Sunday, September 23, 2018

Once Upon a Pixel: Okami pt. 2

Still there?  Cool!  Time for more Japanese fairy tale references in Okami.

Why don’t we start this edition with possibly the most well-known fairy tale in Japan.  One that’s known by every school child in that country:

This is a story I’ve covered on here before as well.  It’s the tale of a boy born from the center of a peach who goes off to fight the oni that have been ravaging his country with the help of a dog, pheasant and monkey.  It’s a story that’s so popular it gets referenced in anime and tokusatsu fairly frequently.  The characters have been made into a statue in Okayama, there’s been a Momotaro brand of blue jeans and the characters were even used in Japanese propaganda films during World War II.  Which makes how small Momotaro’s role in the game is a little bit puzzling.

Momotaro is seen in Sei-An City, the capital of Nippon.  He’s a little boy who’s playing hero and pretending to go off to Oni Island to fight monsters.  He also asks you to help get back his kibi dango (millet dumplings) that were taken by a pickpocket that’s lurking around the city.  And that’s about it, really.  There are other elements of his story there.  Oni Island is a place in the game.  It’s the stronghold of a kitsune boss named Ninetails.  There are also a couple of situations in which you’ll see giant peaches and have to open them up to get at prizes inside.  However, that may have to do with other associations related to the peach in Japanese culture (click HERE for a Gaijin Goombah video about Okami that touches on the peach thing).  There are monkeys and dogs among the animals in the game which you can win over with food, but no pheasants.  But really, that’s it.  The actual character of Momotaro doesn’t do much.  He’s an NPC (non-player character) who asks you to do a side quest (one that two other characters ask you to do) and that’s all.  He doesn’t have nearly as big a role as either Kaguya or the sparrows at Sasa Sanctuary.  Still, maybe that’s for the best.  After all, he’s already a big star in the world of Japanese fairy tales.  His design definitely calls back to his origins in the folk tale.  His costuming suggests the peach (especially his pants for some reason).  Also, he has a slightly animal-like face that recalls both the monkey and the dog a little bit (still no pheasant, though).  Like I said before, he’s just a kid in this game, but that got me thinking though.  Momotaro is drawn like a little kid in a lot of art.  A lot of the written versions of his tale say he’s 15 though.  I wonder why he’s not drawn more like a teenager.  Maybe it’s because little kids identify so strongly with this story that they chose to play into that.

The story of “Urashima Taro” or “Urashima the Fisherman” is kind of a sad, bittersweet tale (like many Japanese fairy tales) about a humble fisherman who saves a turtle from a gang of mean kids and is then rewarded by being brought to Rin Gin Palace where he falls in love with the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea, Princess Otohime.  He stays there for a while until he gets homesick and asks to go home for a while.  He goes and is given a jeweled box that he is instructed never to open.  He goes only to find that everything is different than he remembered and for good reason.  Over 100 years had passed since he left.  He then opens the box and all the years he didn’t age start rushing back and he ages and dies on the spot.  Or . . . he catches Otohime in the form of a sea turtle and lets her go and she instead welcomes her to her home in the heavens.  There are actually a couple of variants of this one.  But still, the hundred year stay is the same as well as opening the jeweled box with the additional aging.  Those remain the same.

Now, if you thought the fairy tale Urashima was sad, the Okami version is too.  He’s just sad in a pathetic way instead of sad in a wistful/touching kind of way.  When we first encounter Urashima, he’s being bullied by a group of little kids.  Apparently, they don’t believe him when he said an emissary from the Dragon King’s court named Orca (notably an orca whale as the name suggests, rather than a turtle) brought him down to Rin Gin Palace.  When Amaterasu and Issun do meet with Orca, Urashima tries to get Orca to take him back to the palace only to be firmly rejected.  When you do inevitably meet Otohime, she is not a young princess but the undisputed queen of the oceans and the bride of the Water Dragon besides.  There are a few other touches that reference the fairy tale.  The kids who are beating on Urashima all wear hats that are patterned to look like turtle shells.  Also, Urashima’s design references not just the fact that he’s a fisherman but also the treasure box he was told not to open.  Though, it looks like more of a barrel here.  I do feel kind of bad for this Urashima, but he also got to live a subjectively longer life than the fairy tale version.  So, it’s hard to feel too bad for him.

This is another one that’s kind of sad.  At least, if you’re a dog lover.  It concerns an old man who is very nice and his neighbor who was mean and greedy.  The good old man had a beloved dog named Shiro who one day points him to a buried treasure of gold coins in his yard.  Seeing this, his jealous neighbor asks to borrow the dog with the thought that it will point him to a similar treasure.  Shiro instead leads him to a refuse pile that was buried.  The nasty neighbor, out of anger, kills the dog and buries him under a tree.  This is basically the start of a cycle in which the kind neighbor repeatedly tries to take away something to remember his poor dog and ends up getting a miraculous result only for the nasty neighbor to try and replicate the result only for it to turn out horrible and destroy the momento out of anger.  The old man asks for the tree the dog is buried under and makes a mortar out of it.  The mortar turns out to be able to make a magical amount of mochi.  The neighbor borrows it and all he gets is some kind of foul-smelling gunk.  So, he burns the mortar.  The good neighbor takes away the ashes and finds that spreading the ashes on trees will get them to flower even in winter.  The whole thing basically ends when the nasty neighbor can’t replicate that result in front of the local feudal lord.

The Okami version of this tale is a bit sillier.  The version here is an old man named Mr. Flower who lives in Sei-an City.  And before you ask: Yes, he does appear to have a tree growing from his head.  You even have to bloom it using your Celestial Brush.  As silly as he may look, this character does have a two-part dedicated side quest, unlike Momotaro.  In the first part, you have to bloom all the trees in Sei-an City that aren’t possessed with evil spirits.  After that, you have to chase after Mr. Flower to all the trees that are possessed as he does a special dance that drives away the evil spirits.  At the point the spirit leaves, you bloom the tree with your brush.  And if you can’t keep up, you have to start the whole thing over again (trust me, I had to a couple of times).  It’s a strange take on the tale, but it’s still nice to see it acknowledged.  I also like how Amaterasu as the white wolf kind of reflects the role of the white dog Shiro in the tale.

In addition to fairy tale characters, there are also historical and legendary figures represented in the characters of Okami.  Now, I’m not so informed on the legendary figures, but I do recognize a few.  Like Benkei, for instance.  Saito Musashibo Benkei, more commonly referred to as just “Benkei”, was a Japanese warrior monk who died in 1189.  He’s mentioned about twice in historical records, but is more famous for the legends attached to him.  Benkei supposedly lived in a monastery until he was about seventeen at which point he left to become a mountain ascetic.  Somewhere around this point he developed a personal ambition to duel and defeat 1000 samurai, who he believed were arrogant and unworthy warriors, and take their swords from them as trophies.  He supposedly managed to collect 999 swords until he was defeated at Gojo Bridge by Minamoto no Yoshitsune (note: another Okami character named Waka is supposedly based on Minamoto no Yoshitsune).  After that, Benkei wanted revenge and fought Minamoto no Yoshitsune again, only to lose again.  After that he became a retainer for Minamoto no Yoshitsune and helped him fight in the Genpei War against the Taira Clan.  Yoshitsune and Benkei would end up turning outlaw when Yoshitsune’s older brother turned against them.  When they were finally surrounded, Yoshitsune raced into the castle they were at to commit seppuku (ritual suicide) while Benkei stood out on the bridge to fend off the army chasing them.  The army was so afraid of taking on Benkei directly that they ended up riddling him with arrows and Benkei supposedly died standing on his feet without falling over.  In folklore and media, Benkei is commonly depicted as a monk carrying seven weapons on his back: an axe, rake, sickle, wooden mallet, saw, iron staff and half-moon spear.

Benkei is another character that you encounter in Sei-an City.  Specifically on the bridge between the commoners’ and aristocratic quarters.  This seems kind of fitting considering how bridges factored into his life in two very major situations.  However, this Benkei isn’t looking to duel any samurai though.  He’s still on a quest to collect swords, but this version of Benkei has heard that there is a shining living sword lurking in the depths of the Sei-an City lake and he wants your help to defeat it.  That’s right, he’s there for fishing.  It’s a fishing minigame.  It’s also a very important fishing minigame because until you finish it, you can’t pass into the Aristocratic Quarter (though, why Benkei has a fishing minigame while Urashima the Fisherman doesn’t is a bit beyond me).  Anyway, at the end of all this after he’s caught a giant cutlass fish, he decides to give up his quest to collect 1000 swords and devote himself to fishing instead.  On the one hand, it doesn’t exemplify his steadfast loyalty like the legendary Benkei’s actions did.  On the other, growing old while fishing probably beats getting riddled with arrows and dying on your feet.

That’s about all I’ve got for this.

It’s interesting, though.  Just the idea of what stories and tales make up someone’s frame of reference based on where they live and what culture they live in.  All these tales and even more that I didn’t mention would probably be recognized almost immediately by people in Japan.  That’s why Capcom included them.  However, if the anime, manga and tokusatsu I partake in is any proof, they also know a whole lot of Western tales too.  They know “Cinderella” and “Snow White” and “Jack and the Beanstalk” and “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Little Match Girl” and a whole mess of others.  Probably because the West has been a lot keener on exporting certain tales as a way of spreading their culture all over the place.  Other places hold their cultures a lot tighter.  The fact that I personally know so many of these Japanese tales is kind of strange.  I mainly know them because of tokusatsu, manga and anime.  I’d like to say that my knowledge of Grimm tales is because I have German roots, but it’s actually also because of anime to an extent.  So, being a geek made me more aware of global folk tales.

It also makes me think what other culture’s tales might be good worked into a video game.  Maybe something Russian with characters like Baba Yaga, Grandfather Frost and Vasilisa.  Or maybe something less European?  A game set in West African lore featuring Anansi, maybe.

What do you guys think?  On any of the subjects brought up above.

Anyway, until next time!

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