According to Japanese legend certain animals are created with supernatural powers. They can transform themselves into anything they desire, and can even acquire other magical abilities. The Japanese raccoon (tanuki) and the fox (kitsune) are the most popular animals attributed with magical powers. They have similar roles in folklore. They are pictured as mischievous rogues who often get themselves into trouble. They can, at times, be frightening creatures, and at other moments be capable of making a negative situation positive. Sometimes they are treated as godly figures and become cultural heroes. The ‘tanuki’ is sometimes seen as a witch, a cannibal monk, or a one-eyed demon who murders his victims with thunder, lightning or earthquakes.
The ‘tanuki’ is a small hairy animal, and it is believed that he can transform into a frightening creature. Sometimes he is depicted humourously, having a gigantic scrotum which he drags behind him or wears it as a kimono. In some Netsuke figures the ‘tanuki’ appears as a Buddhist monk dressed in robes and banging on his scrotum as if it were a temple drum. “There is a fable that tells of an incident by the abbot of the Morinji Temple. He bought a tea-kettle and instructed one of the monks to clean it. Suddenly a voice spoke from the kettle, ‘Ow that hurts, please be more gentle.’ When the abbot wanted to boil some water, out popped the tail, legs and arms of a ‘tanuki’ and the vessel started to run about the room. It dumbfounded the poor abbot and he tried to catch the kettle, but it eluded him.”
The fox (kitsune) is frequently a subject in Netsuke figurines. Many strange and uncanny qualities are attributed to the fox. The‘kitsune’ have the ability to change their shape, but their faces remain fox-like. In folklore, foxes pretend to be humans in order to lead men astray.
A black fox is good luck, a white fox calamity; three foxes together portend disaster. Buddhist legend tells of 'kitsune’ who disguise themselves as nuns, and wear traditional robes (depicted in Netsuke figurines). Fables tell how the fox likes to appear as women. Stories tell that while the ‘kitsune’ is in such a guise, he goes about tricking and misleading men into seduction. When the seduced come to the realisation of the true identity of their supposed love, the fox disappears. Legends tell of how ‘Kitsune’ can hypnotize people and lead them into perilous situations. To do this, according to the tales, they illuminate the path leading to such disasters, and this illumination is known as a ‘foxflare’ (kitsune bi).
Relevance to Urusei Yatsura
Both animals appear fairly often in Urusei Yatsura, especially with the characters of O-shima the tanuki, and Shinobu's little friend called simply Kitsune.