I am surprised that I accepted all the stuff that was going on in the Super Mario Brothers games so willingly when I was a child. Think about it for a minute, the games chronicle the adventures of a man who runs about jumping on mushrooms with faces, attacking tortoises, constantly head butting magic floating blocks and when he touches a leaf it makes him grow raccoon ears and a tail. Oh, and he can use this tail to fly.
It really is total madness.
Looking back, I regarded all that as normal, those are the rules of his world and that is just the way it is. Until, that is, I came across the tanuki suit. The tanuki suit is a power up that you find at very rare points in the third Mario Brothers game. At first it seems to have the same purpose as the raccoon tail but eventually you work out that it can do one more thing. You can use it to turn into a statue too, in this state you can’t move but also can’t be hurt by enemies.
It upon discovering this ability, I vividly remember turning round to my friend and asking, “Why… Why does this happen?”. He couldn’t answer me, being 8 year old English boys we had no idea what a tanuki even was. We could relate to the other things Mario could turn into (frogs, raccoons, hammer throwers and the like) but what ever this tanuki thing was, we had no idea.
It turns out that the tanuki is a Japanese animal that is very heavily linked to Japanese folklore and the abilities that Japanese people believe it has are far stranger than anything Mario could do while dressed as one.
As I said earlier a tanuki is a Japanese animal that is often translated into English as raccoon dog. I never really liked this translation as although it looks similar to a raccoon, the two are in completely different families of animal. Tanuki look a bit like a fat red panda (minus the fuffy tail) and they can eat just about anything including the likes of rodents, lizards, frogs, fruit, berries, insects and snails. In real life they do all the things that you’d expect small woodland creatures to do but in Japanese fairy stories and legends they leave quite the impression.
In folklore, tanuki and foxes both have the ability to change shape into almost anything and enjoy to trick gullible humans. Often the foxes are thought to be more sinister in their actions, while tanuki are usually more innocently mischievous. They do things such as crashing wedding parties, drinking all the alcohol and then, when it is time to pay, disguising useless leaves as money. They also have the reputation for being womanisers.
One of the tanuki’s defining characteristics is that they have rather large testicles. Thus in fairy stories they have often developed many interesting uses for them. These include using them as fishing nets, umbrellas, suitcases, tents, shop signs, for weightlifting and even to scare hapless humans. Many of these useful functions can be seen being performed by tanuki in Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s woodblock prints from the 1840s.
The tanuki’s massive balls are also the subject of a wonderful children’s song that goes a bit like this:
tan tan tanuki no kintama wa
Tan Tan Tanuki’s balls…
kaze mo nai no ni buura bura
Even with no wind they go swing, swing, swing.
Tanuki statues are often found outside traditional Japanese restaurants holding a bottle of sake in one hand and patting their fat little belly with the other. Perhaps it was this that Mario was turning into all those years ago.
These statue’s jolly faces beckon us to come into the resturant. People who have round jolly faces and big eyes in Japan are said to have a tanuki-gao (tanuki face) while people with slender tapering faces and thin eyes have a kitsune-gao (fox face). Apparently you should be careful around someone with such a face, foxes are not to be trusted.
At the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in 2011 Nintendo announced that after a break of 23 years the Tanuki suit will return in Super Mario Bros 3D. They also said that Mario will no longer be able to fly with it.
What legendary tanuki ability will they replace it with? Will we finally see Super Mario’s balls having a big effect on the gameplay?
Swing, Swing, Swing