One rainy night many years ago, I stumbled into a ramshackle fisherman’s bar called Kinkai in the tiny Japanese town of Toyotama where I was living at the time. I sidled up to the bar and ordered a beer from the 13-year old girl bartender, Miki, who by day was one of my jr. high English students. As I sipped my Asahi, my eyes were drawn to a taxidermied animal propped against one of the bar’s columns.
The dead, stuffed animal resembled a raccoon, though it was standing on two legs. A conical straw hat sat on its head. Its right hand gripped a ceramic flask of sake. And between its legs hung two enormous, hairy testicles.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I had been looking for this very animal my entire life. For within its terrible scrotum lay the answers to three great mysteries.
The animal was a tanuki. And it is our monster of the week:
狸 Tanuki, the Raccoon-dog Monster
1988 was a banner year for America’s video game-addled youth. The holy grail of gaming finally landed in our grubby hands: Super Mario Bros. 3. It is hard for me to overstate the euphoria my idiot friends and I felt when first we popped the gray, plastic cartridge into our NES’s. It wasn’t as good as my first kiss (whose length of time in coming after Super Mario Bros. 3 was probably directly correlated to the level of excitement one felt at first playing Super Mario Bros. 3), but it was close.
After being pixel-teased by the tantalizing glimpses of the new Mario game by that bastard Fred Savage in The Wizard, it was finally ours. And it was awesome. Fun, exciting, thrilling, engrossing… and really, really odd.
I remember even as a 7-year old being perplexed by the game’s new features. I mean, I didn’t question how a middle-aged Italian plumber came to be fighting toothed toadstools and flying turtles to save a blond woman who somehow happened to be the queen of the mushroom people. I didn’t question why eating a flower allowed said Italian plumber to shoot fire from his hands. I didn’t even question why the princess was always in another castle. But I did wonder why the hell Mario grew raccoon ears and a tail when he grabbed a green leaf and why said ringed ears and tail allowed him to fly.
Even more confusing was when Mario grabbed a red leaf and was suddenly wearing a full-body raccoon suit, could fly really far, and could also turn into a weird Buddhist statue.
I wondered about this for years. Even when not directly thinking about it, the question was there in the back of my mind, gnawing silently at my synapses like a neural parasite. The answer, as I could not know, lay years in the future, in a rain-and-beer soaked bar on the other side of the earth.
During my time living near Kinkai, I often hung out with my friend and co-worker Saiko and her family. At the time, she had two young kids, a boy named Shodai and a girl named Kiyoka. Kiyoka was a mischievous kid and she enjoyed tormenting me. One of her favorite things to do when I was around was to run up to me and pound on my stomach like a taiko drum while chanting TA-NOO-KI! TA-NOO-KI! Then she would giggle and run away.
For a while, I just assumed this was some imaginary game she’d conjured, as kids are wont to do, and that TA-NOO-KI was just gibberish. I was wrong.
A year before arriving in Toyotama, a friend of mine in grad school whom I may or may not have dated (we are not sure), invited a few of my fellow Maphers to a screening of the Japanese anime Pom Poko.
The movie is worth seeing. It has great animation and an interesting story about a band of Japanese raccoons who wage war against a new housing development that threatens their forest habitat. It also has quite the pedigree. It was released by Studio Ghibli, the house behind My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo, among others. Its director was Isao Takahata, who also made the devastating, soul-crushing anti-war anime Grave of the Fireflies.
Most importantly, it is a children’s movie that centers around giant, magical testicles.
Since the raccoons are animals they don’t stand much of a chance against the machines of modern man. Except for their secret weapon: their enormous gonads.
The raccoon’s balls were versatile weapons. They can shape-shift, forming everything from (and all this is in the movie) picnic blankets, wrecking balls, parachutes, and parade floats.
We were blown away. Our shells were shocked, our gaskets flabbered. More so even than Super Mario Bros. 3, my brain tried futilely to wrap itself around the mad art I’d just witnessed. Why the hell did anyone make a kid’s movie about raccoons that fight suburban sprawl with their shape-shifting scrotums? How could something like this exist?
The answers, as I have said, were waiting for me at Kinkai. They were waiting in the generous, hairy balls of that dead raccoon-looking thing. After staring at it for a while and letting the beer buzz bubble in my brain, I motioned Miki over and asked in my broken Japanese what the creature was. “Tanuki,” she said. “What?” I asked again. “TA-NOO-KI,” she repeated. And then I understood.
Tanuki are a Japanese animal that look much like raccoons (including the masked eyes and ringed tails) but are actually a badger-related animal accurately called raccoon-dogs in English. They are real creatures, though like many animals the world over, they were considered to have magical powers in old Japan.
Much like foxes, tanuki can change shape and even imitate people. They are considered funny, mischievous creatures and most of the time their transformations are part of harmless pranks. There’s an old tale of a tanuki shape-shifting into a tea kettle to fool a monk or turning leaves into money and duping merchants. They often hide by imitating statues of the Buddhist god Jizo when people wander by.
Some of the tales are darker, though. There are stories of men unknowingly marrying tanuki disguised as women (we’ll cover the strange Japanese fear of animal-wives more in depth when we cover the horrifying Jorogumo myth).
There’s also the dark, grim story Kachi-kachi Yama, where a tanuki beats an old woman to death with a rolling pin, butchers her, makes her into soup, takes her shape, and then serves the old woman-soup to her husband for dinner (this, I should add, is still a popular children’s story in Japan. I was once asked to read it to 3rd graders. In the US, we have Green Eggs and Ham. In Japan, they have Green Eggs and Ham Made from Your Elderly Wife Whom I Brutally Murdered).
But for the most part, tanuki are silly beasts. They like to drink sake, dance, and pound their drum-sized ‘nads, or in modern depictions, their ample bellies. That, you see, is why Kiyoka liked pounding my stomach and yelling TA-NOO-KI. With my beer gut and glasses, she thought I resembled a tanuki and wanted to make sure I knew it.
Pom Poko, it turns out, is a very faithful depiction of tanuki. They have big, shape-shifting sacks and use them for mischief. And they change shape by putting green leaves on their heads.
It was when I learned this little fact that my life finally made sense. Mario doesn’t turn into a raccoon in Super Mario Bros. 3. He turns into a tanuki. He uses leaves to change shape. Like tanuki in some tales, he can fly a bit. And he can turn into a statue– specifically, a statue of the Buddhist god Jizo (yes, Super Mario Bros. 3 was secretly trying to turn America’s children into Buddhists).
Real tanuki are shy, withdrawing creatures, but you can see their supernatural brethren all over Japan. Due to their mischievous, gregarious personalities and love of the drink, tanuki statues are common in bars and izakayas. Walk into almost any watering hole in Japan, and you’ll be greeted by a ceramic tanuki statue with a straw hat, jug of sake, and enormous balls.
The proprietors of Kinkai went all the way, though, and got an actual tanuki for their bar. And thank goodness they did. Otherwise I never would have solved the mystery of Mario 3, Pom Poko, and Kiyoka’s use of my stomach as a percussion instrument.
There’s still one last tanuki mystery to answer, though. If Mario got the tanuki’s look, leaves, flight, and shape-shifting, why didn’t he get the requisite set of bongo-sized balls?
The answer: he doesn’t need them. If there’s one thing I learned as a 7-year old, it’s that an Italian plumber who fights monsters to snag a curvy blond in an LSD-inspired nightmare world already has the biggest balls he needs.