What Super Mario Brothers Three Can Teach You About Japanese Folklore

For some reason I have a case of Japanese Folklore on the brain. Ever since I did that post about “The Ten Japanese Folktales You Should Know,” I’ve been a bit more sensitive to Japanese story references. I rented three anime DVDs from Tsutaya (my local, Japanese video rental shop) of some of Japan’s better know stories. The animation was bad and the voices were worse. This was another one of those situations where something is so bad it’s actually entertaining. But there was one story that caught my eye: Bunbuku Chagama (ぶんぶくちゃがま or ぶんぶく茶釜).

The version I watched was slightly different the other versions I’ve seen. In most stories a poor man saves a raccoon-like animal, a tanuki*, caught in a trap, and out of gratitude the tanuki tries to help the poor man, by becoming a kettle for him to sell (which doesn’t work), and then a kind of like a tanuki tightrope, circus act…which becomes quite successful. The two live happily ever after.
*A tanuki is related to a raccoon, but isn’t a raccoon exactly. The scientific name is Nyctereutes procyonoides viverrinus. They’re often referred to as raccoon dogs (which doesn’t sound all that pleasant).

In the version I watched though, there is a dirty kettle that’s sent to a monastery as a gift. The abbott of the monastery orders two monks to clean the kettle. As they are scrubbing, the kettle says “Itai!” or “That hurts!” The monks start freakin‘ out about this talking teapot and quickly run and tell the abbott. The abbott doesn’t believe them until I tries to boil water in the kettle to make tea. The teapot then begins to scream. The abbott is shocked and wants nothing more than to get rid of the kettle. A gives it away, for free, to a poor man passing by.

The statue in the cartoon I saw looked very similiar to this statue from Mario Bros. 3!

My favorite suit in the Super Mario Brothers 3 game, hands down!

The poor man is quite pleased with his new kettle. After his dinner ends up mysteriously disappearing the poor man tries to find out who the culprit is. Again the teakettle speaks and surprised the poor man. Eventually, the kettle reveals his true tanuki form to his new owner. The owner names his Bunbuku (which is like the equivalent of Lucky I think) and a friendship blossoms.

I didn’t think anything of the cartoon until Bunbuku the tanuki started telling the story of his family to his poor owner. Bunbuku’s family members too, could transform into different items. In this particular cartoon, they showed four tanooki transforming at the same time. One of which transformed into a stone statue that looked eerily similar to the stone statue that Mario transforms into in Super Mario Brothers 3! A light bulb went off in my head…

“So that’s why they used that suit in the game!” I thought to myself.

Apparently, in Japanese stories, tanuki are known for being shapeshifting, generally good-natured creatures. In hindsight, it’s cool to see how some of this stuff ended up in the game. Easy trivia (well, it’s easy if you’re a Mario fan): What item does Mario need to get his raccoon tail and ears?

Do you know? Do you give up? It’s a leaf! Another interesting thing about leaves in Japanese folklore is that in some stories, tanooki would use leaves, placed atop their heads to change themselves into other forms.

Wow! As if Mario Brothers 3 needed any more cool stuff. It was already one of the best Mario games ever made, but there are Japanese folklore references embedded in the game?!? COOL!

I haven’t run across any special Japanese mushroom stories, so I think mushrooms that make you grow, and flowers that allow you to shoot fire from your hands, are safely tucked away in the annals of Nintendo folklore. If I come across any other things like this, I’ll be sure to let you know.

Thanks for reading,

Donald Ash

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  • I think the mushrooms may be a reference to Alice in Wonderland (ie she eats the caterpillar’s mushroom and grows taller). As far as the fire flower.. this guess is a lil more of a stretch but the lehua flower in Hawaii looks a lot like Mario’s fire flower and there’s a legend attached to it. There were two lovers, Pele became smitten with the man (she’s a volcano goddess from what I remember) and when the young man refused her advances she turned him into a tree. His wife was inconsolable so the other gods turned her into the lehua flower which. While the flower is more associated with rain (when you pluck it she cries and it rains as she is being separated from her lover who is the tree she blossoms on) Pele is said to get angry if you bring it near her volcanoes and bring down fiery destruction.

  • LanceT

    Love the references. You also see the tanuki references in Inuyasha (http://anidb.net/a144). With the character Hachi (http://anidb.net/ch12477) who is a tanuki that shape-shifts, of course with putting leaf to head. Shippou (http://anidb.net/ch12160) is another character in the series, though not a tanuki, is a fox demon that can shape-shift along with pulling prank type illusions on people using similar leaf gestures at times. They probably have a lot more old legend references in Inuyasha that I most likely missed since the story is set in feudal Japan. It is another fun series to watch, though long at 167 eps. :P

  • Oh the leaf thing males WAY more sense now! I just thought it was randomness. What’s interesting about the statue is it is a Jizo now that I see it again. Jizo are Buddhist statues clothed in red caps and bibs.

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