Before Pokémon and Yo-kai Watch: A Window onto One of the Earliest Unique Forms of Japanese Animé at the Cotsen Children’s Library

By Tara McGowan

Popular visual culture from Japan in the form of manga, animé, and video games has attracted global attention in the last couple of decades, and, along with this interest, has come a preoccupation with origins. One frequently cited source for the origins of manga is the 12th to 13th century scrolls of animals frolicking, known as Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, and some scholars and Japanese popular culture enthusiasts go even further back to cite Heian-period (794-1195) narrative picture-scrolls (emaki 絵巻).

Fig. 1. Segment of Chōchū giga 鳥獣戯画, 12th-13th centuries.

Although there is little doubt that visual storytelling forms have a long history in Japan, focusing primarily on origins can sometimes overshadow the many important developments in the intervening centuries that arguably relate more directly to the emergence of the Japanese animated visual culture of today. A recent acquisition in the Cotsen Children’s Library of a “play print” (omocha-e玩具絵), entitled “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e志ん板うつしゑ), published in 1884 by Tsunashima Kamekichi綱島亀吉, sheds fascinating light on a lesser known precursor of animé and also the largely forgotten global exchange of cinematic technologies that led up to it.

Fig. 2. “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e), Tsunashima Kamekichi, 1884. (Cotsen collection)

Omocha-e play-prints were, until recently, a largely overlooked genre of ukiyo-e 浮世絵, or Japanese wood-block prints. Designed ostensibly for children, but probably enjoyed by people of all ages, omocha-e were considered inferior to the beautiful ladies (bijinga美人画) or kabuki歌舞伎 actors by Utamaro喜多川歌麿 or landscapes by Hiroshige歌川広重 that inspired modern artistic movements in Europe in the 19th century and ignited a Japonism craze in the West. Unlike the prints for adults that were meant primarily for viewing, omocha-e were even more ephemeral. Most were designed to be played with, and even, as in this case, cut up and assembled, and it is rare to find one in such pristine condition. There is renewed interest in omocha-e today, however, as historians recognize them as invaluable resources for understanding early popular cultural trends in fashion, lifestyle changes, and knowledge, especially among the socioeconomically disadvantaged classes that are less well represented in historical literature. Many omocha-e, like the one above, claim to be “the latest” (shinpan) on the given topic, and in this case, the topic is magic lantern shows.

Magic lanterns were an early form of slide projector invented in Europe in the 17th century. In Japan, this would have corresponded to the beginning of the Edo period (1603-1868), when the Tokugawa Shogun was pursuing a policy of seclusion from the outside world. How strictly the government was able to enforce this policy continues to be a subject of debate. What we do know is that there was, nonetheless, avid interest among the general public in Japan during this period to learn about new technologies from outside, and consequently a surprising number of foreign books, ideas, and objects found their way into the country. Some were smuggled in, while others entered the mainland through more acceptable channels, such as Dejima, an island off the coast of Nagasaki where Japanese merchants were allowed to carry on a limited trade with the Dutch. Most likely, at some point in the mid to late 1700s, a magic lantern made its way from Holland via Dejima onto the Japanese mainland because, by 1801, a distinctly Japanese version of a magic lantern called utsushi-e 写し絵 (literally, projected pictures) appears in chronicles of Edo-period entertainments.

Japanese-style magic lanterns were unique in that they were small, portable, and, remarkably enough, made of wood. The projector was a box with a hole at the top (closed off in the example below) so that the glass chimney of the burning oil or kerosene lamp inside could poke out and smoke could vent. This light source projected images painted on glass slides through a lens onto a curtain or screen. Unlike the later projectors made of metal that were introduced in the 19th century when Japan finally opened its doors to the West, early utushi-e shows were projected from behind the screen, out of sight of the audience. Seeming to appear out of nowhere, this method of hidden projection made them appear even more magical.

Fig. 3. Example of a performer and slide (illustrations by Tara McGowan).

Typically, several performers were involved. Animation was achieved, not only by the swift movement of the slides in front of the light source, somewhat like a flip-book, but also by the performers moving around the space, carrying their lanterns with them and projecting characters from different places onto the scene. Several lanterns with different slides would be used and animated at one time, causing audiences in the western (kansai) region of Japan to refer to these colorful performances as “brocade shadow plays” (nishiki kage e錦影絵). “Brocade pictures” (nishiki-e), it should be noted, was the term used for colorful Edo-period ukiyo-e prints, and there was considerable cross-over in styles and themes between the two media.

During the Edo period (1603-1868), Japan had a vibrant theater culture, which encompassed not only the well-known kabuki and bunraku (joruri 浄瑠璃) puppet forms, but also all manner of street performance styles and spectacles performed in less formal venues. One such popular performance venue was called yose 寄席. Although today yose has become almost synonymous with a genre of comic oral storytelling known as rakugo 落語, during the Edo period, it was much more eclectic, similar to vaudeville music halls in the West, featuring a wide variety of dramatic arts, spectacular feats, magic tricks, and street performance genres. From the outset, yose theaters became the home of utsushi-e magic-lantern performances, and the glass slides developed for this venue were inspired by the stock characters and themes with which yose audiences were familiar.

In fact, the image at the bottom of the magic-lantern play-print in the Cotsen collection is designed to look like the entryway into a yose theater with the stock character of Fukusuke–who typically served as a narrator between acts—bowing his head low and inviting the audience in. Fuku 福 means “good fortune,” and Fukusuke dolls are still frequently found in Japanese shops and establishments because they are believed to promote business. The characters (大入) above his head are read ōire, which means “a full house.” Hidden among the cherry blossoms above the stage is the phrase “a new cast of characters by popular demand” (shinrenchu hiiki).

Fig. 4. The yose stage at the bottom of the play print, “The latest magic-lantern pictures” (Shinpan utsushi-e) (1884).

To the left and right of the stage, we see the trunks of the cherry trees with messages from the publisher to the manager and patron (apparently, a fish merchant) on the right and to the child audience on the left with the promise of “plenty of diversion” (tesusabi takusan).

The owner of this print would have known that the stage was to be cut from the bottom of the print and (had they done it) would probably have reinforced it with wood or heavy cardboard. They would also have cut out the two white circles on either side of Fukusuke, so that they could move the magic-lantern slides—also reinforced on the back with cardboard or wood–across the back of the stage to simulate a magic lantern performance. Just like the characters on the print, the slides would have been read from right to left and from top to bottom.

Panorama at the top: the Itsukushima Shrine厳島神社 in Miyajima宮島町

The slide at the top of the print is a long panorama of the Itsukushima Shrine in Miyajima, famous for having been built over the water. The torii gate, famous even today in the tourist guides, can be seen on the left with the tide coming in and sailboats floating nearby. Long glass slides, such as these, were often used for scenery in magic lantern shows, alongside the more typical sequential slides depicting action. The shrine also suggests that this magic lantern show is being performed, as some were, in the precincts of the shrine for an auspicious festival day (ennichi 縁日). The cherry trees and blossoms around the stage also suggest an impromptu tent set up for the performance, possibly during the cherry-blossom viewing season around April.

(first row)

The slide directly underneath the panorama also relates to the theme of auspicious festival days, and appears to be set within the shrine complex. Moving from right to left, we have the pine branches that would signal a sacred Noh drama. Note that the stage above has two circles, set apart by the character of Fukusuke, so the audience would first see the pine branches in the right-hand circular window at the same time that it would see the Shinto offering at center on the left.

By moving the slide over one image, the audience would next see the stock dancing figure of Sanbansō, balancing on one foot and holding a fan in one hand and bells in another. Sanbansō typically appears as comic relief (kyōgen) during Noh drama. Along with Sanbansō, audiences would see what appears to be a female shrine attendant, who may have just arranged the Shinto offering at center.

When the slide is moved once more to the right, the audience would see the Shinto offering again and a scroll (kakejiku) at the far left. The characters in calligraphy on the scroll are written in a cursive style that is not easy to decipher, but a likely reading is “tama zoroi” (玉揃). Tama can mean “jewels”, and zoroi means “a whole assortment,” but tama can also mean “circle,” and the verb soroeru can also mean to “match up.” Since the user of this print would be “matching up the circles” in order to perform the images in the stage, the writing on the scroll may be providing some hidden instruction for the user.

Typical of an eclectic yose performance with the stock figure of Fukusuke, acting as master-of-ceremonies in between acts, in the next series of slides, we transition to another genre common in magic lantern shows of the time, flowers and bonsai of the four seasons.

(second row)

In this slide, we have a better example of how the quick movement of the slides behind the stage could create the illusion of movement or animation. Again, moving from right to left, the audience would first see Fukusuke (at center), this time looking up at the audience. No doubt, he is introducing the peonies, just in bud, on the far right.

With a quick move of the slide one over to the left, it would appear that the flowers suddenly bloom into a vibrant bouquet, and, on the left, like magic, an arrangement of plum blossoms and chrysanthemums also appears.

With another swift move of the slide, the audience would see the plums and chrysanthemums transform into a wizened bonsai arrangement (far left), and Fukusuke would reappear, on the right this time.

The magic animation of the slides, when performed swiftly and smoothly, would have been similar to a bouquet of flowers appearing suddenly out of a magician’s hat or from under a handkerchief.

Magic lantern shows often referred to themes from popular bunraku or kabuki theater plays, and the magical transformation made possible by the swift movement of the slides, made ghost stories particularly effective in this format. The next level of this play print takes us into what would have been the familiar territory for a child audience—folk and fairy tales.

(third row)

The first two images to appear would be the man on the right, spooked by a spectral fireball (hi no tama). To the left, even the narrator Fukusuke is startled, falling backwards and crying out in fear.

By pulling the slide one image over, the fire ball turns into a three-eyed monster (ōnyūdo), while in the left-hand opening would appear the rabbit, brandishing something over its head and holding a cup of salt. Children would immediately have recognized this as the well-known folktale, Kachi kachi yama, a truly gruesome story, in which a tanuki 狸 (sometimes translated, “racoon dog”) trickster fools an old man into eating his own wife! The rabbit avenges the old man in the story by setting fire to the tanuki and cruelly offering him salt to cure the wounds, only causing him even greater agonies. Note that the three-eyed monster is facing to the right, indicating that he is taking part in the drama on the right hand-side, whereas the rabbit is facing the left, in the direction of a new, unfolding scene.

One more pull of the slide, and we see Fukusuke again on the right, responding to the three-eyed monster, while the tanuki with his back on fire is fleeing the rabbit.

At the end of the folktale, the rabbit convinces the tanuki to board a boat that he has cleverly constructed out of mud, and no sooner does the tanuki set off in the river, than his boat dissolves and he drowns. The brief reference to the story at one of its most grisly moments would no doubt have been enough to resurrect the entire tale in the minds of the audience.

(fourth row)

As we move further down the print to the last level of slides, we enter into an even more ghostly realm. This time, the audience would first see the female ghost (yūrei 幽霊) suddenly appear on the far right, coupled with the man, falling down in shock and fear with the ghostly fire-ball at center.

Moving one image over, the audience would then see two brave samurai, ready to battle the apparitions. Note again, that one warrior faces to the right, where we last saw the female ghost, whereas the other warrior faces left, in anticipation of some new drama about to unfold.

Moving one more image over, we see what is known as a tsukumogami 付喪神, or a spirit made up of a collection of discarded objects, including a Japanese lantern, that have come to life. No doubt, slides could also be moved back and forth, as well, to add further drama and animation to the scene.

As this print demonstrates, the various types of stock shape-shifters (obake), ghosts (yūrei), and monsters (yōkai 妖怪) that have become popularized in recent years through animé movies, manga, and video games, such as “Yokai Watch,” were already well developed by the time this print was published in 1884 and were arguably a product of the fascination with the animated transformations made possible by early magic-lantern technology of the Edo period. Omocha-e prints, which helped to spread these new ideas and early cinematic technologies beyond the urban centers of Edo or Osaka to remote provinces throughout Japan, also played a major role in paving the way for the widespread fascination with shapeshifters and monsters that continues in Japan to this day and that has, more recently, spread around the globe.

The unique Japanese form of magic-lantern performance, utushi-e, was all but forgotten in the push for rapid Westernization, once Japan did open its doors to the West in 1853. Ironically, by the end of the Meiji period (1868-1912), Western-style metal magic lantern projectors were introduced to Japan as a new, foreign technology. In a direct translation of the words “magic lantern,” these new machines were called gentō 幻灯 and were used primarily in upper-class homes and educational settings. Although their popularity waned with the introduction of silent film and later television, utsushi-e continued to be performed sporadically until the mid-20th century. Recently, utsushi-e has been rediscovered in Japan, and there have been significant efforts made to collect and preserve these delicate glass artifacts, particularly at Waseda University’s Tsubouchi Memorial Theatre Museum, which has created a digital archive. Reenactments of Edo-period slide shows based on the Waseda collection can now be enjoyed on Youtube, courtesy of the theater troupe Minwaza.


See more visual depictions of Japanese magic lantern shows at “江户の写し絵”

Testicular Tanuki Tales: Japanese Folk Humor for Children with a Ribald Satirical Twist

By Tara M. McGowan

In folklore and legend, dating back to at least the Kamakura period (1185-1333), the tanuki “raccoon dog”[1] was believed to have the supernatural ability to transform itself and its surroundings, often duping unsuspecting humans. In recent years, such tanuki lore has been transported into 20th century popular media, notably in Studio Ghibli’s animated film Pom Poko (1994) directed by Isao Takahata. Set during the 1960’s housing development boom, a group of young tanuki (Fig. 1), who have fallen sadly out of touch with their folkloric traditions, receives training from their elders in the shape-shifting arts. The story centers on this new generation, as they attempt to use their legendary haunting powers to spook modern suburban developers into abandoning plans to destroy their natural habitat.

Fig. 1: A tanuki “raccoon dog” depicted in its animal form in Pom Poko (Studio Ghibli, 1994)

At one point in the film, the old tanuki priest gathers a group of adolescent male tanuki onto a large mat, only to suddenly reveal that the mat they are sitting on is, in fact, his kintama (scrotum or testicles). The whole group topples off the mat as the priest’s scrotum returns to its original size, while he matter-of-factly instructs them, “The tanuki’s kintama has the capacity to expand to the size of 8 tatami mats.”

Such overt references to genitalia in media designed for family audiences may alarm some western viewers, but tanuki kintama continue to be prominently displayed in Japan, where, even today, ceramic tanuki statues with that part of their anatomy accentuated are often placed outside restaurants and other kinds of businesses in the belief that they bring wealth and prosperity, the word kintama being a homophone for “gold” (kin) and “jewels” (tama) (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: A Shigaraki-ware, ceramic tanuki statue

Director Takahata was by no means the first to use the tanuki’s special transformational talents to satirize modernity in media for family audiences. This is the particular theme of two Meiji-period (1868-1912) woodblock prints currently housed in the Cotsen Children’s Library. The Meiji restoration began with the opening of Japan’s doors to the West after almost two centuries of relative seclusion, and the rapid rate of change in custom and dress was a constant source of new material for woodblock print artists of the period, especially in a genre for young audiences known as “toy prints” (omocha-e). These cheap, usually single-sheet, woodblock prints were ostensibly for children but were most likely enjoyed by people of all ages. Like the magazine tabloids of today, they claimed to share the “latest” (shinpan) knowledge or gossip about any given subject; thus the titles of these prints: “The latest tanuki entertainments” (Shinpan tanuki asobi, 1884. Cotsen 45036) and “Compendium of the latest tanuki amusements” (Shinpan tanuki tawamure zukushi, 1883. Cotsen 101874). Both of these prints, published a year apart, depict an exhaustive series (zukushi) of variations on the theme of tanuki kintama transformations.

Fig. 3: “The latest tanuki entertainments” (Shinpan tanuki asobi) by Kobayashi Eijirō, 1884 (Cotsen 45036; high-resolution view)

In “The latest tanuki entertainments” (Fig. 3), two images immediately alert the viewer that this is a Meiji-period print: the tanuki as postman and the tanuki playing the drum in a military marching band (Fig. 4).

Fig. 4: “Postal delivery” (Yūbin haitatsu) and “Musical marching band” (Teroren gakutai)

In both cases, the tanuki are wearing similarly rumpled western-style uniforms, and the institutions with which they are associated—the postal service and military—only came officially into being during the Meiji restoration.

Although claiming to be presenting the “latest edition,” artist Kobayashi Eijirō, much like Takahata in the Pom Poko film, actually draws most of his inspiration for these transformations from earlier Edo-period (1603-1868) examples. The Edo-period saw a tremendous flowering of woodblock prints in general, and renowned artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), in particular, popularized testicular tanuki transformations, coming up with numerous variations on the theme (see The Kuniyoshi Project). One theme Kuniyoshi made famous was the kintama transformed into a gourd to suppress (or catch) the catfish (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Utagawa Kuniyoshi’s print, titled “Catfish gourd kintama” (Namazu hyōtan kintama)

This image is a play on the Zen Buddhist kōan, “How do you catch a catfish with a gourd?” and also the belief that a giant mythological catfish thought to cause earthquakes under the islands of Japan could only be controlled when the god Kashima placed a giant rock on its head to suppress it. In Kuniyoshi’s print, the gourd is clearly the transformed kintama of the tanuki standing on the right-hand side, and the catfish is the kintama of the tanuki flattened beneath it on the left.

No doubt relying on his audiences’ familiarity with these earlier prints, the artist of “The latest tanuki entertainments” (hereafter, Tanuki asobi), borrows these ideas in separate images in his compendium and gives them both nearly the same title “Catfish suppressed” (Namazu [o] osaeta) (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6: “Catfish suppressed” (Namazu [o] osaeta)

Whereas Kuniyoshi’s complex designs involve several tanuki, sometimes working together to create one illusion, the artist of Tanuki asobi usually comes up with ways for one tanuki to execute each transformation so that he can achieve a grand total of 36 transformations on the one printed sheet. For example, the Tanuki asobi print depicts variations on Kuniyoshi’s transformations of tanuki kintama into “Dharma” (daruma), “Long-nosed goblin” (tengu), and as the features and accoutrements of the seven gods of good fortune (shichi fukujin), in this case, Daikoku, god of wealth and prosperity with his characteristic sack and magic mallet, and Fukurokuju, god of wisdom and happiness with his distinctive bald forehead (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7: “Great teacher Dharma” (Daruma daishi), “Long-nosed goblin” (Tengu), “God of wealth” (Daikoku), and “God of wisdom and happiness” (Fukurokuju)

As tricksters, tanuki occupy a liminal space, freely crossing boundaries between the sacred and profane. As bumbling and bawdy creatures, with a penchant for overindulging in saké, tanuki are often used to parody religious figures, as seen in the old priest in the Pom Poko film. As supernatural beings (yōkai), they can also become figures of reverence in their own right. In some parts of Japan, they have attained, much like foxes, the level of deities (kamisama) or immortals (sennin). In fact, on a recent visit to Asakusa in Tokyo, which coincidentally happens to be the address of the artist of this print, I recently stumbled upon a tanuki temple called Ching ōdō (Fig. 8). According to the explanation at the site, this tanuki deity was enshrined in 1872 during the Meiji period to protect against fire and robbery and to ensure that business would flourish. It was moved to Asakusa’s entertainment district (perhaps not so coincidentally) in 1883, around the time these prints were published. That tanuki, with their shape-shifting talents, should serve as the patron deity of actors seems particularly fitting.

Fig. 8: The Tanuki Temple Ching ōdō in Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan (photo by the author)

The ambivalence of the tanuki’s role in relation to folk religion is a fascinating topic unto itself, deserving a more in-depth treatment elsewhere. For our purposes here, I will focus instead on the more straightforward uses of tanuki for satirizing any kind of hierarchical class affectation. In Tanuki asobi, there are several such examples. For instance, there is the tanuki as a court nobleman and, in a rare example of a tanuki transforming into a woman, as a lady-in-waiting (Fig. 9).

Fig. 9: “Court noble or minister” (Okugesama) and “Lady-in-waiting” (Kanjo)

A third example is the dapper gentleman with a kintama muffler around his neck, which dates the image to the Meiji period because of the gentleman’s western-style top hat, even though in all other respects, he appears to be dressed in Japanese garb (Fig. 10).

Fig. 10: “Gentleman with a muffler” (Erimaki no danna)

In Tanuki asobi, parody of the upper classes is outweighed by images of tanuki—again mostly borrowed from Edo examples—enjoying more plebeian pleasures, such as tanuki fishermen casting a kintama net, sailing a kintama boat with a kintama sail, or using a kintama poncho to avoid a sudden rain storm (Fig. 11).

Fig. 11: “River fishing” (Kawagari), “Sailboat” (Hokake fune), and “Rainstorm” (Yūdachi)

It is important to remember that the audience for these kinds of popular “play prints” would not have been of the nobility nor of the wealthy, foreign-educated classes, who were—outside of uniformed soldiers or postal carriers—the most likely in this period to assume western dress. The tanuki nobility and gentry here are meant to satirize human pretensions, excesses, and foolish aspirations to an elegant lifestyle that is in more than one sense a sham.

The idea of modernizing the tanuki’s shape-shifting abilities for satiric effect is taken to even greater extremes in “Compendium of the latest tanuki amusements” (hereafter, Tanuki tawamure zukushi) (Fig. 12). Here, the older-style images of the tanuki priest praying before a tanuki Buddha or a tanuki geisha out on the town, accompanied by a tanuki musician, are also present, but what is striking is how the print celebrates the westernization of the tanuki’s talents.

Fig. 12: “Compendium of the latest tanuki amusements” (Shinpan tanuki tawamure zukushi, Kuniaki, 1883) (Cotsen 101874; high-resolution view)

Claiming to be an exhaustive list or compendium (zukushi), this print actually offers only eight scenes to Tanuki asobi’s 36, but because each of its scenes generally contains several tanuki, the total number of transformations is closer to 15. Although providing fewer overall transformations, the ones on view in Tanuki tawamure zukushi are in many ways more innovative. There is, for example, a western-style tanuki riding a kintama unicycle (Fig. 13).

Fig. 13: Tanuki on a unicycle

Unlike Tanuki asobi, the individual scenes in this print are not given their own titles so reading them involves more guesswork, but the Chinese characters in red on the flag in the background of this particular scene are 牛肉 (gyūniku, meaning “beef”). This may be a reference to tanuki’s well-known penchant for craving human delicacies (in Pom Poko, they feast on tempura and hamburgers!), and here, the tanuki on the unicycle in western-style garb may be on an outing to eat expensive beef that most common people could hardly afford.

In another example, we see several tanuki, sitting on western-style chairs, drinking cocktails (Fig. 14). One lower-ranking tanuki provides the kintama table, while the other two—no doubt of higher position—each sit on their own kintama-upholstered chairs.

Fig. 14: Tanuki cocktail party

In yet another instance, a gentleman tanuki provides his own kintama arm rest, while posing for a tanuki photographer using a kintama dark cloth to shut out the light (Fig. 15).

Fig.15: Professional tanuki photographer

Unlike the colorful flamboyance of Tanuki asobi, this print is distinguished by its subdued sobriety, which actually makes it more humorous. The viewer is lulled by the tanuki’s debonair cosmopolitanism into forgetting momentarily that the source of all their accoutrements is anything but elegant! Instead of the bright pink flesh tone that distinguishes all of the kintama guises in Tanuki asobi, in Tanuki tawamure zukushi, the kintama are consistently an unassuming gray or off-white that more easily translates visually into a variety of materials, from cloth to stone to rubber in the case of the unicycle. It is also worth noting that children tanuki appear in two of the images, but neither of them is engaged in kintama transformations, suggesting that this is only an ability that tanuki develop in maturity.

Play prints such as these were designed with family audiences in mind, and there is plenty of whimsical scatological humor in both of these prints to delight children of any age. My personal favorite in Tanuki asobi is the kintama transformed into a cat, being coaxed by its “owner” to chase a mouse, although the kintama as hot-air balloon—extending above the frame—comes in a close second (Fig. 16).

Fig. 16: “Cat” (Neko) and “Balloon” (Fusen)

Though these play prints may give children the opportunity to revel in social taboo, they offer adult audiences an added level of pleasure; a safe haven from which to openly thumb their noses at their betters and, in some cases, resist the tide of westernization that was being forced on them by the Meiji government. As Tanuki no tawamure suggests, poking fun at tanuki indulging in a sham western lifestyle might also have served as a balm to sooth those who in reality could not acquire the more elegant luxuries westernization afforded.

In “Haunting Modernity: Tanuki, Trains, and Transformation in Japan,” Michael Dylan Foster (2012) provides evidence of how both of these sensibilities were at work during the Meiji period through a particular genre of oral lore: legends about deadly clashes between tanuki and steam engines. In many parts of Japan during the Meiji period, stories emerged about train operators who claimed to hear the whistle of oncoming trains, only to find that the train would suddenly disappear at the moment of contact. When these instances were investigated, there were almost invariably one or more dead tanuki on the tracks. As Foster writes:

If we listen carefully to a cycle of tanuki legends that circulated at this time, we hear a counter-narrative to the hegemonic story of progress and modernity: through the din of industrialization, urbanization, and modern science, tales of tanuki voice a subtle ideological resistance. (6)

This is certainly the case with Takahata’s Pom Poko film where the ill-fated tanuki clash with modern developers, not only to ultimately lose their natural habitat but in many cases their lives, as well. In a particularly dark moment of the film, a frustrated group of adolescent male tanuki breaks off from the peaceful protests of their elders, suicide-bombing the construction site by flying down to their deaths on kintama parachutes! The remaining tanuki join forces in a futile, albeit visually stunning, attempt to turn back time by using their transformational powers to fleetingly resurrect the landscape of their youth.

The existence of tanuki train legends, if they were as prevalent as Foster argues during the Meiji period, was no doubt familiar to the artists and consumers of the prints Tanuki asobi and Tanuki tawamure zukushi. In a less tragic version of the tanuki train story, however—one that was apparently recounted on a small, trainless island off the coast of Kagoshima—Foster tells of a young man, who gets on a train that mystically appears at night, only to find himself the next morning in an entirely different part of the island with no train tracks in sight. To account for this unexpected twist, Foster asserts: “…in times of rapid flux and cultural change, it is not only the past that haunts the present. The desire for the future, for an impossible modernity, can be just as disorienting” (Foster 18). Like the story of the young man on the island, the popular toy prints in the Cotsen Children’s Library were designed for audiences that were unlikely to be living a western lifestyle during this period. As single-sheet prints, they were also light and transportable, easily disseminated to even the remotest parts of Japan, far from the rapidly modernizing metropolitan centers. These prints remind us, much like Foster’s tales, that history has anything but a linear trajectory, as changes—however rapid—do not always trickle down or out to everyone equally. But the ribald humor in these prints is of a much lighter and more joyful strain than the train legends and seems to contain an added twist. These prints may be read as both a resistance to and a desire for the upward mobility that only a tanuki could effortlessly achieve out of nothing but its own physical resources. In this sense, these prints offer, not only “a counter-narrative to the glorious and romantic official story of modernity” (Foster 12), but also a vicarious celebration of the inexhaustibly creative and exuberant tanuki’s illicit methods of partaking in it.


[1] The word tanuki is somewhat misleadingly translated “raccoon dog” because of their resemblance to raccoons. Tanuki (Nyctereutes procyonoides) are not actually related to raccoons; they are canids, indigenous to East Asia. For this reason, I use the Japanese word throughout without italics, and I follow the Japanese convention of using the word tanuki for both singular and plural forms.


Foster, M. D. (2012). Haunting modernity: Tanuki, trains, and transformation in Japan. Asian Ethnology, 71(1), 3-29.