy a happy ending, in Ookami Nagi successfully rescued his bride. The characters and locations in Ookami who are taken from mythology and folklore are far too numerous to list, but I will briefly mention three more. One of the minor characters the player comes across is named Mokusei Sakuya, who lives in a tree named Konohana. Konohanasakuya is the name of the Shintou goddess of blossoms. So the first half of the name gives us Konohana, and the second half gives us Sakuya. And Mokusei means “tree spirit” (木精). A picture of Sakuya was stolen by another minor character in the game, Wandering Artist Issun. This character is taken from the folktale Issun Boshi, or The One Inch Boy. He stays true to this description in Ookami, where he is about the size of one of Amaterasu’s paws. Finally for Ookami, let’s take a quick look at one of the locations in the game. One of the areas in the introduction level, accessed from a gateway at the base of Konohana, is called Ama no Gawa (天の川), meaning “River of Heaven.” Ama no Gawa is also the name of the Milky Way in Japanese. In the game, however, it seems to refer to the Ame no Uki-Hashi (天の野浮橋), meaning “Floating Bridge of Heaven,” which connects Earth to the dwelling place of the kami, Takamagahara (高天原).

The final game to look at is the not-at-all magnum opus Samurai Zombie Nation by KAZe. The protagonist of SZN is a giant, floating head that shoots eyeballs from his mouth and destroys everything in his path. The name of this creature, according to the game’s manual, is Namakubi, which literally means “freshly-severed head” ( 生首 ). This creature is based on the story of Taira no Masakado (? – 940 AD). Masakado was next in line to lead the Taira clan but his uncle and then his father-in-law tried to assassinate him. In the process of defending himself from these attacks, Masakado ended up fighting two different wars and took an approach of attrition.[6] He became infamous for his brutal, over-the-top retribution against his enemies. However, peasants saw him as a hero because he was a very beneficent ruler. Masakado managed to conquer seven other prefectures and the peasants welcomed him as a liberator. Similarly, in the game, the protagonist seeks to save the world by fighting a war of attrition and destroying nigh everything in his path. Masakado even went so far as to declare himself Emperor over his own state. His ambitions were ultimately unrealized however, as Kyoto sent forces to crush him. They then had him beheaded and put his head on a pike as a warning to all potential rebels. Supposedly Masakado’s head never decomposed but his facial expression became steadily angrier as his head sat upon the pike day after day. Later on, multiple persons reported seeing his head fly through the sky at night. His head was eventually removed from the pike and buried, and the Kanda Myoujin shrine was built atop his final resting place so that peasants could offer him gifts and try to placate his restless spirit.

So there are many cultural references to be found in Japanese video games, from the simple and straightforward to the obscure and outlandish. There are, of course, many more thousands that could be catalogued, but I believe that this proffers a nice sampling of the various different kinds, from various games. It just goes to show that the stories of yesteryear make up a rich cultural tapestry that will continue to inspire and entertain until the end of time. The classics never die.

 

 

[1] Nishioka, Kazuhiko. “Kegare.” Encyclopedia of Shinto. Kokugakuin University. Online.

[2] Schumacher, Mark. “Tanuki in Japanese Artwork.” OnMark Productions. Online.

[3] LeJacq, Yannick. “Ten Things You Might Not Know About Mario Kart.” Kotaku. 13 January 2015. Online.

[4] Foster, Michael. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. University of California Press. 2014. Print.

[5] Aston, W.G. Nihongi, chronicles of Japan from the earliest times to A.D. 697. Vol. I. Book I: The Age of the Gods. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., Limited. pp. 52–53. 1896. Print.

[6] Nussbaum, L. F., et al. “Taira no Masakado.” Japan Encyclopedia, p. 926. Harvard University Press. 2005. Print.

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