This past weekend I attended an anime convention at the National Harbor in Maryland known as Katsucon. As with every anime convention I got to experience many weird and wonderful panels, merchandise and cosplay.
One panel I thoroughly enjoyed during my stay was Kowai: Ghosts, Yokai and Japanese Monster Culture, a lecture done by Charles Dunbar on the cryptic creatures of Japan known as Yokai (check out his blog here: http://www.studyofanime.com). What are Yokai you may be asking? Well the short definition is monster but as Dunbar has said the term Yokai is a broad one and therefore has no precise meaning; other definitions include (but are not limited to): spirit, goblin, ghost, fantastic being, a strange unexplainable experience and even just changing thing. The Japanese have a very rich history of unique monsters that has really become something of a cultural identity for them. Note that we in the West of course have our own versions of monsters: werewolves, vampires etc. but these monsters are fairly well spread out in the world, mostly stemming from European origin; the Yokai of Japan however are exclusive to their region and culture.
The first thing you should know about Yokai is that they are generally stayed the hell away from. These are highly powerful supernatural beings that will not hesitate to scare you, kill you, bite your face off and disembowel you (not exactly in that order). However while these beings are tremendously powerful some of them are actually quite silly sounding and harmless (until you piss it off). For instance there is a Japanese Oni who is basically the personification of washing your hands, anyone who doesn’t is sufficiently beaten silly by one.
By now you’re probably asking: “What on Earth do these so called Yokai have to do with video games?”, well newsflash if you ever played one of the 60+ games starring or featuring Pokemon than you’ve known about all sorts of Yokai all along. That’s right many of the 649+ Pokemon you know and love are designed and based off these fantastical creatures. This means ever since September 30th 1998, with the North American release of Pokemon Red and Blue, you have been unknowingly given a crash course in Japanese culture. Now I intend to expand that mini course of Yokai for you, by detailing 3 Yokai of my own choice and the Pokemon you may know them as.
Mawile’s Second Mouth
In the 3rd generation of Pokemon the land of Hoenn introduced us to a half adorable, half fierce looking Pokemon named Mawile. The Pokedex describes Mawile as such: Mawile’s huge jaws are actually steel horns that have been transformed. Its docile-looking face serves to lull its foe into letting down its guard. When the foe least expects it, Mawile chomps it with its gaping jaws. Now one can look at Mawile from a totally biological perspective, its deceiving front face is used as a mask to lull its prey into a false sense of security and then suddenly CHOMP! Very much like a Venus Flytrap or even like a butterfly with elaborate deceiving markings on its wings.
But in the world of the Yokai Mawile has a much more sinister persona as the Futakuchi-onna (lit. two-mouthed woman). The Futakuchi-onna has various origins for her second mouth, but the story told by Dunbar is as such. A woman married into a wealthy man’s family under the guise as being nice and polite. However her true nature was vile and greedy, in fact she despised her new step-children so much that she eventually allowed them to starve to death. Out of anger the wealthy man struck his wife in the back of her head with his sword, instead of killing her the wound instead never closed and formed into a second mouth which spoke out the woman’s true thoughts in the most vile words possible.
Now aside from generally being monstrous beings Yokai also have a tradition of being corrupt, morally failing, vengeful women; we can interpret this with sexism in both medieval and modern Japan but that’s a whole different topic. Generally Mawile isn’t a very powerful Pokemon, I feel it may even be one of those select ignored Pokemon for the most part. However as far as disturbing origin stories go, Mawile is a prime example to the darker side of Pokemon.
The Spiral Shell
Next up on our journey of Poke-origins, we come to the branched evolutions of Slowpoke. As you may or may not know Slowpoke supposedly evolves when a Shellder bites its tail, turning into Slowbro, or when bitten on its head, turning into Slowking. The Shellder in both cases now becomes this elaborate spiral shaped shell that still appears to be very much alive as the two share symbiotic relationship; the Shellder now getting its nutrients from the host and the usually dimwitted Slowpoke now becoming enlightened in both power and more importantly intellect.
So how bad can this next Yokai be? Any Pokemon whose name deliberately starts out with the prefix “Slow” obviously isn’t something to worry about right? Well that depends if were just talking about Slowpoke’s dopey family or if were referring to the Sazae-Oni (lit. shellfish ogre). The key feature of the Sazae-Oni is having a spiral shell as well, often described as being worn like a turban as in the fashion Slowking wears. The stories of the Sazae-Oni are emphasized by change or transformation, said to form when Turban Snails reach the age of 30; this is very reflective in Slowpoke as it evolves (or changes/transforms) when bitten on the head or tail. So what exactly makes this Yokai so scary? Well as a simple comparison these guys are very much like the mythical Greek Sirens. The Sazae-Oni may take on the form of a beautiful woman (more transformation) who seems to be drowning, however when attempting to rescue “her” they will reveal their true form and drag the rescuers down into a watery grave. So even the non-intimidating Pokemon like Slowpoke and its evolutions had Yokai influences in its creation, not just design wise but also in its lore as well.
The Head Shaped Fruit
As for my last Yokai example I want to step aside from the picture that all Yokai are just monsters, rather one aspect of my definition from earlier was a fantastic being. For this example we look at by far one of the strangest Pokemon, Exeggutor. Look at this thing, its a walking coconut tree with 3 faces, need I say more why this thing is so bizarre?
While it’s certainly ironic that I chose a walking, talking fruit tree as my example to explain that not all Yokai are monsters, this is very well the case for the Jinmenju (lit. human-faced tree). The Jinmenju is said to be a tree that grows fruits in the shape of human heads, this is actually more of an example of super-nature which can include mysterious plants and animals that are often referred to as cryptids or UMAs (unidentified mysterious animal). This Yokai is actually completely harmless all the fruits do are laugh and smile; after having laughed enough they are said to fully ripen and fall out of the tree. However a quite disturbing fact about the Jinmenju is that the fruit they bear are actually quite sweet and delicious and its for this reason it was said to be eaten to extinction, which is why there are no Jinmenju’s today.
Interestingly enough if we backtrack a bit back to Exeggcutor’s first stage Exeggcute we can see even more Jinmenju origin. Exeggcutor’s Pokedex entry states: Originally from the tropics, Exeggutor’s heads grow larger from exposure to strong sunlight. It is said that when the heads fall, they group to form an Exeggcute. So we now learn that Exeggcute are actually ripened fruit of an Exeggcutor that have fallen and conglomerated rather than actually being eggs (as if them being eggs really made any more sense).
I would like to note that there are many, many more Yokai and Pokemon out there (as things are going it may be debatable which has more) and I may follow up this post with additional Yokai influences in the Pokemon universe. Stay tuned.
Picture credits go out to:
- http://ehime.deviantart.com/art/Sazae-Oni-26504106 by ehime
- http://brinstar.deviantart.com/art/Exeggutor-81840088 by Brinstar
- http://pom-lover424.deviantart.com/art/The-Exeggcute-Family-284942924 by Zerochan923600
- Animated Pokemon sprites from http://www.pokestadium.com/
- Futakuchi-Onna by Yuko Shimizu for the Discovery Channel
- Featured image: Pokemon Ukiyo-e style by pixiv user nojo