Everything in pop culture builds off what came before, but sometimes it’s not so obvious exactly what inspired your favorite video games. Luckily game recognize game, and Source Code is where Playboy explores games’ eclectic origins and finds out what influences video game developers.
The Pokémon games proudly declare that you “gotta catch ‘em all!” But what exactly are you catching?
Aside from snakes, birds, cats, and other assorted common animals, every now and then the games toss something random, weird or outright terrifying at players. If you ever saw a Pokémon and wondered “where did that thing come from?” chances are it originated in the folklore and weird legends that populate Japanese culture.
Or maybe from someplace…else.
The rich worlds of Japanese Shinto lore claim that everything—from the mightiest tree to the lowliest stone, to the sun and moon themselves—has a “soul” (frequently called a “kami”), and that we humans need to recognize and respect those souls. Even the possessions we own can gradually, over time, develop souls of their own.
Dubbed tsukumogami (artifact spirits), they owe their creation to repeated use, or the love we so generously give our items when they are new. So be extra careful if you lose that doll you loved so much as a child, lest it transform into the Pokémon Banette and seek revenge against you. To you it might be just a toy, but to the growing soul inside of it—well, if you devoted your life to making someone happy and they just forgot about you, wouldn’t you be a little mad?
Is it a pig? Is it an elephant? Some weird, deformed tapir? A little bit of everything? That last one isn’t so far off—there exists in yokai (Japanese monster) stories a creature called the “baku,” and that’s basically what Drowzee is. Comprised of many different pieces of many different animals (including the trunk of an elephant, eyes of a rhinoceros, tail of an ox, and hindquarters of a tiger), it was one of the final creations of the celestial kami after the world was created.
This invisible spirit would enter your house as you slept, place its snout on your head, and devour any nightmares plaguing you, because the baku was made from protective bits of mighty beasts, and served to ward off pestilence and fear whenever possible. In the Pokémon games Drowzee uses “hypnosis” to put enemies to sleep, then uses “dream eater” to, well—yeah, that’s pretty much the same thing.
The most dangerous foes are those you don’t see coming. With its ability to shape-shift upon entering the battlefield, Zorua is definitely unexpected, but this sneaky Pokémon exemplifies just one of the ways foxes can mess with their victims in Japanese folklore.
The kitsune (a term for the common red fox) legends in Japan are ripe with tales of foxes taking human form, parading through the streets of towns, and confusing countless humans with their tricks—not all of which are harmless. But one solid hit, and they run off, back to the drawing board to try again. So next time you’re unsure if that cute girl or guy (or Pokémon) is really who they seem to be, just say “Moshi-moshi.” If they respond in kind, you’re safe. Otherwise, you might just be facing down a fox in disguise.
If you’ve ever walked past a Buddhist temple (or fancy Asian restaurant), you’ve undoubtedly seen the inspiration for the fiery Arcanine. Based on the Shiisa (guardian lion) or the Koma-inu (guardian dog), these creatures often travel in pairs—one with its mouth perpetually open, one closed—and are renowned for both their protective demeanor and their ability to spit fire all over whatever threatens them or their charges.
No wonder Arcanine is so fearsome—it’s practically a legend all its own.
Legend has it that the entire archipelago of Japan sits atop the body of Onamazu, a giant catfish. And if humans aren’t careful, excess pollution can lead to said catfish shaking violently—causing massive earthquakes and even tsunami.
Whiscash might not be that powerful, but its territorial nature, ground/water typing, and penchant for using tremors to scare off threats shares a lot in common with its legendary counterpart. So tread carefully, and give these fellows the respect they deserve.
Lucario is more a case of cosplay than a supernatural origin. And it comes from a part of the world far removed from Japan.
Ask yourself where you’ve seen this before: a scowling, jackal headed humanoid with a “foul” disposition, the ability to see souls and auras, and the physical skill capable of defeating even the mightiest of warriors. If you answered Anubis, gatekeeper of the Egyptian Underworld, then you are correct! Whether or not Lucario works for him is up for debate, but he sure bears a strong resemblance.
Combusken has a very clear analogue in Japanese folklore. Picture this: you, a farmer living in the countryside of Japan, suddenly hear a warning coming from one of your neighbors. He bursts from the surrounding forest and begins shouting “the basan is coming, the basan is coming!”
And less than a breath later, following close behind, comes a giant chicken, which proceeds to spit fire all over your house, equipment, and maybe even your neighbor. But don’t worry—the basan’s ghostly flames won’t hurt you physically—maybe just wound your pride a little.
Charles Dunbar is a professional storyteller, anthropologist, and Japanese culture lecturer. He presents frequently at libraries, universities, and anime conventions all across the United States. You can read more of his work at studyofanime.com
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