I guess most of you know and love Hayao Miyazaki’s films such as Princess Mononoke, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and many more. For me it’s impossible to decide which one I like the most..they are all so fabulous! Since I’m very interested in Japanese folklore most of the Studio Ghibli movies absorb me. My fascination for mythology and folklore started early with the Greeks and the Scandinavian. Naturally I became very curious about Japanese mythology and folklore after my stay there. You may ask yourself what do Studio Ghibli films have to do with Japanese folklore? I think very much! The most obvious example is the film Pom Poko. The film is about Japanese raccoon dogs (Tanuki) living in the Tama Hills on the outskirts of Tokyo. They try to protect the forest they live in against the rapid house and road construction.
- Tanuki in Japanese folklore are mischievous, lazy, cheerful and gullible creatures who use their supernatural shape-shifting powers to trick humans. It is often said that a tanuki would put a leaf on top of its head and chant in order to change its form into anything (for example, a monk). They are also said to try to con humans with leaves turned into banknotes, although Oroku prohibits them from doing this in the film.
- Statues of tanuki can be seen everywhere in Japan, especially in temples and shrines, and often holding a barrel of sake (nihonshu).
- In Japanese folklore, foxes are also supernatural creatures (known as kitsune) with the ability to transform themselves into a human form. However, in contrast to the absent-minded tanuki, kitsune are usually portrayed as more witty, cunning and sometimes malicious.
- The stone statues which the tanukis turn into are those of Jizō, the protective deity of travellers, people condemned to Hell, and the souls of stillborn, miscarried, and aborted fetuses. The roadside statues are a common sight in Japan.
If you haven’t seen this movie yet I warmly recommend it to you! Anyway, I love all the mystical creatures in these movies and therefor wanted to try to make an obento with Susuwatari riceballs.
Susuwatari literally meaning “travelling soot” are small black round-shaped creatures that appear in two of Miyazaki’s films: My Neighbour Totoro and Spirited Away. Their appearance is the same in both films but while in the film My Neighbor Totoro they are optical illusions caused by moving quickly from light into darkness, in Spirited Away they are described as moving by hovering around, extending stick-like legs and arms from their bodies to do certain tasks, and able to lift objects many times their own weight. They make a squeaky murmuring sound when excited, and dissolve into powder (soot) if crushed. The protagonist Sen befriends a number of them by helping them carry coal. She is told that if Susuwatari aren’t given something to do, they turn back into soot.
Susuwatari in Spirited Away