Nintendo Mythology: Mystic Creatures

Kyle explores the creatures from Japanese mythology that have cropped up in Nintendo games over the years.

By Kyle England. Posted 07/06/2012 14:00 2 Comments     ShareThis


This one might be a little more familiar. The tanuki (also known as “raccoon dog”) is a real animal native to Japan. However, there is also a fictionalized version of the the tanuki that is deeply entrenched within Japanese folklore and culture. The mythical version of the tanuki (sometimes called “Bake-danuki”) is a very mischievous and comical character. They represent wealth, merriment, and mischief. A tanuki is a plump creature with a big smile who wears a straw hat, carries around a bottle of sake, and possesses an enormous set of testicles. The tanuki also has the ability to shapeshift into various different forms, thus allowing them to indulge in one of their favorite past-times– playing tricks on people, and swindling merchants. For example, tanuki are said to use their shapeshifting powers to transform leaves into currency and pay with that. But more importantly, it’s said that tanuki use leaves when they transform themselves. They put a leaf on their head and say a chant in order to change form! But like the kappa, the tanuki also has a presence in many Nintendo games.

The most recognized appearance of the tanuki is in the Super Mario series (In the games, it is anglicized as “Tanooki”). The little raccoon dogs pop up in Nintendo’s flagship series time and time again. Heck, most of us were probably introduced to the animal through Super Mario Bros. 3. In that game, Mario can don tanuki ears and a tail, as well as a full-body suit. Remember how a leaf allows the mystic Tanuki to shapeshift? That’s exactly why the power-up for Raccoon Mario is the Super Leaf! The shapeshifting folklore surrounding the tanuki also explains why Mario can transform into a statue while wearing the Tanooki Suit.

But why are Raccoon and Tanooki Mario able to fly? Nintendo did embellish a certain detail when translating the tanuki to Super Mario Bros. 3. In some tales, the mystical tanuki can actually use his huge testes to fly. That’s right, the tanuki is able to stretch out his balls to incredible sizes, and he can even use them to glide through the air. Good thing Nintendo changed that, right? Otherwise we might have ended up with a somewhat… different version of Mario.

Yep, those are scrotum parachutes. Thanks for that image, Studio Ghibli.

Besides the classic power-ups, tanuki also appear in other Mario games in several instances. In Super Mario Sunshine, a pair of tanuki exchange your blue coins for Shine Sprites in Delfino Plaza. In the Mario & Luigi games, there is a recurring enemy called the Tanoomba, who keeps a leaf on its head. And of course, we can’t forget Super Mario 3D Land where everything has a tanuki tail.

The tanuki also makes a rather subtle appearance in the Pokémon games in the form of Zigzagoon and Linoone. Their English names might have you believe that these two Pokémon are based on raccoons, but they are actually based on tanuki.

Despite being Normal-type, both Zigzagoon and Linoone are incredibly versatile Pokémon. Linoone can learn Cut, Surf, and Strength, which made it an indispensable HM slave to players of Pokémon Ruby Version and Sapphire Version. This ability ties into the tanuki’s power to shapeshift in order to do different things. Both Zigzagoon and Linoone also have a rather rare ability called Pickup, which allows them to occasionally scavenge rare items. This also references the mythical tanuki, who is said to bring wealth and good luck.

And of course, we couldn’t discuss the tanuki without bringing up Tom Nook from the Animal Crossing games could we? Nook himself is a tanuki, and even his name references this fact.

Every aspect of Nook’s personality just screams tanuki. He’s a shrewd businessman, which references how the tanuki represents wealth. Nook is also a bit of a con-artist. He ropes you into debt by holding a monopoly on all the homes for sale in town! In fact, isn’t a leaf the logo of Nook’s store? Oh, and every piece of furniture is symbolized by a leaf when it’s on the ground or in your inventory! Is Nook running a conspiracy where he transforms leaves into furniture and sells them to villagers? Tom Nook is truly a cutthroat entrepreneur who seizes any opportunity he can to squeeze bells out of everyone. He even employs his sons to sell his leaf furniture. But where is the mother? Has Nook transformed villagers into his tanuki children and forced them into slavery?

Terrifying loan sharks aside, tanuki are all over the place in Japanese folklore, so they are bound to show up in Japanese games. They have an even more widespread notoriety than the kappa. Where else have you spotted a tanuki in a video game?

(If you’d like to learn more about the tanuki, here’s some further reading.)

Disclaimer: The awesome banner above was created by the amazing Jed Henry.

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2 Responses to “Nintendo Mythology: Mystic Creatures”

  • 697 points
    Adam Sorice says...

    Oh I get it, the masthead artwork is Samus Aran! I didn’t piece it all together until I saw the Metroid and shoulder pads! Gorgeous artwork.

    And an excellent article, Kyle! I loved myths of Kitsune as a child, fascinating stuff.

  • 0 points

    An excellent article indeed.

    The worlds Nintendo crafts are so full-embodied and three-dimensional, it is often very easy to overlook that much of that magic is influenced by sources that have proven themselves in terms of longevity.

    Being somewhat uninitiated in Japanese culture and folk-lore, it is impressive to see under the magician’s sleeve, so to say. I always thought it absolutely tremendous of all the mythological references Squaresoft used (not Square Enix – more back in the SNES days – even though I’m sure Square Enix does it too) in regards to such titles as Secret of Mana and (especially) Final Fantasy. All the magic-givers were traditional mythology types, with examples such as Undine and Gnome. Then in Final Fantasy, everything from Bahamut to Odin owed it’s allegiance to more European-esque myths and folk-tales.

    Having already known the European counterparts, it made those classic RPG experiences that much richer. Using both worlds I had never seen before -and- worlds I was familiar with created a tremendous experience. I imagine it must have been very similar to all the above mentions in this article that Kyle pointed out if one were a Japanese boy or girl, diving into the worlds of Mario, Animal Crossing, or Pokemon for the first time.

    Tremendous article Kyle. A real refreshing and eye-opening read. Thank you.

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