Feature: How Japanese Folklore Inspired Mario's Tanooki Suit

What’s a Tanooki, anyway?

Ever since Super Mario Bros. 3 landed on store shelves, when Nintendo fans hear the word “tanooki” they almost always produce an excited smile and start reminiscing about days spent flying through levels as Racoon Mario. If you were to utter this same word today around these same Nintendo fans you’d probably get a much larger outcry of joy, seeing as the Tanooki Suit is about to make its triumphant return in Super Mario 3D Land. But, have you ever wondered what actually inspired the creation of Mario’s Tanooki Suit? Ever wondered why it is sometimes called the “Racoon Suit” instead? Let’s unravel the mysteries as we take a look at the Tanooki Suit that we know today, and also step into the mysterious world of Japanese Folklore to understand the origins of this legendary suit.

Many modern-day Japanese people still retain a rich culture based off of their ancestors’ folklore. Japanese décor is filled with bizarre figurines, elaborate decorations and humorous statues that all take inspiration from ancient times. As the world has become more connected over the past few generations their intriguing culture has quickly spread across the world: food, art, anime, videogames, etc. But when people think of the Japanese influence on video game’s they often think of Japanese Role Playing Game’s (JRPG’s); not the Super Mario Bros. series.

As we take a deeper look we find that Super Mario Bros 3’s Tanooki Suit is actually very deeply rooted in Japanese folklore; and just like the source material it comes with a mystery of its own. Before we delve into the history though, let’s take a look at what we know about the Tanooki Suit in the game itself. In SMB3, Mario can obtain a Super Leaf item to transform into Raccoon Mario — gaining the ears and tail of a raccoon. The Raccoon Mario form allows for the ability to spin-attack with his tail, fly throughout levels for a short period of time and slowly descend from high falls. Many call this suit “Tanooki Mario,” but to obtain the true form you’ll need to obtain the rare Tanooki Suit item itself. When this rare item is found Mario will transform into Tanooki Mario – wearing a full raccoon suit instead of just the ears and tail found on Racoon Mario – and a new special ability is obtained: the ability to transform into an all but invincible stationary statue. This statue form can also be used in air – Thwomp style — to take out those pesky enemies that can’t be hopped upon to defeat: Piranha Plants, Chain Chomps and so on, and expert players will also find a few other creative ways to utilize this rare Mario form.

Where does this mysterious Tanooki Suit get its inspiration from? It’s likely that “tanooki’ was originally derived from the Japanese word “tanuki,” which is the common name for the Japanese raccoon dog. One look at these animals and it’s instantly obvious that they were the primary inspiration for both the Raccoon Suit and Tanooki Suit designs in the games, seeing as they have the face and ears of a raccoon, and the body and tail of a fox. But while the tanuki is indeed a real life animal that’s native to Japan, it can also be found throughout the centuries in Japanese folklore; and when we place some of the pieces together we find that some of these myths have actually made it into the games as well.

The legendary tanuki has been foretold to be a mischievous animal that is full of joy, but it’s also thought to be capable of being a master of disguise with legendary shape-shifting abilities. One folktale called Bunbuku Chagama speaks of a tanuki who was helped from a trap and transforms himself into a teapot, which he then prompted the man to sell for money as thanks for his help. But when the new owner decided to make tea with his newly purchased kettle he was startled when a half transformed tanuki/teapot came jumping from the fire, as the tanuki couldn’t stand the heat – even in his transformed state. Another story finds a tanuki using leaves to cheat merchants, and many others claim that the only way a tanuki can transform is if he places leaves on his head and chants. Some even claim that these leaves come from the sacred lotus plant of Buddhism – which in some forms looks similar to the Super Leaf in SMB3. Other legends claim that tanukis enjoy tricking scholars by transforming into Buddhist monks. Whatever the legend, the tanuki is always playful and into some mischief of sorts.

It’s safe to say that the tanuki legends of the past have manifested into an everyday part of the Japanese people’s lives, and when the tanuki represents so many good things in life, why shouldn’t it?

Today tanukis can still be seen in Japan in the form of comical statues in all sorts of locations: temples, parks, restaurants and noodle shops. These humorous statues have various depictions, but they usually all have a few main elements in common: a sizeable tail for strength and steadiness; a large hat to ward off bad weather; big eyes to better see their surroundings; a sake bottle for virtue; a promissory note for trust; a big belly to display bold determination and a friendly smile. These statues are placed to let all those who enter know that they should do so with a cheerful spirit, ready to dine and drink abundantly, and to spend their money generously in the process. Tanuki statues have even evolved into children’s toys and books, cartoons, building designs, and many other variations. It’s safe to say that the tanuki legends of the past have manifested into an everyday part of the Japanese people’s lives, and when the tanuki represents so many good things in life, why shouldn’t it?

For those of us outside Japan though, we don’t usually think of the Super Mario Bros. games as being Japanese influenced. Even with the series creator Shigeru Miyamoto being from Japan, the series arguably features a distinctly Western ‘feel’. Despite this, there’s little doubt that Miyamoto enjoys the tanuki legends and decided to incorporate them into SMB3. A deeper look into the Tanooki Suit finds that the transformation into a statue is probably inspired from all of the Tanuki statues all over Japan. The fact that the statue in the game looks Buddha-like is likely to be derived from the legend of the tanuki tricking scholars, as mentioned earlier, by transforming into a Buddhist monk.

It seems that Miyamoto definitely knows his Tanuki folklore quite well and also enjoys putting small bits of these myths into his other titles. The town owner in Animal Crossing, Tom Nook, is indeed a Tanuki; Tanoombas, or Tanooki-like Goombas, can be found in both Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time and Mario & Luigi: Superstar Saga, as well as Tashroobas, which is a Shroob-like Tanoomba; and Super Mario Sunshine has a race of plump racoon-like creatures called Tanookis on Isle Delfino. Lastly, by playing as player two in Super Mario Bros. 3, it’s actually possible to become Tanooki Luigi as well.

While it seems we’ve uncovered the truth behind so many myths so far, it’s Miyamoto that has had the last laugh and left us with one last Tanooki mystery to solve for another day.

It’s no myth that Super Mario 3D Land has received Miyamoto’s Tanooki treatment and seeing as we’ve already gotten our hands on that game and given it a 9/10 review score, Mario fans have a lot to be excited about as they take to this new 3D adventure. Mario indeed adorns the famed Tanooki Suit in this new adventure once again, but even though the physical appearance of the suit remains intact, not all of its abilities have made the transition. The raccoon tail can still be used to swipe enemies and descend from high falls as it does in Super Mario Bros. 3, but we’re no longer able to fly or transform into the Tanuki Statue form. This time around though, the raccoon tail does give the ability to hover for extended periods of time, so there’s still a flying element of sorts featured here with the Tanooki Suit equipped. There is one baffling thing that we’ve found that doesn’t add up to the groundwork that the previous games laid before it, as the Super Leaf now transforms Mario into Tanooki Mario instead of Raccoon Mario as before, but maybe it’s the new addition of eyes on the Super Leaf that gives it this newfound power? While it seems we’ve uncovered the truth behind so many myths so far, it’s Miyamoto that has had the last laugh and left us with one last Tanooki mystery to solve for another day.

Now that we understand the background behind the famous suit, don’t think that this is all the 3D Tanooki goodness you’ll be seeing for a while. Not only are there enemies in Super Mario 3D Land that are Tanooki equipped (e.g. Tanoombas), but for those of you in North America who are accustomed to watching the Nintendo Show 3D with the lovely Jessie Cantrell in the 3DS’s eShop, you’ll most likely already know that the Tanooki has raced its way into being featured as a new power up in the upcoming Mario Kart 7 – giving your kart a tail for devastating spin attacks against your opponents.

With the current resurgence of all things Tanooki, you can now boldly step forth into these newly powered adventures with a new air of enlightenment in the origins of the suit and the legends behind it. One thing is for sure though, the next time you hear someone mistakenly call the Raccoon Suit the Tanooki Suit, or vice versa, you can proudly show-off your knowledge into one of – if not the most – famous Mario suit(s) of them all. With all of the Tanooki love in the air these days, where do you think we’ll see the mythical creature appear next?

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