Many, many years ago, a young man in Gifu was lovestruck by a beautiful woman in a field. Determined to make her his wife, he proposed on the spot. To his great delight, the coquettish lady agreed, and they were married.
Their marriage was a happy one, and in the first year, the wife gifted her husband a son, strong as a god, and as fast as one, too. Yet the husband’s dog and her own puppy would always growl and snap at the wife when she passed them. The wife, fearing the animals, begged her husband to get rid of them, but he could not bring himself to do so.
One day, the dogs at last attacked the wife, who, jumping on a rice barrel, suddenly revealed herself to be a fox. Her husband, exposed to the truth, lamented her discovery, for though they could no longer be together, he still loved her dearly. He begged his wife to return to him, and so she did, every night, in the guise of a woman, until, at the end of her lifespan, she passed to the next life.
Tales of men marrying trickster wives are as old as myth itself. Every culture has its own version: the mermaid, the witch, the frog, the genie. In China and Japan, trickster brides come in the form of the fox, and while typically harmless to those that are good-spirited, their nature can sometimes cause great misfortune for their husbands. Never mind the horror at realizing the one you have lain with as a bride is in fact a vixen.
The vulpine myths of Japan are extensive, and many lead to the god Inari, god of food (particularly rice) and agriculture. Like Odin’s ravens in Norse mythology, Inari keeps messenger foxes, who tell him of the deeds of the people. Should you visit Inari Shrine in Fushimi, perhaps the most famous tourist spot in all of Japan, you’ll see no shortage of the foxes sent to keep an eye on you.
There are a number of animals in Japanese mythology that have the ability to shape-shift, or otherwise terrorize the populace. Tanuki (raccoon dogs), cats, and weasels parallel many of the fox’s traits, but none are quite as elegant or sensual as the fox, which, even in English, is used as a metaphor for a seductress or cocktease.
Interestingly, the fox had very few negative traits attached to its myths well through the 4th century, until Buddhism and stories from China made their way to Japan, and the fox’s often playful antics were restructured to be more of tales of caution. However,the duality of the fox persisted, and these days, kitsune are known to attack only those who are greedy, insincere, or foul, while keeping their promises and playing harmless pranks for fun.
Some readers of the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman may be familiar with the fox wife already – over a decade ago, a version of Dream Hunters was published with the artwork of world-renowned artist Yoshitaka Amano (concept artist for Final Fantasy and Vampire Hunter D).
The novella uses the kitsune as protagonist, showing the playful turned loyal fox as a creature fighting to defend the life of her precious monk friend from a group of men planning to kill him. She gets help from the King of All Night’s Dreaming as she completes the various trials set out for her.
As a short read, Dream Hunters touches on the mythos of the fox beautifully, and Amano’s accompanying illustrations are simply astounding. I highly recommend it as a read.