Thursday, September 18, 2014

Lady Toad? The Gender of Everyone’s Favorite Anthropomorphic Mushroom

(Note: This posted ended up spawning two more about the Super Mario anime. Read part two and part three, if you like.)

Earlier this year, I found a great video game website, Clyde Mandelin’s Legends of Localization, that looks at the strange process of adapting video games made in one language for people who speak a different language. The site tends to focus on the little moments — the ones that didn’t necessarily make the game but the ones dedicated players nonetheless remember. For example, how do you save Lucca’s mom in the Japanese version of Chrono Trigger? Does that random scrap of paper make any more sense in the Japanese version of Final Fantasy VI? And what’s with this random Helen Keller joke? It’s always heartening to find someone else who not only cares about the little stuff and the odd stuff in old video games but who also spends time wondering about the decision-making process that led to them.

In one post, Mandelin writes about the strangeness of Toad not necessarily being the singular, distinct character we tend of think of him being. (This is something I wrote about a while back, and this flexible sense of “self-ness” is hardly unique to Toad — it works for Yoshi and Birdo too — or even unique to the Mario games.) Mandelin also brings up something I hadn’t heard before: the idea that Toad (or the Toads) were initially supposed to be female — the princess’s handmaidens, in fact.

He offers as evidence The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach!, an anime released theatrically in Japan in 1986. Like The Super Mario Bros. Super Show here in the U.S., it was a loose adaptation of the original, barebones Super Mario Bros. plotline. It added a lot in. It had to. And in place of the Mushroom Retainers (Kinopio, in the orginal Japanese) that Mario rescues at the end of every level are these distinctly feminine mushroom people.

Here’s a scene where Mario and Luigi free them from a spell that had turned them into coins.

They seem a little more human, a little more articulated than the generic Toads you see earlier in the film.

Later, Mario rescues a second Lady Toad. Again, the movie clearly genders her. This is a female mushroom who’s giving Mario a peck on the cheek.

At first, I thought this was a strange call on the parts of the creators of the anime, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. After all, if you happened across this Strawberry Shortcake-looking assemblage of pixels for the first time, would you think this character was wearing a vest? Or would it look more like a skimpy woman’s shirt?

(Confession time: When I was a kid, before I saw official artwork of Toad, I thought it was a bikini top. In my defense, those eight-bit days left a lot of room for interpretation. That’s actually a hot little number by mushroom standards.)

Mandelin addresses whether these female Toads mean anything beyond someone taking creative liberties with the story. A quote:
My first thought was to say, “Whatever, that’s just a cartoon movie, it doesn’t apply to anything.” But then I realized that the American cartoon series was pretty influential for fans. So I guess you can take it however you like, but at the very least it seems that a number of Japanese fans fondly remember Kinopios as being girls and wonder at what point they became guys.
I totally agree. I looked around as best I could and did not find much on whether Toad was at one point female. (Well, I found one message board thread — an ancient artifact, by online standards — that said the characters were ”presumably female” and that some sources call them ”Mushroom Girls.” It probably didn't help that I can’t easily search for Japanese sites.) But if this idea is floating around out there, it’s probably because young Super Mario Bros. fans saw this movie as kids — before the game’s universe expanded and before it was easier to see official Nintendo artwork of these characters — and it crystallized the idea that those guys who are telling you the princess is in another castle are actually gals.

For what it’s worth, the Toads depicted on the box art for the Japanese release of Super Mario Bros. don’t look especially feminine, but then again they also have visible belly buttons and one seems to be missing his eyes.

Nintendo eventually introduced female Toads into the games — in the RPG titles and then in Mario Kart: Double Dash!! as Toad’s female racing partner, Toadette.

Toadette has a similar same color scheme to that of the female characters from the anime, but then again so might any character that you’re trying to code as conspicuously female. There’s only so much you can do to gender a mushroom. In any case, I’d always thought of her as a Smurfette or a Skeeter — a female twist on an existing male character created just to even out the gender ratio. And while Toadette still is that, this possible tie to a much older Mario creation makes me a little more okay with her existence, even if those braids hanging off her head still freak me out. (WHAT ARE THEY? WHAT ARE THEY?!)

There are quite a few concepts introduced in The Great Mission to Rescue Princess Peach! that eventually worked their way into actual Mario games — and a few that could have easily but never did. Tomorrow, I’ll post about them. And I promise I’ll never, ever ponder about Toad’s gender again.

Miscellaneous mushroom bits:
  • The name “Toad” doesn’t show up until the American Super Mario Bros. 2 came out. He’s playable in that game — really, only because the game was based on a previous one that had four characters and because at this point in the franchise’s history there just weren’t any other candidates.
  • The character is noted in the Super Mario Bros. 2 instruction manual as “Mushroom Retainer (Toad),” to tell us that yes, he’s one of those things mentioned in the previous instruction manual, but he has a name now. It always seemed an odd choice, though, because they’d already stuck the princess with the name “Toadstool” and these two names are very similar. The only reason a mushroom would be named Toad is in reference to toadstools. I mean, Nintendo could have named the guy anything. Fungo. Mushy. Mr. Sporesburg. Truffles. Herman the Death Cap Man. The Great Matango. But they’re all “Nah. Toad. Toadstool. They go together. Let’s go get lunch.”
  • Does anyone else remember that article Electronic Gaming Monthly ran in the late ‘90s specifically about whether Toad was a boy or a girl? *cough cough rainbow racket cough cough*
  • Toad’s general design seems to have made animating him…. interesting. I can’t tell if he gave animators more creative freedom or just more work, but the fact that you don’t really know what’s going on with his body means that people making cartoons of him had to be clever. Is that a hat? Or is he growing a mushroom on his head? Is he wearing a diaper? Where are his legs? In the case of the Lady Toads, the animators made them more human-like and have them actual legs. In the case of some concept art previewing the Super Mario Bros. Super Show in a 1989 issue of Nintendo Power, the artist was clearly saying, “Oh, fuck it. It’s just a mushroom or whatever.”

I for one fell in love with this concept art when I first saw it. I wish this specific style carried over more to the actual cartoon than it did. Trip on nostalgic, if you like, and read Nintendo Power’s full write-up on the then-forthcoming series here.

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