Are Pokemon based on mythological creatures?
In many cases, yes! While a lot of Pokémon are based on animals from the real world, and all are at least the partial product of the creators’ vivid imaginations, many Pokémon are drawn from world mythology. Japan, where the Pokémon franchise originates, has a particularly rich tradition of myths and legends of kami—gods, deities, or spirits—and the spookier yokai—demons and ghosts. Worship of kami and tales of yokai and other supernatural beings have their origins in Japan’s native religion of Shinto, which predates the arrival of Buddhism in the islands. Shinto is an animist tradition, which means it teaches that trees, rivers, rocks, animals, and even inanimate objects are alive with spiritual energy. Much like the gods and spirits of Shinto belief, Pokémon inhabit the natural world, and can be won over with incense, food (or candy), and other offerings.
There are thousands of kami and yokai described in Shinto teachings and Japanese folklore, and they have served as a source of inspiration for art and literature for thousands of years—and, more recently, for anime and games like the brand-new Pokémon Go. Let’s take a closer look at some kami- and yokai-based Pokémon and their mythological counterparts.
Whiscash. The inspiration for Whiscash, the Water/Ground-type Pokémon who evolves from Barboach, comes from the myth of Namazu, a giant catfish said to live in the mud beneath the Japanese archipelago. Like Whiscash, Namazu has the power to cause earthquakes by thrashing in the mud—but on a much bigger scale. The only thing restraining this mythic fish’s immense power is the stone the thunder kami known as Kashima uses to pin him in place. The legend of Namazu may have evolved from a belief among Japanese fishermen that catfish became more active just before an earthquake, just like how in several of its Pokédex entries, Whiscash is reported to be able to cause tremors as well as warn of them. After a devastating earthquake shook Japan in 1855 (during what is known as the Edo Period), people began to worship Namazu as a god who could right the wrongs he and others had caused. Accordingly, artists began to depict Namazu in colorful woodblock prints—where the catfish deity is often shown wearing a big smile that looks a lot like Whiscash’s goofy grin.
Ninetales. Ninetales, the fox-like Fire-type that evolves from Vulpix, is the Pokémon version of a kitsune, or fox spirit. In Japanese folklore, foxes are considered intelligent, magical, and particularly long-lived beings able to shape-shift into human forms, and while they sometimes use this ability to make mischief, there are also stories of fox spirits befriending and even marrying ordinary humans. Similarly, Ninetales is intelligent enough to understand human speech, magical enough to control minds, and can live up to a thousand years—but like the kitsune in its role as a trickster, Ninetales can also be a vengeful creature. Kitsune are said to gain an extra tail every hundred years, and just like Vulpix when it evolves into Ninetales, a fox spirit “evolves” when its number of tails reaches nine, and its fur turns golden-white. When a kitsune gains its ninth tail, it supposedly reaches a state of infinite wisdom—pretty impressive! The prosperity kami Inari is considered their guardian, and has a fleet of nine-tailed white foxes for messengers.
Espeon. Tales of the yokai known as bakeneko, or “changed cats,” provide the inspiration for Espeon, the Psychic-type final form (or Eeveelution) of the lovable Pokemon known as Eevee. In yokai lore, a cat was sometimes said to change into a bakeneko when it lived to be a certain age, and/or when it developed a second tail—similar to the split tail Espeon sports. Also like Espeon, which uses its psychic abilities to protect its Trainer and predict the weather or its opponent’s next move, these cat spirits were said to possess supernatural powers similar to those of kitsune, including speaking Japanese, transforming into humans, cursing or possessing people, and—most terrible of all?—dancing with napkins on their heads.
Drowzee. If you’ve been playing Pokémon Go, you may have already encountered a few Drowzees in the wild. These Psychic-type Pokémon, which evolve into Hypno, are inspired by a type of supernatural creature—not a yokai, but not quite a kami either—known as the baku. According to legend, these beings were formed from the spare parts left over after the gods had finished creating all the other animals, leaving them with a tapir-like appearance similar to Drowzee’s, which has been depicted in Japanese art for hundreds of years. And just like their Pokemon counterparts, baku are known for eating people’s dreams. While Drowzee prefers good dreams and can become sick from eating bad ones, baku could traditionally be called upon to come and eat the nightmares of restless sleepers.
Frosslass, Jynx, Mawile, and Misdreavus. These unusual-looking Pokémon are all drawn from legends of spooky female yokai. Frosslass, the Ice/Ghost-type evolution of Snorunt, is based on Yuki-onna, a spirit who floats around on snowy nights (and in some versions of the tale, has no feet), freezing lost travelers dead in their tracks in her white kimono. Just like Yuki-onna, Frosslass can be found in snowy areas, hovers above the ground, has no feet, and freezes her opponents. Her body resembles a white kimono. Yuki-onna and Frosslass are both sometimes said to be the spirits of women who froze to death in the mountains—and if that doesn’t give you the chills, I don’t know what will!
Well, maybe this: Jynx, an Ice/Psychic-type that evolves from baby Smoochum, is based on another terrifying spirit: the yokai known as Yama-uba, who lives alone in the snowy mountains and, rather than freezing lost travelers, prefers to snack on them. And while Jynx’s signature dance moves are her attempt to communicate with humans, when Yama-Uba dances, watch out—that’s how she distracts her victims before turning them into her dinner! Interestingly, Jynx is also considered a parody of a certain Japanese fashion trend called ganguro and nicknamed yamanba by those who thought these trendsetters’ bleached hair, eye-catching clothes, and heavy makeup made them look like Yama-Uba, whose appearance and story were immortalized in the form of Japanese theater known as Noh drama.
The Steel/Fairy-type Pokémon called Mawile is based on another type of yokai called a futakuchi-onna, or “two-mouthed woman.” A futakuchi-onna looks like an ordinary woman at first—until you catch a glimpse of the second mouth on the back of her head, which, in stories, often demands an endless supply of food. Mawile, on the other hand, uses the powerful jaws on the back of its head to bite its enemies in battle, often using its otherwise cute appearance to distract them.
The equally creepy Misdreavus is based on the yokai known as nukekubi—disembodied women’s heads said to fly around at night shrieking and scaring people. Sound familiar? Like the nukekubi, Misdreavus resembles a bodiless head in a dress, floats through the air, feeds on fear, and enjoys a good shriek.
Manectric. On the less eerie side, the blue, wolf-like, Electric-type Pokémon called Manectric was inspired by Raiju, the mythic animal companion of Raijin, the Shinto kami of thunder and lightning. While Raiju, whose body is said to be made of lightning, can take several different shapes, he is commonly depicted as a blue wolf. Similarly, Manectric is supposedly born from lightning, which it also gathers in its mane and uses to create the thunderclouds it deploys in battle. One trait the two don’t share, however, is Raiju’s supposed penchant for sleeping in people’s belly buttons! This bit of lore may have arisen as a way to warn kids of the danger of going out to play during thunder and lightning storms.
Absol. This mysterious Pokémon is based on a mythical being known as the kutabe. Stories of this legendary creature came to Japan from China, where it was known as Bai Ze. Absol and the kutabe are both known for coming down from the mountains to warn humans of the oncoming disasters they are able to sense (in Absol’s case, through its horn), and the oval in the middle of Absol’s forehead echoes the third eye the kutabe is said to possess.
Many other Pokémon are either directly based on or draw some inspiration from Japanese folklore and Shinto belief: Ho-oh is based on Ho-o, the phoenix; Shiftry is based on a spirit known as a tengu; Sneasel is based on a kamaitachi, a weasel-like creature with sickle-like claws; Dunsparce is based on a tsuchinoko, or “bee snake”; Dusclops is inspired by the chochin-obake, or “lantern spook” yokai; Tornadus is inspired by Fujin, the wind kami; and the list goes on. So just remember: when going out to catch magical monsters with Pokémon Go, be careful you don’t get swept up by a band of marching yokai while you’re absorbed in the game. In Japan, the spirits have been said to congregate on summer nights in what is known as the hyakki yagyo—the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons!