If you thought that THOSE scenes were weird, you haven’t seen anything yet
Sarazanmai is one beautiful-looking anime with background art that looks like it was lifted directly from Google Street View. It’s also incredibly funny and one of the most original stories you’ll ever see. Anybody who's watched it knows what I'm talking about. There are multiple moments in every episode of the anime that leave you thinking "Oh. Huh. That happened."
The anime takes place around the Asakusa area and tells the story of three middle-schoolers insulting Keppi, a kappa prince, and being turned into kappa themselves, which are these river creatures/imps/demons/frog-duck-turtle-things from Japanese folklore. This is done by Keppi ingesting the kids and stealing their shirikodama, a mythical organ supposedly residing somewhere in the butt. Keppi takes it out of them, and not off-screen. In fact, I can't stress enough how not off-screen this happens. He then recruits them into a war where they must steal shirikodama from zombies, also through their behinds. But(t) there’s actually a reason to this madness.
The shirikodama also happens to contain a person’s secret desires, which ties into the three main characters whose united attacks against the zombies also result in one of them divulging a personal secret. Altogether, it turns the anime from what looks like a juvenile joke into fertile ground for incredibly smart satire, which is kind of old hat for kappa.
Legends of the kappa go back hundreds of years and they tend to differ depending on the region. In short, the creatures started out as monsters before eventually becoming sorta neutral personifications of nature with hilariously human foibles and faults. It’s what makes them perfect agents of satire, which author Ryunosuke Akutagawa took full advantage of when he published his famous novel Kappa in 1927. In it, he used the kappa to criticize the society of his time, which he viewed as too capitalistic, by describing a kappa world where unemployed kappa are killed and turned into food and sometimes children refuse to be born because, as they will tell you so themselves from inside the womb, their world just seems too cruel. Sarazanmai taps HARD into the cultural legacy of Kappa.
Most of the characteristics of the kappa from the anime are based on existing Japanese folklore. Keppi is insulted when one of the main characters calls him a frog because kappa are reportedly obsessed with good manners. That’s actually how you can easily kill a kappa. First, a little explanation: another big theme of Sarazanmai are plates, what with the “sara” in Sarazanmai meaning “plate,” and the whole Dishes of Hope plot. “Sara” is also the name for the kappa’s “bald spot,” which is actually a cavity filled with water that allows the kappa to survive on land and is the source of their power. And if you bow really low in front of a kappa, it will reciprocate, spilling the water from its sara and usually dying. Feel free to mention this to anyone who lies to you that manners won’t kill you.
Killing a kappa might seem a tad cruel but they weren’t always lovable Pokémon-esque critters. They started out as ferocious demons who loved to drown people, often ripping them apart in the process… through the butt. To get to their shirikodama.
Shirikodama, surprisingly, is not an invention of the anime. It has existed in Japanese folklore and even a few religious texts for centuries. There are many theories as to what it is exactly. Some say it’s a solidified human soul, others that it’s actually a kind of jewel, while even more people claim that it’s an extra organ that humans have. What they all agree on is that the shirikodama is located somewhere below our navel, and the easiest way to get to it is through the backdoor. So that’s where the kappa were said to attack, dragging people below water and sucking out their Soul Stones as if they were Thanos.
It’d be hard to try and kill a kappa with manners then, so legends also say you can defeat the creatures with things like iron, deer antlers, or monkeys. Yeah, kappa apparently really hate monkeys for some reason, and I’m not saying that this is what inspired the premise of Godzilla vs. King Kong but I’m also not NOT saying it. Actually, what you REALLY should do is sic a monkey on a kappa and then save it from the animal. Kappa, you see, are so all about manners that if you save their life, they’ll be forever grateful to you and might even teach you their expert medical knowledge because kappa are excellent doctors, and not just when it comes to proctology.
This actually ties in to my absolute favorite theory about the origin of the kappa. The earliest depictions coincide more or less with the arrival of Portuguese monks in Japan, who would’ve brought advanced medical knowledge from the West with them, and whose hooded robes would have maybe made them look as if they had carapace-like humps. Over time, they could have morphed with local legends about malicious water spirits to create the legend of the kappa. It’s impossible to say whether this is true or not but what we can say is that, given everything that we now know about the kappa, Sarazanmai has really dialed down the weirdness of their source material.
What do you love most about Sarazanmai and the kappa? Let us know in the comment section!
Cezary writes words on the internet. You should follow him on Twitter.
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