Kappa to Ieba… and folklore

My most popular graphic novel series is Kappa to Ieba… which is all about Japanese folklore and mythology. It focuses around a “kappa” and his adventures as a “legend hunter.” The title “Kappa to Ieba…” literally means “when speaking of Kappas…” I wanted a playful title for what is mostly a playful series. I won’t spend too much time on this blog post since some of this information is included in the notes with each volume, but I thought it would be fun to introduce the main cast and discuss a bit about each of their folklore background.

Suisen is the main character in the story, and of course, the kappa. A kappa, sometimes also called kawatarou, is a “river child.” Sometimes also referred to as a river sprite. They are typically depicted as green, bipedal humanoid creatures with webbed hands and feet and a turtle shell on their backs. On the top of their head is a depression known as it’s “sara” (dish) that holds water. If the water in it is spilled, the kappa is severely weakened, and if completely depleted, it often means death. The dish itself is surrounded by a ring of golden or green hair or leaves, depending on the lore. They are the size of a human child, but posses the strength of a fully adult male human, if not more. Lore usually has these kappa as playful and mischievous, but also rather friendly and like to make friends with humans and other youkai. They will pass along their knowledge to travelers, though at a price (usually food will suffice). They will pretty much eat anything, but their favorites are known to be cucumber and raw innards (sometimes said to belong to humans, hence where the horrible sides of them come in). They are extremely loyal and don’t break promises. They are hard to best in combat, especially in water, but despite their high intelligence, they can be outwitted and will swear loyalty to those that defeat them. In some lore, they are seen as more terrifying, kidnapping or even raping travelers (especially women). They will drown their victims before devouring them. Kappa will also eat a human while still alive. Usually they go for the rear end to get at the “shirikodama“, a mythical ball of flesh located just inside the anus. Suisen leans towards the more whimsical side of these kappa fortunately. He has a human appearance that bears semblance to the kappa, with the bald spot on his head ringed by golden hair. He also has a turtle shell that he can bring out when needed, but it generally is kept hidden with magic for ease when traveling.

Rikuo is the second member to join the cast. He is a “byakko,” which is not actually a race of youkai. Byakko is actually a singular being. A lot of this gets discussed in volume 2 of Kappa to Ieba…, but Byakko is one of the Four Constellations (Symbols), which is a Chinese mythology (specifically Taoism) adopted by Japanese culture with the names interpreted into Japanese. In Japanese it is called “Shijin.” His name simply means “white tiger,” and that is indeed what his appearance represents. He represents the Western hemisphere of the sky, and the element “metal.” He controls the wind, which is sometimes also interpreted to control lightning as well. He lives in the sky, and seven different constellations make up his form in the night sky. In the case of Kappa to Ieba…, the Byakko is a race, rather than just one being. The race indeed still represents the Western region, although just where that region resides isn’t specified. The Byakko all resemble white tigers, with their ears and tails, despite their generally humanoid appearance, as well as black tiger markings on their face and body. Lightning is their specialty still, even though Rikuo doesn’t use it much (and prefers not to use it at all).

Natsume is character three, the big sister of Rikuo, and a kitsune. Kitsune, like kappa, is one of the more well-known youkai from Japanese folklore. The name translates simply as “fox.” But Kitsune aren’t just any ordinary fox. In their fox forms, they look identical to wild foxes, but they posses magical abilities that set them apart from their ordinary kind. There are two major variations of kitsune found in folklore: holy kitsune that are servants of the Shinto deity Inari and wild foxes that like to play pranks. In the case of Kappa, the latter type is the prominent one you’ll get to experience. I’ll just say a little about Inari kitsune because of this. They provided wisdom and services to good and pious humans, acting as messengers of their deity and mediums between the celestial and human worlds. They would protect humans and provide good luck. The wild foxes are much more common. They are known for being tricksters, and often more wicked than the some of their other trickster youkai counterparts. Even so, the wild kitsune generally are known for attacking “wicked” people rather than just any old innocent passerby. They are have illusion magic, which they can use to disguise themselves, and create actual illusions through sound and sight. Sometimes their ability to disguise themselves is shape-shifting rather than just illusion. They can transform into the exact likenesses of individual people, or even fearsome monsters. They use these illusions to trick and steal from people, and even on occasion trick a young man into marrying them. Kitsune can posses a human host, especially one that is weakened through stress or illness (or even death). When possessed, a human acts completely different than their norm, which has lead to certain mental disorders being attributed on this possession. Kitsune can also use fire. Sometimes it’s just as illusionary balls of flames (known as kitsune bi, or fox fire), but it can also be as actual flame. Kitsune are extremely smart and hard to trick. Their true form can be revealed through various ways depending the lore…the most common are: get them startled or careless and their magic disguise may slip up; light the so-called kitsune on fire and it will reveal itself (we saw that in chapter 1 of Kappa); or slice to the right of the believed possessed human with a blade of silver to sever the kitsune’s hold on that person. Natsume in Kappa is just as playful as her folklore counterpart, but she’s not as much into mischief and actually prefers to leave humans alone. She uses her fire and illusion magics quite frequently in their travels. Mostly she uses her illusion magic to keep her ears and tail hidden when traveling with her comrades. She can transform between a human and a fox form.

Last member of the cast is Hakuryuu. Now, unlike the others, Hakuryuu is just a human. He is not a creature of legend in the slightest. However, the name he uses as a Legend Hunter comes from yet another mythology. Literally the name means “White Dragon Horse.” He is a character from the famous Chinese novel “Monkey,” also known as “Journey to the West.” His original name is Bai Longma, which is read as “Hakuryuu” in Japanese. The story made its way over to Japan and became quite popuar, especially with the explosive popularity of the series Dragon Ball, which is based on it. The book mostly follows the character Sun Wukong (Son Goku) in his quest to find himself, and then to help the priest find sacred scriptures. It’s a personal favorite story of mine, so if you like folklore, I definitely recommend you read it. Hakuryuu has a rather simple role in the story of Monkey. He is a dragon prince Ao Lie, and the third son of the Dragon King of the West Sea. He set a fire that destroyed a pearl that was a gift from the Jade Emperor and was set to be executed for his crime. He was spared when Guanyin (Kwannon/Kanzeon Bosatsu, The Merciful Goddess) pleaded for his life if he were to do her a favor. So instead, he was banished to a stream int he Shepan Mountain to wait for Tang Sanzang and help with his quest. He meets Sun Wukong and the gang when they are trying to cross the stream. He appears in the form of a gigantic white dragon and swallows Tang Sanzang’s horse in one gulp. Sun Wukong and he fight, but he loses quickly and retreats underwater. Sun Wukong is able to learn about him from an Earth Deity and eventually finds out from Guanyin that he was waiting for them. Hakuryuu did not recognize Sanzang and mistakenly ate the horse instead. In apology for this, he transforms into the horse and becomes Bai Longma, thus carrying Sanzang for the rest of the story. He gets a little combat later on in the story, but isn’t much help, as most of the victories their team garners come from Sun Wukong directly (and he could pretty much single-handedly take on almost anyone, so no surprise). In this case, the only real background Hakuryuu from Kappa takes with this is the name itself, however he carries the name as a sort of penance. There will be a lot more information about him later on, as the story progresses. I will say that the name Hakuryuu is not his real name.

There are so many more youkai and folklore that will be featured in Kappa to Ieba.. and already have been! Nearly each chapter has a new youkai to meet. I have the story completely planned out as well as which youkai will show up in it. I’m hoping to have the story only go five volumes, but there are some other youkai I want to include that might make it last longer. You can read notes in each volume after the chapters that explain the youkai used in each as well. So pick it up and give it a read!

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