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Here's What We Know About SARAZANMAI

by Lynzee Loveridge,
"People can freely reproduce and reinvent folklore, transmitting it from person to person across time and space." — Michael Dylan Foster (The Book of Yōkai)

The traditions and stories of our ancestors continue to captivate and terrify us. An innocent game of "Ring Around the Rosie" takes on darker connotations when its sing-song lyrics are revealed to be a warning against the Plague. Folklore serves all kinds of purposes, whether it's passing down remedies for common ailments or retelling anecdotes to enforce social mores. As Foster suggests, folklore is adaptable, and it continues its modern evolution online. What is viral creepypasta but the latest way to share our darkest fears with a sympathetic community?

Japan has no shortage of its own fearsome and strange monsters. Yōkai can be anything: your great-grandmother's cooking pot come to life, ogres hiding in the mountains, an invisible wall blocking your path, or a slit-mouthed woman roaming the streets after dark. These characters date back hundreds of years and have slowly transformed from deadly forces to the collectible mascots seen in Yōkai Watch. One of Japan's oldest and most iconic yōkai is the kappa, a unique creature and central figure in director Kunihiko Ikuhara's upcoming Sarazanmai anime series.

Director Kunihiko Ikuhara's works could be described as modern fairy tales in their own right, combining real world events with symbolism and psychological elements. Revolutionary Girl Utena, Penguindrum, and Yuri Kuma Arashi can be difficult to enjoy on a purely surface level. They're interactive surrealist mysteries that rely on creative interpretation to draw out their emotional value. Sarazanmai will be no different. Unraveling the themes of the story is sure to be an ongoing process, but we can already piece together some of the clues by looking at the anime's title, the history of kappa, and the district of Asakusa where the story takes place.

What is "Sarazanmai?"

Ikuhara managed to hide a lot about his latest series right out in the open. The anime's title and the symbols hidden throughout the early teasers all point to important aspects of the story. The word Sarazanmai itself works on several levels to connect the series' emotional core with three central characters, the setting of Asakusa, and the kappa yokai. The staff's decision to write the title in hiragana instead of kanji allows all of these interpretations to happen simultaneously.

Sara on its own commonly refers to a plate and can also be used as a person's name, like the idol Sara Azuma in Sarazanmai. The plate interpretation is the most interesting, because "sara" is also the term used to describe the top of a kappa's head. The yokai is thought to have an indentation, like a plate, that holds water. As long as water remains in the kappa's sara, it can leave its aquatic home and walk about. But if its sara dries up, the kappa is weakened and could even die.

Sara is also a loan word taken from the English world 'salary.' -zanmai as a suffix refers to indulgence. It's the act of being so caught up in something that you lose sight of anything else. The character Kazuki could be suffering from a kind of -zanmai, since his character description says that he "used to love soccer and used to have a bright personality, but now he's obsessed with 'that'." Kazuki could be money-hungry; he's shown carrying a cardboard box stamped with with an otter logo in most of the anime's preview videos. The boxes fly up into the sky in one scene, while in another they're shown to form the head of a monster-zombie. Maybe he's taken on a part-time job delivering these boxes?

Finally, sanmai is another close variation of -zanmai. (When written in hiragana, the only difference is the presence of a tenten on the syllable sa.) Mai serves as a counter for flat objects while san indicates three. Thus Sarasanmai could also be read as "three plates", implying the three kappa boys in the story.

Finally, the plates connect to the series' setting of Asakusa. Before I delve into the kappa legends of that area, this gives us more context for the dishware theme too. The Tokyo district has plenty of sites to draw tourists, but one in particular is the kitschy Kappabashi-dori street, also translated as "Kitchen Town." Its name is a pun, as it's home to both kappa statues and dishware wholesalers. Many restaurants throughout Tokyo get their business supplies (including plates!) from Asakusa's Kitchen Town.

In other words, sara invokes the three main kappa characters in the show, some potential motivation for those boys, and the area of Asakusa itself.

What Are Kappa?

There are few yokai as internationally recognized as the kappa. Only the tanuki and the kitsune approach the same level of recognition. The monster is ancient and intrinsically tied to Japanese folklore. The earliest stories about kappa are thought to date back as far as 720 AD, and variations of the creature's legend exist throughout the country with different names. The kappa's reputation has changed over the years to something more akin to a cute mascot, but originally they were described as fearsome man-eaters. A typical kappa is thought to be approximately 4 feet tall with a monkey-like build, greenish skin, a toothy beak, webbed hands and feet, a soft shell on its back, and a bald sara on its head. They roam watery environments like rivers, ponds, and lakes to eat the flesh of humans and livestock that wander too close to the water's edge.

This description is a far cry from Keppi in Sarazanmai or the titular Hanna Kappa from the children's anime. Kappa were something to be feared for those who found themselves confronted by the creature on a riverbank. Its sara is a common weak point: humans could bow deeply in greeting and the kappa would respond in kind, thus dumping the water from its head and weakening it. Another option is to distract the kappa with a cucumber, its favorite food. Tossing one into the water will cause the kappa to give chase, so the human had the opportunity to run off. Of course there are a few other things that kappa like to eat, and one is a central part of Sarazanmai: the shirikodama.

As a preface, kappa are associated with a surprising level of sexualized violence, and their habit of eating shirikodama is no exception. The mythical human organ is said to exist in the rectum, and kappa were thought to literally reach up a human's anus to retrieve it for a snack. The organ's origin is sometimes thought to be a metaphor for the human soul or, more simply, a legend borne from seeing the distended anus of drowning victims. It was also thought to block access to the liver, which is another delicacy for kappa.

During my research for this essay, none of my sources presented what seems like a decent if basic hypothesis: cucumber-eating yokai might also be interested in consuming the prostate gland. The existence of the prostate was described by Italian anatomist Niccolo Masa in 1536 and drawn by Andreas Vesalius in an anatomy textbook around the same time. Kappa stories date back many centuries, but they didn't become popular throughout Japan until the Edo period. I can't say for certain whether Masa's description of the prostate had reached Japan, but it certainly doesn't seem out of character given the monster's other horrific misdeeds.

Whatever a shirikodama turns out to be, Ikuhara is using it as the central macguffin in the quests faced by Sarazanmai's three heroes. All three boys have their own shirikodama stolen by the kappa Keppi, which transforms them into kappa themselves. Their only chance of returning to their human forms is to connect with one another in "that way" and steal shirikodama from the zombies in Asakura.

The Kappa of Asakura

Calling kappa lecherous is an understatement, yet not all of their folktales center around maiming men, women, and children. The kappa of Asakusa's Kappabashi has a much more generous disposition, and he could even be credited with the area's existence.

If you've watched the promotional videos for Sarazanmai, you'll notice quite a bit of water imagery. This is because the Kappabashi area sits near the Sumida River, which used to flood frequently into Kappabashi well into the 1800s. This situation was a hindrance to locals and their shops until an aptly named private citizen invested in the creation of the Shinhorikawa River to offset the swelling Sumida. That man was known as Kihachi Kappaya, a literal kappa salesman. (By this point, the term for the monster had been lent to raincoats, so Kappaya was a raincoat and umbrella salesman.)

Local legend says that Kappaya was assisted by an actual kappa to complete his construction project, and the locals honored their efforts by adopting the creature as a local mascot. Kappaya's body is enshrined at the nearby Kappa-dera temple, where locals leave offerings of cucumbers. A kappa's hand is supposedly housed inside, among artwork by Osamu Tezuka and other creators.

What's Up with the Otter?

Before we wrap up this speculative primer on kappa, there's one other creature that's made an appearance in the Sarazanmai previews. Long before anything about kappa was confirmed, early promotional videos showed an otter-like silhouette tossing a ball in mid air. When this image first appeared last year, I jokingly tweeted that I was investigating "what otter disaster" had inspired the series. Ikuhara's previous Yuri Kuma Arashi title was a reference to a novel detailing the worst bear attack in Japanese history, and before that Penguindrum recalled the Tokyo subway sarin gas attacks. Fortunately, no otters have wiped out any villages or spread any terrorism in Japan. Instead, they carved out their own niche in yokai folklore.

The word kawauso is synonymous with the word for real otters, but the archetypal yokai that shares this name is a prankster shapeshifter like the kitsune. They typically disguise themselves as women or children and even wear clothes, but they'll only respond to human inquiries with nonsense. In a few tales, the kawauso takes on siren-like qualities to lure men to their death and eat them. Some regions talk of kawauso appearing as towering monks or possessing humans outright to drain their energy. Other areas link the kawauso to kappa as cousins, and they allegedly enjoy a good glass of sake.

Japan's relationship with the otter is unique in that the country's one native variety went extinct some time within the last 50 years, partly due to the Japanese government creating its own "Hunters Association" to acquire their pelts. The otter's place in Sarazanmai's story is still a mystery. Its image is shown stamped on the boxes Kazuki carries around and over a city-wide miasma tied to the two policemen in the promotional video. They do have a sort of ominous aura to them so far, but not much can be gleaned about their intentions yet.

Ikuhara's latest television anime looks to be another deep dive into the modern society, adolescent emotions, and fantastical monsters that make up a part of our human experience. As contradictory as it sounds, his inclusion of yokai only serves to ground his ideas further into reality. Borrowing again from The Book of Yōkai, Michael Dylan Foster writes:

Humans seem to have a tremendous capacity to embrace different ideas, even ones that seem contradictory. Any time we hear a story, read a novel, or watch a movie with fictional characters, we allow ourselves to "believe" in people and activities we know are not "real." But of course in one sense they are real: they make us laugh and cry, and they stay with us as memories, affecting the way we think and feel. We often express strong emotions about fictional characters—love and hate and everything in between.

Further Reading
Kappabashi Main Street Asakusa Kappa Legendary Area: 365 Asakusa (English)

Sougenji Kappa-Dera Temple: Atlus Obscura (English)

Kappa by Mark Schumacher: On Mark Productions (English)

Kappa to Shirikodama – Kappa and the Small Anus Ball by Zack Davisson: Hyakumonogatari Kaidanka

Otter kawauso by Gabi Greve: Kappa - The Kappapedia (English)

A-Yokai-A-Day for the Month of October: Kawauso by Matthew Meyer: MatthewMeyer.net

The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore by Michael Dylan Foster (2015)

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