Critical Intel

Critical Intel
Cuddly Pokemon and the Demons That Spawned Them

Robert Rath | 1 Nov 2012 16:00
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Making folklore family friendly will always be a controversial move, but I believe the use of famous yōkai in Pokémon, and other games like it actually serves to preserve these legends and pass them on to a younger generation. See, while kaidan and stories of yōkai still have value for their historic and literary significance (and their sheer weirdness) most of them have ceased having a function in society. Originally, yōkai served a purpose, either through teaching a lesson such as the kappa (stay away from ponds, kiddos), explaining natural phenomena like Raijū, or by giving voice to the fears and anxieties of the era. The first two are obviously obsolete -- now that we have real horror stories from CNN, for instance, we no longer teach children about dangers through parable, and we use science to explain natural phenomena -- but to understand why yōkai no longer raise societal anxieties we need to consider the era that formed them. In Edo period Japan, street lights were nonexistent and medicine, both Eastern and Western, could be hit and miss. It's no accident that many kaidan feature travelers that stumble onto horror, since traveling from one place to another meant crossing rough country on foot or horseback, exposing yourself to danger from the elements or roadside bandits. Death could come very quickly, and it was not uncommon for people to disappear. Japan at this time could be a world of horrible fates, and it is natural for humans to provide equally horrible explanations for these events, both to provide closure, as well as to contextualize a world that often seemed random and brutal. In modern Japan, there is no widespread fear of freezing to death or being struck by lightning. Cars and trains encase people in metal fortresses as they travel from place to place, and no one worries about disappearing or being attacked by an unknown animal. These worries have been supplanted by modern folklore, which tends to play off of our fear of other people, such as serial killers. The most popular modern yōkai, for example, is kuchisake-onna, the ghost of a woman who had her mouth slit open by her husband. In the story, the ghost wears a surgical mask and accosts children, asking them if she is beautiful-no matter their answer, she reveals her wound and kills them with a pair of scissors. Some older yōkai have survived in their original form, since their stories play on universal anxieties (kitsune, for instance, plays on the fear that you never really know someone, even if you're married to them) but largely yōkai are simply no longer scary.

With the element of horror gone, yōkai have found a new role: they serve as reminders of the past, a totem of Japanese culture that links modern Japan with its roots and helps mold children's understanding of Japanese identity. You'll find yōkai in picture books and anime targeted at youth, and yes, you'll find them in games like Pokémon and its competitors, Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh!. These monsters, though sanitized, are still a subject of fascination for the young and add to the richness of products that, though set in imaginary worlds, are still identifiably Japanese in character. In fact, I feel safe saying that without the yōkai legacy introducing a pantheon of weird and powerful beings, Pokémon might not exist in the form we know it today.

Therefore, when you hear that the Lombre loves to leap from the water and scare fishermen, or that Drowzee is a dream-stealer, or that Froslass ices down travelers and makes tableaus from their corpses, allow yourself a shiver. That was, after all, their original purpose, and underneath that plump exterior lurks something far older, and far stranger, than you can ever imagine.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Austin, Texas. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp. Have questions about this topic? Tweet them to: @Crit_Int.

The author would like to thank Zack Davisson for his assistance with various questions relating to yōkai. (http://hyakumonogatari.com/)

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