Throughout the Pokémon series, gamefreak
has drawn inspiration for Pokémon designs from a huge variety of different sources,
and many of those sources are different legends and stories from cultures all around the world.
Today, I’ll be taking a look at 10 Pokémon, and their cultural origins!
Number one! Magikarp. The cultural origin of Magikarp and its evolution Gyrados is fairly
well known amongst the Pokémon community, and it is said that Magikarp and Gyrados were
inspired by an ancient Chinese legend. The legend goes that if a carp could leap over
a waterfall, often referred to as the Dragon Gate, then it would transform into a mighty
dragon! Magikarp also happens to look like the carp seen in illustrations of the myth,
with red and gold colouring, and of course, gyrados represents the dragon.
Number two! Oddish! Oddish may not seem to be based on a real plant at first glance,
but in fact, it is based on a plant that has been surrounded in myth for thousands of years…
The Mandrake plant! In medieval times, these plants were said to possess magical properties,
which was due the hallucinogenic effects that they would cause if consumed. At the time,
the poisonous chemicals within the mandrake were perceived to be magic, and as a result,
the Church frowned upon the possession of Mandrakes, even though they were used in the
Bible, and in 1431, mandrake possession was actually one of the charges that led to Joan
of Arc being burned as a witch. Mandrake roots are very thick and are often
forked in a way that makes them resemble a human torso and legs, so many myths began
to circulate that mandrakes were in fact, people, and not plants. This is shown in the
design of oddish, as the Pokémon possesses human-like features.
Number three! Jirachi! Even though the concept of whishing on a star has been around for
centuries in the west, it has also been a prominent part of many Asian cultures for
just as long. Jirachi is based on the Japanese star festival, also called Tanbata. The story
of Tanabata itself, like many other Japanese legends, has its origins in China, with a
tale called The Princess and the Cowherd. There are many versions of this story, but
the version most commonly known in Japan is as follows…
Orihime (織姫) was the daughter of the King of Heaven. She lived in the sky, where she
would weave cloth for her father on the banks of the Milky Way, or Amanogawa (天の川),
literally meaning the River of Heaven. The princess worked so hard that she became lonely,
and so her father introduced her to a cowherd named Hikoboshi (彦星) from the other side
of the river. The pair fell in love at first sight, and they soon married. Once married,
however, the couple spent so much time together that they ceased to do any work. Orihime’s
cloth remained unwoven, and Hikoboshi’s cows were left to wander across the heavens. After
a while, the King of Heaven grew angry, and used the Milky Way to separate the lovers,
placing them on opposite sides and forbidding them to cross. Orihime was devastated, and
his daughter’s tears eventually moved the King of Heaven to offer a compromise: the
couple would be allowed to meet for one night a year, on the seventh day of the seventh
month. If the weather was bad and the river flooded,
however, the couple would be unable to cross it, and would have to wait another year to
meet. So both of them would pray for good weather, and if they were able to meet, anyone
who made a wish on that day would also have their wish granted.
Orihime and Hikoboshi are represented in the night sky by Vega and Altair, two bright
stars that are highest in the sky during late summer. It’s said that if the sky is clear,
the stars will shine with many different colors, showing that Orihime and Hikoboshi have met
successfully. China’s also has an equivalent of Tanabata,
which is called Qixi, or ‘the night of sevens’. It is held on the seventh day of the seventh
month of the Chinese lunisolar calendar, which this year falls upon August the 16th.
In Japan, the date has since been adapted to fit the Gregorian calendar, thus making
it the July the 7th. However, some festivals are still held according to the Chinese calendar,
and others – including the most famous, held in Sendai – are scheduled around the
7th of August. Number four! Castform! Castform is often considered
to be an oddly designed Pokémon by many, and can change between forms based on the
weather. To many non-Japanese players, this design choice does not make sense at all,
but castform’s design is actually based on a type of Japanese charm called a Teruterubozu
(てるてる坊主). These charms are designed to bring good weather, more specifically rain.
The tradition has its earliest origins in the Heian period (749 – 1185). It was
adapted from a Chinese practice which involved putting the teru teru bozu on the end of a
broom to sweep good spirits your way. It was Japanese farmers who began the more recognizable
practice of hanging the figures, made from cloth or paper tied off with string, inside
their houses as a prayer for good weather. During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), the
practice spread to the cities, where it became popular with children. By this time, the figures
were hung outside the house to prevent rain. Alternatively, hanging them upside down would
apparently have the opposite effect, and encourage rain. The teru teru bozu remains a common
sight in Japan to this day, though nowadays they are usually made of tissue paper and
an elastic band. Number five! Nosepass! Now this one is probably
a bit more obvious. The main design of Nosepass and Probopass is based on compasses, evidenced
by Probopass’ iron filing mustache. However, the actual appearance of the two Pokémon
is based moai, also known as the “Easter Island heads. The story behind them is the story
of a little-known culture that flourished in isolation for centuries!
Easter Island is one of the many islands of Polynesia, located in the southern Pacific
Ocean. Since the late nineteenth century, it has belonged to Chile. Its name was coined
by the Dutch explorer Jakob Roggeveen, who became the first European to discover the
island on Easter Sunday of 1722. However, nobody is sure of what the original name of
the island was. The Polynesian name for the island is Rapa Nui, but this wouldn’t have
been the name that the natives used at the time.
It is not even known when the island was first settled, and this is still an ongoing debate
between historians. However, it seems that the moai were produced from around 1250 to
1500. So, what are moai, and why were they made?
There are 887 moai in existence, most of them carved from a soft volcanic rock called tuff.
They’re stylized figures with large heads, prominent features and small bodies. Their
size varies, but the tallest one ever completed was over 10 meters in height. Many moai were
buried in the ground up to shoulder height, which is where the misconception of them being
just heads originated from. Their construction process is still shrouded in mystery, with
it still being unknown how the moai were moved from the quarries that they were carved from
to their final destinations on the coasts of the island.
The statues represented deceased ancestors, whom the Rapanui believed were watching over
them from the spirit world. It was thought that the living and the dead had a kind of
symbiotic relationship: through making offerings to the statues, the living could provide the
dead with a better place in the afterlife, and in return, the dead could bestow good
health and good fortune upon the living. It is for this reason that most moai faced inland,
away from the sea. The sea represented the spirit world, and the moai were looking inwards,
towards the world of the living. Nowadays, the moai are very recognisable,
and have ended up in other videogames, such as in the Easton kingdom in Super Mario Land,
and of course, Pokémon. Now even though it seems that it is only Nosepass and not Probopass
that fits the look of the moai, Probopass also has its design inspiration rooted in
the moai, as both Probopass’ hat and eyes are lifted from the moai statues. Many moai
do indeed have cylindrical red hats, known as pukao. These aren’t often seen because,
just like most of the other free-standing, full-body moai, moai with pukao were knocked
down and have only been re-erected fairly recently. Similarly, it was discovered that
the eye sockets of the moai were designed to hold eyes made of coral. Some moai have
since had their eyes restored in this way. This makes Probopass a more sensible evolution
to nose pass, as nosepass’ design makes us think of a ‘typical’ moai, while Probopass
is the restored, traditional version. Number six! Bronzor! … And bronzong… At
first, Bronzor’s design may not be that clear, or even Bronzong’s for that matter.
However, both have a pretty interesting origin story behind them. Bronzong is based on a
bronze bell, or Dotaku, while Bronzor is based on a bronze mirror, (specifically a type that
was manufactured in China from 2000 BC, and made its way to Japan in around 300 AD). Both
of the Pokémon together don’t seem to make much sense, unless you’ve heard about a
Japanese legend that is best known by the title Of a Mirror and a Bell. It appears
in a famous collection of stories entitled Kwaidan: Stories and Studies of Strange Things. The
book was published in 1904 and was compiled by Lafcadio Hearn, an Irish-Greek journalist
who became a Japanese citizen. He produced many different accounts of Japanese culture
and mythology that served to introduce the West to Japan and it’s culture.
The story that concerns us begins hundreds of years prior, in Mugenyama in Totomi province.
There, the priests wanted a new bell for their temple, and asked for the local women to donate
old bronze mirrors, which could be melted down and cast into a bell. One of the mirrors
to be donated came from a farmer’s wife. After a while, though, the woman started to
regret giving away her mirror, which had been in her family for many years. An old proverb
said that a mirror was the soul of a woman, and she started to worry that in giving away
her precious mirror, she had also given away her soul. She didn’t have the money to buy
the mirror back, and whenever she went to the temple, she could see it in amongst the
pile of others. She longed to steal it back, but the opportunity never came.
Eventually, all of the mirrors were sent to the foundry to be melted down. Mysteriously,
one of the mirrors would not melt: a sign that whoever donated it must not have wanted
to give it up. Since the offering wasn’t presented with all her heart, her mirror remained attached
to her, kept cold in the furnace by her selfish desire. When it was discovered to whom the
mirror belonged, the woman couldn’t bear the shame, and drowned herself. But before she
died, she left a letter stating that, once she was gone, the mirror could be melted and
used to cast the bell. However, anybody who struck the bell hard enough to break it would
be rewarded with riches by her ghost. The locals took this dying promise pretty
seriously, as the last wishes of anyone dying in anger were thought to possess a mystical
power. Thus, the possibility of breaking the bell and becoming rich seemed very real. Once
the newly-made bell was hung in the temple, people flocked to the temple to ring it, striking
it as hard as they possibly could. The bell held firm, but still people tried to break
it, day after day. This proved hugely annoying for the priests, who had to endure the near-constant
ringing of their bell. Soon tiring of the constant noise, the priests took the bell
and rolled it down a hill, into a deep swamp. The bell sank in, never to be seen again…
and the woman, from beyond the grave, had succeeded in destroying the bell that had
caused her so much misery. Even though the bell was lost, many people broke other objects
in substitute of the bell, in the hopes of getting untold riches. Howver, in many versions
of this legend, the financial reward came at the cost of the person’s soul: they would
gain riches in life, but be cast in to a particularly nasty corner of Hell upon dying.
One reference to the legends in the design of Bronzor and Bronzong that might not be
immediately obvious is in their abilities. Both can have the Heatproof ability, rendering
them resistant to fire, just like the mirror that refused to be melted down. There are
also a few vague references to the myths in their Pokédex entries. Bronzong , funnily
enough, is mentioned to be a bringer of good harvests, and the dotaku (銅鐸), the type
of bell on which it is based, was used to pray for good harvests in ancient times. But
the most mysterious entry for Bronzong has to be the one from Diamond: “One caused
a news sensation when it was dug up at a construction site after a 2000-year sleep.” Might this
Bronzong, then, be the actual bell of Mugen, finally recovered from the swamp? If so, one
should think twice about battling it. The payout upon defeating it may be unexpectedly
high, but once it’s Game Over, there’ll be hell to pay… Number seven! Mawile! Mawile has a pretty
cute design, aside from the gaping jaws that it possesses… However, those jaws have a
pretty interesting backstory behind them. Japanese folklore contains many examples of yokai (妖怪)
or monsters. Some are evil, some are not so evil, and most of them are mischievous. Some
resemble animals, while others could pass for human. In fact, there are various youkai
that, according to legend, started off as human before being transformed, by various
means, into monsters. One such monster is the futakuchi-onna (二口女), or two-mouthed
woman. As the name suggests, this is an otherwise
normal woman with a second mouth, located in the back of her head. This mouth has a
mind of its own, and the woman’s hair is frequently depicted as forming tendrils under the mouth’s
control, grabbing items of food to feed it. Compare an illustration of a futakuchi-onna
to Mawile, and you can see the similarities. Mawile’s jaws, though stated in the games
to be formed from horns, actually resemble long black hair. Mawile’s status as the Deceiver
Pokémon also ties in with the myth; a futakuchi-onna could masquerade as a perfectly ordinary woman,
her true and frightening nature hidden from view most of the time.
A further link is evident when considering Mawile’s Japanese name, Kucheat (クチート).
This combines kuchi (口 or クチ), meaning mouth, with the English word cheat (チート).
Mawile’s English name carries this same meaning, made up from maw, meaning mouth, and wile,
meaning trickery. There are numerous stories detailing the origins
of futakuchi-onna. The most common one is the cautionary tale of a miser. Not keen on
paying for extra food, he married a woman who ate very little. However, he soon found
that his stores of rice were being depleted at an alarming rate. Spying on his wife, he
finally discovered the truth – a second mouth in the back of her head, consuming all
of his food. In other versions of the story, the woman is normal when she marries, but
after years of being starved by her miserly husband, the second mouth develops in an effort
to keep her fed. There is also another much darker story about the origins of the futakuchi-onna,
but I think we’ll leave that one out… Number eight! Froslass! Another Pokémon based
on a yokai! Froslass’ Japanese name is Yukimenoko, which is a combination of the Japanese word
‘yuki’ meaning snow, and ‘menoko’ an archaic word for girl in Japanese. Kimeno
also sounds like a corruption of the word Kimono, a type of traditional Japanese dress.
In fact, frosslass’ body appears to look like a kimono, and had a large sash around
its body, which is known as an Obi, which is worn in conjunction with a Kimono. The
origin of Froslass’ design, is from a yokai called Yuki-Onna. Yuki-onna is said to appear
on snowy nights and floats atop of the snow, as she has no feet. Most tales say that she
will follow travellers caught in a snowstorm and will freeze them to death with an icy
cold breath. Another version of this tale starts with two
woodcutters, Minokichi A young man) and Mosaku (old man). The two were unable to go back
home due to a snowstorm and had to camp out in a hut on a mountain. Mosaku woke up during
the night to see a beautiful woman. Unfortunately, the women froze Mosaku and was going to do
the same with Minokichi, but spared his life due to his young age. Because of this, she
promised she would kill him if he told anyone about her.
Later in the future, Minokichi married a woman named Oyuki and had children together. One
day, Minokichi brought up a topic that resulted in Oyuki reminding him about the snow spirit
he saw that day. Oyuki became suddenly angry with him, as it turned out that she was that
same snow spirit and was ready to kill him! However, she began to think about their children
and decided to melt away instead, with her final words being “Take care of our children”.
Froslass lives in snowy environments and has the ability to freeze foes with a very its
icy cold breath. Some of its pokédex entries say it would display its victims secretly
after freezing them. In the anime, it can create illusions to manipulate others. Froslass
is also a female only species, and is said to be the spirit of a woman who was lost in
the mountains. Sounds awfully familiar to the myth surrounding Yuki-onna, doesn’t
it? Number nine! Kartana! One of the Sun Exclusive
Ultra Beasts is Kartana (It’s still technically a Pokémon, right?), a small origami pokemon
that can cut down a steel tower with just one swing. This pokemon both relates to the
Japanese practice of Origami and the code of Samurai.
Origami in Japan started in the Edo period in the 1600s, where it was used like a greeting
card to people. The design of Kartana is modeled around the use of Modular Origami, which was
developed in the 1734. Modular origami is focused on more elaborate shapes and three
dimensional objects. One of the prime examples is forming cubes and kusudamas. The Japanese
name of Karatana, Kamitsurugi, is taken from the words for Katana and Art. A Katana is
one of the common weapons that is wielded by Samurai. The Combination of Katana and
Art shows a way of the deadly precision and beauty of this Ultra Beast.
Number ten! Celesteela! Celesteela’s name is tekkaguya, which may be a combination of
鉄火 tekka (gunfire), 鉄鋼 tekkō (steel), and かぐや姫 Kaguya-hime, a princess
from a very old Japanese story, which is actually very sad, named the Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.
For those unfamiliar, Tale of the Bamboo Cutter depicts the story of a tiny baby girl found
inside a bamboo by a pair of married woodcutting couple, who raise her as their own child and
name her Kaguya. She grows up to be a beautiful woman and has several suitors, all of whom
are made by her to accomplish impossible tasks of obtaining legendary items if they want
to marry her, but none of them succeeded. She later reveals that she comes from the
moon and was sent to Earth. Depending on different versions of the story, she either came to
Earth to avoid a war happening on the moon or was exiled temporarily for a crime she
committed. Her parents and the emperor of Japan try to keep her from returning to the
moon, as its emissaries are coming to take her back. They failed, so Kaguya tearfully
said good-bye to her foster parents before returning to the moon.
Kaguya is also the nickname of a Japanese satellite, known as SELENE, which orbited
the moon for about two years, from 2007 to 2009. This is most likely where Celesteela
gets it’s steel typing from, as well as it’s spaceship like design, complete with
rockets! However, it also appears that Celesteela is wearing a multi layered kimono, and appeard
to have very female looking facial features, which draws influence from princess Kaguya.