On the Origin of Species: Stantler
Some Pokémon are destined never to appear in this column. In some cases, it's because their origins are too vague to be certain about, and in others, it's due to them being more-or-less straight adaptations of well-known animals, leaving me with very little to write about. Until recently, I believed that Stantler belonged to the latter category: a deer Pokémon with nothing especially unusual to make it stand out from the crowd. But the truth was that I hadn't ever really thought to give Stantler a close look... and when I did, I found that its origins were a little more complex than I'd suspected.
Stantler's Japanese name is Odoshishi (オドシシ). This name comes from the term shishi odoshi (鹿威し), a general name for a range of devices for scaring away animals. The closest English term is probably 'scarecrow' – though in Japanese, what we call a scarecrow would be considered just one kind of shishi odoshi. But just like the word 'scarecrow', 'shishi odoshi' also invokes the imagery of a particular animal: the deer, since the literal translation of the phrase is 'deer scarer'. Many if not most of these things aren't actually used to specifically scare away deer – birds are a more frequent target – but the deer is the animal identified in the Japanese phrase, just as in English, scarecrows aren't just intended to scare away crows.
The device most commonly associated with the blanket term of shishi odoshi is something that you've probably seen before. The souzu (添水), sometimes found in Japanese gardens, is a hollow bamboo tube on a pivot, with its heavier, closed end resting on a rock. A stream of water pours into the mouth of the tube from above, gradually filling it up. When the water inside reaches a certain level, the tube's center of gravity shifts beyond the pivot, causing it to tip up, pour the water out, then swing back to its original position with a distinctive noise, produced by the tube hitting the rock it rests on. This sound is intended to scare any creatures that might be snacking on the garden's plants, be they deer or some other animals.
Other sorts of shishi odoshi include bird-scaring 'clappers' and traditional scarecrows, but the other device that's of interest to us is something just a little more obscure. They're known in Japan as 'eyeball balloons' (目玉風船) or 'eyeball scarecrows' (目玉かかし), and they consist of a large, round balloon decorated with concentric circles, resulting in something that looks like a giant eye. This is extremely unnerving to most birds, who immediately associate such things with the staring eyes of their predators. These devices are marketed in the US and other countries as well, but they were originally a Japanese invention, and are a common sight in the Japanese countryside.
Now let's take a look at Stantler. Its antlers are curved in such a way as to resemble a pair of eyes, complete with round, black protrusions that have the appearance of pupils. Its Pokédex entries frequently mention the hypnotic power of these antlers, which can cause anyone or anything staring at them to lose control of their senses. A great number of Stantler's level-up moves reflect these powers as well: Leer, Astonish, Hypnosis, Confuse Ray and Captivate all seem to be linked to Stantler's mesmerizing antlers.
While the precise function has been changed from scaring off foes to disabling them, there does seem to be a link between these antlers and the practice of keeping pests away from crops and gardens with things resembling staring eyes. Stantler is therefore the product of a pun: a 'deer scarer' that is also a deer! However, the fact that deer and scaring animals aren't associated with each other outside of Japan means that the joke really doesn't translate, which is why there's no hint of the joke in Stantler's English name.
All of which serves to remind us that humor often doesn't travel well, especially when it involves idioms and puns. Figuring out exactly why a foreign joke works in its native language usually doesn't yield a laugh, but it can be an informative and enlightening process nonetheless.