The Japanese mythology of Okami (part 1)

Okami was an absolutely brilliant game. It had a very traditional Japanese feel, and took you on an adventure through a land of asian fairy tales full of blooming cherry blossoms, Dragon kings and bunny princesses. However, to us Westerners who grew up with the fairy tales told by Brothers Grimm,Hans Christian Anderson and (more to the point) Disney, some of the references were baffling in this game. Well be baffled no more, as I’m going to explain the mythology behind the game.

Who exactly is that girl who randomly goes into space?

images (1)In the game, a pretty girl with bunny ears randomly appears, gets captured and after being rescued blasts off in a rocket in ancient Japan. This mystified me at at first, but this makes a lot more sense when you know the original tale. Princess Kaguya is a character from the famous fairy tale The Bamboo Cutter’s daughter (which had recently been turned into a studio Ghibli film).

In this story, an elderly childless man longs for a child. One day, when he’s out cutting the bamboo, he comes across a beautiful little girl who can fit into the palm of his hand. Each day, she grows taller and taller. And each day, the bamboo cutter finds nuggets of gold in the bamboo he cuts.

She soon gains a number of suitors and when they refuse to take no for an answer, she gets rid of them by sending them on impossible tasks.

Eventually, a strange craft comes from the sky. It’s revealed by the visitors reveal that Kaguya is in fact a Princess from the moon, and she was banished for committing a crime (what she did depends on the variation). Even though she doesn’t want to leave the old man, she has to go with her race and head back to the moon.

This myth is also why there’s a space ship and a race living on the moon in Okami. The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter is arguably the world’s oldest science fiction with aliens; the mix of science fiction and fantasy in this myth explains why Japanese media is more comfortable with mixing high fantasy with high technology than Western media (except in the case of Urban fantasy).


Why does Princess Kaguya have bunny ears?

I thought it was a bit odd that Kaguya had bunny ears, but I put it down to a bit of a quirky design (afterlal, she’s an alien princess; maybe they were antennas or something. However, as I started looking at portayals of Kaguya across different media, I started to notice a bit of a theme.

There had to be something more to it. And as it so happens, there is.

moon bunny
See it now?

You know the shadow in the moon? Various cultures across the world have had a few ideas about what those shadows are, and the ancient Japanese thought those shadows looked like a rabbit pounding away at a mortar. Some legends say it is making delicious rice cake, while others say it is making an elixir of eternal life (which is what Princess Kaguya offered the Emperor in the original myth.)

There’s another Japanese tale which says that the old man on the moon came down to earth and said he was hungry. A fox, a monkey and a rabbit wanted to help him. The fox caught him a big fish to eat, and the monkey gathered him lots of fruit; the rabbit, feeling dismayed he could not help, offered to jump in the cooking pot himself so he could feed his guest. The old man, overcome by the rabbit’s selfless kindness, took him home to live with him.

Who is the little bird? I don’t know about the bird mafia, but the little girl’s a tongue-cut fairy sparrow!

sparrow mafia.png

That cute little sparrow in the kimono you rescue is from The Tongue-cut sparrow. In this tale, there’s an old man who lives in an abusive relationship with a cruel wife. One day, he finds a cute sparrow and takes care of her as he has no children. However, his cold-hearted wife cuts out the sparrow’s tongue and forces her to flee.

The sparrow appeared to the old man in a beautiful kimono (like our sparrows here!) and fairy sparrowinvited him to her house. After her beautiful daughters did a graceful sparrow dance, she offered the old man a gift; a big one or a small one. He chose the small one and when he found out what it was full of jewels.

The cruel wife got angry and beat the old man and said he should have got the big one (clearly the ancient Japanese had less trouble believing tales of female on male domestic violence than our culture does). Her greed is particularly bad because there’s a lot of ceremony and cultural etiquette behind gift giving in Japanese culture, as you should never receive/ give a gift that’s so extravagant that you can never give an equal gift back.  So the old abusive wife visits the sparrow she mutilated and demands the bigger gift. When she brings it back home she discovers it’s full of monsters and runs away screaming, vowing to never be cruel nor greedy ever again.

That’s it for part 1 of the Okami myths and next time we’ll look at the myth of the great Gods themselves: Amaterasu, Susano and what the dragon thing’s all about.





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