Japan’s most popular and lucrative video game series, Yokai Watch, is finally coming to the West. While Japan is set to see the third installment of Professor Layton developer’s, Level 5’s, Pokemon-esque franchise summer of next year, worries over localization set back the release of even the first in the English speaking world. In a decision making process that was probably influenced by the guy who thought balls of rice were too mind-boggling a concept for puny American intelligences, Nintendo of America have shielded consumers from the true meaning of Yokai (妖怪).
“[Yokai] are not ghosts, monsters or creatures, Yokai are, quite simply, Yokai.”
Except of course that they are precisely all these things. Yokai are Japanese spirits based on tales from the Shinto religion, the titular watch of the series allowing characters to visibly see them.
Their basis entirely in Japanese myth and legend is one of the main reasons that Jibanyan’s popularity has far outpaced that of his electric rodent counterpart. Pokémon was originally based on the popular childhood pastime of bug collecting, with real life Heracross, Shedinja, and even Wooper found adorning many a Japanese child’s bedroom. But Japanese folklore and fairytales are even more deeply ingrained in this society, and their influence can be found in many popular Japanese exports.
We all know of possibly the most well known Yokai, the tanuki, thanks to Mario’s famous suit. While the tanuki is a real animal, the shape-shifting properties attributed to their scrotum are hopefully all legend. A popular Japanese myth states that young tanuki use a leaf to practice their transformations just as Mario does in game. The supposed shape-shifting nature of tanuki’s ball bags were also most famously displayed in Studio Ghibli’s Pom Poko. Though Western audiences were saved from thinking of raccoon testicles as scrote was changed to “cheek pouches.” Cheek pouches indeed.
While many Pokémon are based on real life plants and animals, as well as inanimate objects and fashion trends, Game Freak did not shy away from Japan’s traditional ghost stories. One of the series’ most popular beasts, Mawile, is based on the story of the two-mouthed woman (二口女); a woman so starved by her husband she grows a second mouth to feed herself. The bond between Mawile and this traditional Yokai was strengthened when Mawile was reclassified as fairy type in Gen 6. Many Yokai are not humans or animals at all but based on the Shinto idea of animism, that inanimate objects have souls. While Pokémon contains many of these, you only have to look at discarded puppets Shuppet and Banette to see examples of monsters based on classic Yokai.
So what about the Yokai of Yokai Watch? I don’t wish to tread too deeply here for fear of spreading spoilers just ahead of release, but I think we are safe discussing Jibanyan, Yokai Watch’s absolutely adorable mascot. In game, Jibanyan is the spirit of a pet cat who was run over. It is not difficult to see the connections with this cute character and the terrifying, traditional nekomata（猫又）Yokai, the split, or two tailed cat. While nekomata usually prowl the mountains looking for strays to feast on, legend states that when a domesticated cat grows old his tail will split in two and he will turn into an evil nekomata. Nekomata are often associated with causing fires, which is reflected in Jibanyan’s fire typing and also with death, a reference to Jibanyan’s own unfortunate end.
Yokai are certainly an incredibly deep and interesting topic for a video game and a great way to teach Western audiences all about this absorbing part of Japanese culture. Here’s hoping localizers will understand Western interest in other cultures instead of “whitewashing” this captivating series and force-feeding players yet more jelly donuts.
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