On the Origin of Species: Shuppet and Banette

Investigating the inspirations behind Pokémon
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  • Sunday, October 31, 2010

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This column has been written by Xan Hutcheon. It expresses the views of the columnist, not necessarily those of Bulbagarden networks.
Shuppet and Banette

It's Halloween, and that means costumes, candy and tiresome pranks. It also means ghosts, and so what better time to talk about two of my favorite Ghost-type Pokémon?

Shuppet and Banette superficially resemble puppets: Shuppet a hand or finger puppet and Banette a marionette. But that isn't all that they have in common, because both are also based on mythical beings called tsukumogami (付喪神).

Tsukumogami account for some of the odder examples in the already very odd world of Japanese monsters, or youkai (妖怪). Put simply, tsukumogami are inanimate objects that have come to life. Usually, this is because the object is one hundred years old: upon reaching this age, an object is able to become a tsukumogami. However, objects may also take on a life of their own as a result of being thrown away. The idea that inanimate objects can have souls is called animism, and it is one of the central beliefs of Shintoism.

In principle, there are as many kind of tsukumogami as there are objects, but some of the types more commonly depicted in folklore and fiction include the kasa-obake (傘お化け) - an umbrella with one eye, whose handle has been transformed into a single leg - and the bakezori (化け草履), a discarded sandal. More modern objects, it is said, are less likely to become tsukumogami. In part, this is because, with our habit of disposing of things more rapidly, modern-day objects like computers and electrical appliances are unlikely to survive for the hundred years necessary to acquire life. There is also a notion that tsukumogami (and ghosts in general) are repelled by electric lights, which are too bright for them. They prefer, it is said, to skulk in the half-light created by traditional oil lamps.

A tsukumogami's appearance and nature depends greatly on how it has been treated. A treasured and well cared for object may take on a friendly appearance and behave with benevolence towards its owner, while a damaged or discarded object will likely harbor more negative feelings, and have a more fearsome appearance. It can be said that the objects are absorbing the feelings of their owners in order to become alive, and this notion is reflected in rituals such as Hari Kuyo (針供養) and Ningyo Kuyo (人形供養).

A Biwa-bokuboku, a kind of tsukumogami based on a lute

On the 8th of February every year, women gather in temples for a memorial service for broken and worn out needles. This is Hari Kuyo, a 400-year old tradition, and though its practice is said to be dying out, it remains popular with kimono makers. The needles are laid to rest by sticking them into a soft slab of tofu. By using an item repeatedly, it is said, we imbue it with our own feelings, thus giving up a part of ourselves to the object. The memorial service, then, is both a way of putting the souls of the needles to rest, and of recognizing the many hours of work that were done with its help.

Ningyo Kuyo is similar, and more directly relevant to our story. This is a funeral for dolls that are no longer wanted. Since dolls generally have a human-like appearance, it's not hard to think of them as having souls, and the festival recognizes that. Now, I'm a scientist, and I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that dolls probably don't, in reality, have souls. However, who can say that they haven't cherished a doll, or some other toy, and anthropomorphized it to some degree? As children, and even as adults, we impose human characteristics upon human-like objects, be they dolls, teddy bears, or a complete set of Sailor Moon gashapon figures (er, for example). Rather than simply throwing the dolls away, their owners acknowledge these very human feelings of attachment, and give them a send-off that seems appropriate.

But what might become of a doll that is not given a proper memorial, but is simply discarded? This brings us back to Shuppet and Banette, and the darker side of tsukumogami. When carelessly thrown away, a doll may come to life with feelings of vengeance directed towards its former owner. This is the origin of Banette, according to the Pokédex: a forgotten doll, seeking the child that disowned it. In a little bit of self-referential humor that made me smile, HeartGold and SoulSilver feature a Banette that has found a new home with the Copycat, a lover of dolls and mimicry, and lives amongst her doll collection.

Shuppet's origin is a little more nebulous in this regard, as it is simply said to feed on negative emotions. However, since we're on the subject of dolls, we can take note of Shuppet's resemblance to a very specific kind of doll: the teru teru bozu (てるてる坊主), a weather charm which I covered in one of my earliest columns. While its influence on Castform might be more immediately obvious, it also shares many similarities with Shuppet (said to gather under the eaves of houses, the place where a teru teru bozu might be hung). Its Japanese name, Kagebouzu (カゲボウズ), is a combination of kage (影), meaning shadow, and teru teru bozu, which brings to mind a dark, corrupted version of the usually cheery weather charm.

There is one other element of Banette that we should cover. In some Pokédex entries, it is said to lay curses by sticking pins in its body. This is a clear reference to voodoo dolls... but what is a voodoo doll, really?

The short answer is that there is no such thing. It's not really clear how the notion of laying curses by sticking pins in a doll became attached to Haitian Voodoo, but it is not part of the religion in any way. There does exist a practice of nailing dolls to trees near cemeteries to act as messengers to the underworld, but this is quite different. European witchcraft has the poppet (from which we get the word puppet), a representative doll of a person that fulfills the same role as the mythical voodoo doll. One common idea is that visiting Europeans, observing the rituals of a strange and unfamiliar religion, may have conflated the practices of voodoo with their pre-existing ideas of witchcraft from back home. The idea of the voodoo doll is now so prevalent that tourists can even buy them in Haiti, despite them having no relation to Haitian religion and culture.

And so, our Halloween special draws to a close. There are so many things to be afraid of, and so I hope I've set a few minds at rest tonight... you can rest easy knowing that voodoo dolls don't actually exist. Unfortunately, I may have also implied that every single inanimate object in your bedroom has the potential to come to life... especially once you've turned the light off. So... sorry about that.

Good night, out there... whatever you are!

On the Origin of Species
By Xan Hutcheon
WooperCastformMawileManaphy and PhioneSandshrew and Sandslash
Turtwig, Grotle and TorterraRelicanthFarfetch'dPoochyena and Mightyena
Bronzor and BronzongNincada, Ninjask and ShedinjaParas and Parasect
JirachiChinchou and LanturnMeowthTrapinch, Vibrava and FlygonJynx
Lileep and CradilyCharmanderTreecko, Grovyle and SceptileOddish
Gloom and VileplumeMewNosepass and ProbopassShuppet and Banette
WoobatVenipede, Whirlipede and ScolipedeMagikarpVictreebel
Slowpoke, Slowbro and SlowkingDunsparceCorsolaStantlerAbsolLuvdisc