After reading the title of this article, many of you may ask, “Gee Mr Wizard, just what is a tanuki?” To which I would respond, “Stop calling me Mr Wizard, you brats! Now sit down, shut up, and I will educate you miscreants.”
The tanuki, or Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus, is also known as the Japanese Raccoon Dog. While these animals appear similar to raccoons or badgers, they are actually part of the family that includes foxes, wolves, and dogs. These fuzzy little guys have been a mainstay in Japanese folklore for some time, are often portrayed as tricky shapeshifters, but also a bit slow-witted and easy to fool. I recently had a friend of mine suggest that we highlight these legendary raccoons’ appearances in video games, so here we go!
Very recently in the news, we are reminded that good ol’ Mario pays tribute to these beasts (despite what PETA might have to say) by wearing the Tanooki Suit! This furry suit made its first appearance back in Super Mario Bros 3 on the NES. Our heroic plumber was able to pick up these snappy new duds in the Mushroom House in World 4, Giant Land. In his Tanooki form, Mario was able to fly with his raccoon tail, as well as change into a sort of shrine statue temporarily. The Tanooki Suit has reappeared recently, in Super Mario Land 3D, where it seems everyone can be a happy little raccoon dog!
Continuing our walk through Mario Lane, we move on to Super Mario Sunshine for the Nintendo Gamecube, where the tanuki have made a home on Isle Delfino! One of the many colorful races that inhabit this tropical paradise, the Tanooki trade in their leaf caps and shrine staffs for swimming trunks and straw hats to aid Mario in his quest. Through the course of the game, the Tanooki will sell Shine Sprites (this game’s version of stars to collect) to Mario for blue coins.
The Tanooki of Delfino are not the only raccoon shopkeepers that Nintendo has to offer. I am speaking of none other than Tom Nook from Animal Crossing! In each of the Animal Crossing titles, the player meets the village store owner Tom Nook as they first arrive in town. Mr. Nook will sell a house for the player to live in, which can be paid over time in small installments. The old tanuki seems to have a shrewd business sense, and is often described by his fellow townsfolk as greedy and driven only by his desire for money. Some villagers even speculate that he is actually a man in a raccoon suit. This implies that you are working for a furry in a village of animals, which is a terrifying notion.
Traveling over to the Super Nintendo, we can see a more taditional view of the tanuki in Legend of the Mystical Ninja! At the beginning of each action sequence area in this game, a statue of a tanuki will stand by the entrance. This figure can still be seen throughout modern-day Japan, where the little raccoon will wear a straw hat and carry a bottle of sake, as well as a message of good luck. The common belief is that a tanuki statue will bring good luck and prosperity to the business or home where it is displayed. I suppose our ninja hero and his dopey sidekick hope the statue will bring similar results in battle.
Not content to be a statue along the side of the road, a tanuki named Rocky decided to stand a fight against evil, although he can still change into a statue, if need be. With his friend Pocky, they battle evil in the aptly named Pocky and Rocky! . In this very fun co-op shooter from Natsume, the young shrine maiden Pocky is approached by the tanuki Rocky to help him in figuring out why his fellow goblins have turned evil. Together, the two heroes fight against all sorts of creatures from Japanese folklore, and eventually stand up to the final boss, the Black Mantle, to break the spell over Rocky’s goblin friends.
In the future, the tanuki will be robots, at least in the future imagined in Mega Man 6 (VI, if you’re nasty). The little raccoon robot named Shigaraky appears as an enemy in Yamato Man’s level, where he carries the signature sake bottle and good luck charm of the taunki. He also shoots cannon balls out of his stomach at Mega Man, which is not so characteristic of tanuki. His name more than likely comes from Shigaraki, which is a Japanese town well known for their production of tanuki statues.
Last, but certainly not least, we take a look at the star of Super Street Fighter IV. No, I am not talking about Hakan, that delicious oiled man-mountain, I mean, um, moving on! I am speaking of course about Don, Ibuki’s pet tanuki! This ninja raccoon shows up in the opening, as a substitution-jutsu for the ninja girl. Right as the bushin-master Guy is about to apprehend our ninja heroine, he instead pulls a scruffy little tanuki from a cloud of smoke. Don has been Ibuki’s long-time companion, pet, and sparing partner, first showing up in Street Fighter 3. In this “3rd” Street Fighter game, Don would show up if Ibuki won her match, with a bunch of his tanuki friends in tow. Simply adorable.
And that about does it, friends. Now, for those of you who already knew a thing or two about tanukis, you may have noticed I have left out one major part of the folklore surrounding the raccoon dogs. Mainly, the bit about their natural defenses, and what normally stands out on ANY statue of a tanuki. For those who don’t know what I am talking about, scroll back up to the bit about Legend of the Mystical Ninja and take a good look at the tanuki statue. Go ahead, I can wait.
Figured it out? That’s right, you just stared at a pair of giant tanuki balls! How this one slipped past Nintendo’s strict censorship policy, I will never know. In traditional Japanese folklore, the tanuki can manipulate their testes to be used as a weapon, a shield, or even a drum. Why any creature would want to beat on their unmentionables is beyond me. But maybe that’s just part of the magic of these adorable little raccoons. Now quick, fly away little tanuki!