Thursday, January 28, 2010

Tanuki

I noticed one of these statues outside someone's front door the other day. A friendly creature with a rotund belly and oddly large testicles, wearing a straw hat and holding a jar of sake. I'm told that these are very common in Japan outside traditional-style restaurants.

By coincidence, while wasting my days away on Youtube as I often do, I came across the following Japanese ad which I found very funny, weird and fascinating.

(In case its not incredibly obvious, it's for a construction company's new apartments.)




Now, I can't explain why the dancing bear, rabbit, deer and wolf all suddenly acquire big breasts halfway through that ad. But the animal that appears toward the end of the ad, with gigantic swinging testicles, is the same one depicted in the statue.

Now I'm a curious fellow by nature, so I had to find out what this was all about.

The animal in question is a raccoon dog, or tanuki in Japanese.

If the name tanuki sounds vaguely familiar to you, it may be from a reference to the game Super Mario Bros. In the game, Mario is able to acquire a "tanuki suit" which bestows upon him special powers. The tanuki is also the main character in a classic early Japanese arcade game called Ponpoko, which you can play here if you wish. They are also the subject of a 1994 anime called Pompoko.

So what is it? Despite its very raccoon-like face, it is a member of the dog family native to East Asia. Although its numbers are dwindling due to fur trapping, it was introduced into Eastern Europe due to desire for its fur, and from where it has spread and multiplied. It is unusual among dogs for having curved claws that enable it to climb trees, and it is the only dog species known to hibernate during the winter. A secretive animal, it prefers to hide, scream or play dead to avoid predators.

But the tanuki also has a special and quite odd place within Japanese traditional folklore.

Like the fox, the tanuki of folklore is a something of a trickster, a master of shape-shifting and disguise, but also a jovial, womanising character. Fond of a drink, it is seen as being absent-minded in nature.

The balls? Well, in real life, raccoon dogs do have inordinately large testicles. It's apparently related to the ratio of males to females and the need to mate frequently when the season arrives. In Japanese folklore however, the testes and scrotum of the raccoon dog take on all kinds of mystical powers. In one sense they represent prosperity, while they are also used by the mythical tanuki as drums; the aforementioned term "pompoko" is an onomatopaeic word describing the sound of a tanuki drumming away on its nuts.

But the list of things the tanuki of myth can do with its scrotum goes beyond merely drumming. Old artworks depict tanuki, often assuming a part-man, part-animal form, using their massively enlarged scrotums for all kinds of purposes: slung over its shoulder as a kind of backpack, or outstretched as an umbrella to protect against rain. You can check out some pretty crazy illustrations of tanuki doing things with their scrotums here.

Below is the trailer for the film Pom Poko, about a tribe of magical tanuki whose forest home is threatened by encroaching development.

3 comments:

  1. The tanuki suit rocks!
    Great post, I love learning! How bizarre the whole thing is.

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  2. Eastern Europe??? I am completely unfamiliar with these animals. (Tanuki, not Eastern Europeans).

    I read this post yesterday and last night I had a dream about Pom poko film.

    The idea of magical testicles seem "weird" or "tasteless" to many westerners. But not that long time ago, testicles were recognized for their importance and were important fertility symbol.

    Tanuki seem like a nice animal (well, aren't they all?) and it's horrible to hear people kill them for their fur.

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  3. Omigosh! Thank you, ES! I have seen that Japanese ad for the longest time and I didn't understand what the heck was going on with the raccoon-like animal and its swinging testicles. lol! I get it no! :-)

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