Today, most people who might bother to wonder about this strangeness — raccoons flying, raccoons turning into statues — know that the idea grew from a mythological character who would be familiar to Japanese people but unknown to all but the biggest American Japanophiles: the tanuki. These racccoon-looking creatures are often depicted in statue form and placed outside Japanese restaurants, straw hat on head and jug of sake in the other. Oh, and they have enormous balls.
Nintendo chose to omit that anatomical feature from the various Super Mario Bros. 3 transformations, I’m assuming to avoid imitative behavior in impressionable schoolchildren. But I was thinking about what Raccoon Mario actually does in Super Mario Bros. 3, and I’m wondering if the tail serves as a stand-in for the tanuki’s floppy, heaving nutsack. For example, in his raccoon form, Mario can spin around and thwack enemies with his big tail. And sure, one could do that with a tail if one wanted to, but if you had a thin, furry tail one one end and the genital equivalent of a gym teacher’s loaded soccer ball bag on the other, which one would you use to swat away attackers? There’s even a cultural precedent for exactly this sort of activity:
See? That ballsack is totally breaking up a human get-together.
Another instance of tanuki-on-human violence, with the scrotum being the weapon of choice.
And here the tanuki are skillfully using their testicles to subdue a giant fish. Wouldn’t you if you happened to be hung like a Hefty bag?
The taniki scrotum can apparently be used in more than one way to help catch fish. It’s quite the multipurpose body part!
And yes, it can even be used as a rain bonnet. Damn, Nintendo really sold Mario short on those tanuki powers. (Pink Tentacle has a comprehensive round-up of all the other possible uses of a tanuki scrotum, in case you have not seen enough.)
As Wikipedia notes, Japanese people acknowledge the potential for tanuki testicular motion. A schoolyard song, oddly enough sung to the tune of “Shall We Gather at the River?,” goes “Tan Tan Tanuki no kintama wa, / Kaze mo nai no ni, /Bura bura,” or, in English, “Tan-tan-tauki’s testicles, there isn’t even any win but still go swing-swing-swing.” (And yes, we all clearly missed out by not growing up in Japan.)
So what about flying? As near as I can tell, the tanuki of Japanese folklore doesn’t get airborne. I could be wrong — and please correct me if I am — but most search hits for “flying tanuki” turn up Super Mario Bros. 3 stuff, and I at least I feel safe saying that flight isn’t among the tanuki’s most common activities. However, at least one person unaffiliated with Nintendo has imagined how it might happen, and it doesn’t involve much tail action. In his 2003 novel Villa Incognito, Tom Robbins features a tanuki — the Tanuki, in fact — as one of his central characters. And just as Mario can soar up high and then flit back down to earth with the aid of his raccoon tail, so does this Tanuki master the skies… by using his scrotum. Yes, it’s so big, in fact, that he uses it like a parachute, which I must say is the best use of such a body part in literature ever, aside, I guess, from fathering children.
With this, I’ll say that I at least would like to think that the developers of Super Mario Bros. 3 had ballsacks in mind when they strapped a raccoon tail on Mario. The subject has been on my mind as a result of a promo screen released for the new Super Mario Bros. game being developed for the new Nintendo portable, the 3DS. Playing off the numeral in the system’s title, these developers saw fit to call back to Super Mario Bros. 3 and revive the raccoon tail — both in the logo and in the gameplay itself.
I mean, at least I think that’s supposed to be a tail.
(Alternate title considered for this post: “Surprise! Your Cherished Childhood Memory Is Actually About Testicles!”)
Super Mario studies, previously: