The Monster in the Water

Ayako claims to have two weapons against me, two weapons to deploy when I grow rebellious and need to be brutally subjugated. One is tickling (I am terribly ticklish). The other is what I call the “kappa face.” Ayako achieves this by curling out her lower lip and bugging out her eyes, giving her face a sort of turtle-like appearance.

This scares the crap out of me. Even after a year or so of her doing it, it still freaks me out. I don’t really know why, though partially it’s the hideous, droning voice Ayako makes to accompany it (the “kappa voice”), and partially because she’s fond of doing it when her face is close to mine and I’m not expecting it.

Now, you’re probably wondering two things right now. 1.) Why you should care about how my girlfriend torments me, and 2.) What a kappa is. The answer to number 1 is, you shouldn’t, and the answer to number 2 is, you guessed it, it’s our monster of the week (month?):

河童 Kappa, the River Monster

The Kappa is a turtle-like creature that lives in the muddy bottoms of ponds and rivers. They are mischievous and perverted creatures, who enjoy farting and looking up women’s skirts. They are afraid of fireworks. They have haircuts like Moe from The Three Stooges, and a hollow head filled with water. Their favorite foods are cucumbers and small children.

Unlike most of the ghouls and beasts I’ve written about here, the kappa is not obscure. In fact, next to the Tanuki, it’s probably the most widely known and beloved of all Japanese monsters, or at least as beloved as a monster that routinely eats small children can be. So widely known are kappas, in fact, that many people in Japan still believe in them, or at least, like our Bigfoot, are willing to concede that they may be out there. Some watering holes in Japan even still warn children to beware of kappas, as seen here:

Yes, rivers in Japan are full of dangers for children: swift currents, rocks, broken glass, and mythical monsters. It’s pretty easy to guess where the idea of the kappa comes from. Kids like playing in rivers and ponds and rivers and ponds can be dangerous, for all the non-legendary reasons the sign above illustrates. Kids are usually immune from worrying about drowning, broken glass, or being dashed on rocks, so parents in old Japan had to come up with something that would truly terrify their kids. And nothing scares kids quite like monsters, especially monsters that live in murky places you can’t see, that snatch you when you’re quite literally out of your element.

For the same reasons, the kappa is a durable legend. The stray glimpse of a turtle shell in a muddy pond could easily be seen as a kappa. A child or adult pulled under by a swift current could easily be blamed on the bowl-cut menace.

Kappas are also kind of cute, in their turtle-like way, so it’s no surprise that despite their predilection for child-eating, flatulence, and sexual harassment, they have become popular cartoon characters in cuteness crazy modern Japan (much as the once-feared vampire has become a symbol of camp and/or chastity in modern America).

Aside from the warnings posted by ponds, you can find kappa in many places in Japanese culture. They appear frequently as harmless pranksters in anime and movies, or as stuffed animals to be coddled by the children who once feared ending up in their stomachs. You see them on shirts and cell phone charms. Most famously, there are “kappa maki” sushi rolls, so named because they contain the kappas’ second favorite food, cucumbers (though true “kappa maki,” found at only the most exclusive sushi restaurants in Tokyo, are actually made from the flesh of small children).

You’ve actually met the kappa before yourself. Like the tanuki, the kappa came to America via Japan’s most popular mushroom-based export: Super Mario Bros. You remember those dangerous turtles you jumped on millions of times? The ones called “koopas”? Yep. Now you know what they really are.

In a strange way, Nintendo restored the kappa to its true purpose. After decades of mostly being a harmless sideshow freak, the kappa/koopa was back to doing what it did best, and this time all over the world: hunting down and killing small children (via their pixelated plumber avatars).

Maybe that’s why Ayako’s kappa face scares me so much. Kappas have been after me my whole life. And in our apartment, in the dark, when she draws near with her lip protruded and her eyes bulged, there’s no fire flower to save me.

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2 Comments

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  1. So is Bowser some sort of kappa-hulk? I remember him having a brood of children, too.

    Also, anything in this myth about various colored shells? If I had a nickel for every time I wanted to throw a red shell at someone I’d have a few bucks and change.

    Fascinating monster post.

  2. I think Bowser is more based on traditional Western dragons (fire breathing monster guarding a princess in a castle) and the koopas themselves are really only loosely based on kappas.

    I’m actually planning to do an article on Japanese folklore in Mario games (and later the Zelda series). There’s the tanuki suit, the koopas, and the mushroom people themselves, which I’m theorizing are based on an old Japanese folktale. But I need to do more research first!

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