Collecting Kami: Pokémon and the Crossroads of Pop Culture and Folklore.

This is a guest blog from writer, presenter, and scholar of Japanese culture Charles Dunbar. You can find more of his work at Study of Anime.

I distinctly recall the first time I ever saw the Pokémon Golduck. My initial reaction was “what the hell is that, and how is it a duck?”, because to my teenage eyes, no duck that ever existed had a beak that long, feet that webbed, skin that blue (not to mention lack of feathers), arms instead of wings, and a tail that could trip a human up. Despite having the term “duck” in its name, Golduck was no duck I had ever seen, and I laughed about it with my friends as being another one of those “weird Japanese things” I knew nothing about.

It would be some years before I discovered how wrong I was. While researching a panel on Japanese folklore, I turned the page in one of my many yokai books to find Golduck, or at least something that resembled Golduck, staring me in the face. The same rubbery skin, same sharp beak, same tail and webbed digits. And I did a double take. This creature, the book called it a kappa, was obviously of the same ilk as the Pokémon I had once made fun of. And I did what any curious student of folklore would- I set aside my initial panel research, and began checking to see how many other Pokemon shared traits with these wonderful Japanese monsters.

Ichimoku-nyudo

By myself (Self-photographed) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) ], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the “side effects” of acculturation is that we tend to pepper our creations with nods to the culture we are raised in. For example, when we hear characters say “go to hell,” we have a connotative understanding of what that means, and thus it requires no further explanation. But when those terms and ideas appear outside of our home culture, suddenly they become not-so-subtle nods to the ways in which our own cultures differ from others. And this becomes doubly apparent when we start crafting stories using our own folklore. Suddenly those blood drinkers hiding in the shadows become something alien and terrifying to those who have never encountered them, and that receiving audience can either choose to pursue a better understanding of them, or just accept them as particular to the storyteller’s cultural understanding.

For me, this is one of the great joys found within anime. While I still watch the series and play the games for the joy of experiencing them, at the same time I’ve found anime to be an invaluable tool for discovering new paths into the exploration of Japanese culture. Signposts if you will, pointing me towards new ideas, legends, and beckoning me to dig a bit deeper when the series or game is over. And these inspirations are everywhere once one sits down to look for them. For example the game Okami, while being both beautiful and artistic, also shares its narrative with the story of Amaterasu emerging from the cave and driving off monsters through her light. So too does the series Sasami-san@ganbaranai, which takes that same classic legend of the kami in the cave, and dresses it up as an adorable hikikomori schoolgirl spending her days rejecting the outside world. Pokémon, as previously mentioned, shares a lot in common with the yokai indices that started appearing in the mid-Edo period, while still satisfying the historical urge to discover, collect, and catalogue that many Japanese youths practice to this day. And even more overt properties like Natsume Yujincho and Nurarihyon no Mago [Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan] bring those old legends into the present, challenging classical creatures with modern problems to overcome, or at least weather. They breathe new life into old stories, evolving tales once told by candlelight into mass media properties that astound and inspire new generations to look behind the curtain, and into the hidden world around them.

 Sasami-san@Ganbaranai

Pokémon is one of those series that rides this idea incredibly well. For those who play the game without any knowledge of either Japanese folklore or their obsession with cataloguing yokai, the series is a playful romp through catching/grinding pets until they can win fights, with a little plot thrown in to keep the story going. Sure, some of the Pokémon look a little out there, but when a fan discovers that some of those Pokémon share traits with fantastical creatures (as I did with the golduck all those years ago), suddenly the series comes alive with nods to regional legends (like Xerneas, inspired by the shishigami from Tohoku), mighty guardians (Arcanine, taking notes from the Koma-inu), ancient kami (Tornadus, with the same color and disposition as windy Fujin), and supernatural celebrities (Froslass and Mawile, derived from the Yuki- and Futakuchi-onna, respectively). And all the player needs to do at that point is follow the trails deep into the sacred forests of Japanese folklore to discover how far they might lead.

Waku Waku +NYC is a brand-new Japanese pop culture festival in Brooklyn, NY this August 29th to 30th that celebrates video games, anime, manga, music, food, art, and more. Tickets are on sale now!

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