The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 2, by Tagawa Mi

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Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: After 300 years, the gods that imprisoned Senzou the Fox Spirit for his arrogance finally set him free. There is only one condition ― he can’t have any of his supernatural abilities back until he successfully helps a tanuki cub named Manpachi become one of their magical assistants. Unfortunately for Senzou, there’s no cheating when it comes to completing his task! The magic beads around his neck make sure he can’t wander too far from his charge or shirk his duties, and so… Senzou the once-great Fox Spirit must now figure out how to be an actually-great babysitter to a mischievous little tanuki or risk being stuck without his powers forever!

Thoughts: The first volume of The Fox and the Little Tanuki had many things to say about the consequences of rejection and repression, and I quickly grew to think of the story as something akin to My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. Something that’s ostensibly for kids, but also has surprising depth to it, things that adults can enjoy and stand to be reminded of every once in a while, and more to it than what’s on the surface. I found myself hoping that this would continue in the second volume. Happily, I wasn’t disappointed.

Manpachi has gone missing, tricked into vanishing by a sly and deceptive badger, Momoji, who senses that Manpachi will become powerful when he grows up and wants to set himself up as an ally to that strength. Manpachi is entirely unaware of this, thinking only that Momoji wants to be his friend and help reunite him with the family who rejected him at birth.

Once again I’m struck by how much this manga addresses the issue of people not being to blame for their own births. Or rather, how they shouldn’t be blamed; plenty of people blame Manpachi for his birth. He’s bakemono, he’s different, he’s an outcast, the energy needed to create him messed up the ecology of his home for possibly years to come… And he’s not actually at fault for any of that (that last one is revealed to be entirely untrue anyway), though people are happy to treat him as though he did everything deliberately, maliciously. Turning bakemono into scapegoats.

It’s one of the reasons I really enjoy Senzou as a character, even if he can be a jerk and practically desperate to deny that there’s anything good about himself. He’s faced that same mentality. Heck, he became the embodiment of it, taking an, “If they’re going to hate me for being destructive, then I may as well destroy everything,” approach to life for so long. But that’s part of why he was chosen to raise Manpachi to begin with. Not just as some sort of rehabilitation project; that could have been anything, really. But Manpachi has the potential to become just like Senzou, facing the same obstacles in life and risking the same brutal punishment that Senzou experienced, when his pain overwhelmed his reason and he became violent. Senzou’s got this job because he gets it. He knows what Manpachi’s life will be like, he knows that kind of pain. His job isn’t just to raise Manpachi to be a good person, a good tanuki. His job is to spare Manpachi the same pain he went through, by making sure he doesn’t walk the same path.

Or at least, that’s how I’m reading it.

I think this sort of story can resonate with anyone who’s spent time on the fringes of “acceptable” society. The blame, the stress, the internalizing of what everyone considers as your faults. The way pain can make you lash out — I liked finding out that Mikumo nearly lost his way and became angry and violent due to pain, not because I like knowing he was in pain, but because he found his way out of it. And also because his case shows that really, it can happen to anyone if they’re pushed in the right way; nobody is inherently evil. And there’s  the positive side of the manga’s themes, too. The friends and family you make, rather than the ones related to you by circumstance of birth. The way idealism can lead to great changes. The way one’s destiny isn’t fixed, but that change comes all the time, and how you handle it affects how life goes from there. Nothing is ever destroyed, even if it changes beyond what you can easily recognize.

I’m really enjoying seeing Manpachi grow up with that idealism, and the guidance (albeit somewhat unwilling, at least at first) to avoid missteps. I enjoy seeing Senzou adjust to how his life is so very different from what he imagined it to be, and the way he’s learning to be better because people have placed their trust in him. I enjoy Koyuki’s weird hyperactive maternalism toward Manpachi, and the way she sometimes turns that on Senzou to amusing effect. I like the bond between Tachibana and Mikumo, and Tachibana’s doofy canine smile. I like Hagiri’s love of cats, and his loyalty to those who deserve it. I like the way the story of animals spills over into humanity, and the complications that brings to Senzou’s life and appointed task. I like the art style, I like the way a simple story can say so much that hits so hard.

I still maintain that The Fox and the Little Tanuki is the sort of story that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike, in so many different ways. It’s got a lot to say about a lot of issues, and the fact that it chooses animals as allegory isn’t a reason to dismiss it as being too childish to pay attention to. I didn’t expect to have so much to say here, either in this review or my review of the first volume, but the manga itself has plenty to say, so I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m already looking forward to volume 3, whenever that gets released.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Fox and the Little Tanuki, vol 1, by Tagawa Mi

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Publication date – March 17, 2020

Summary: It is said that there are some special animals occasionally born with great powers. Senzou the black fox is one of those… but instead of using his powers for good, he abused his strength until the Sun Goddess imprisoned him for his bad behavior. Three hundred years later, he’s finally been released, but only on one condition― he can’t have any of his abilities back until he successfully helps a tanuki cub named Manpachi become an assistant to the gods.  Unfortunately for Senzou, there’s no cheating when it comes to completing his task! The magic beads around his neck make sure he can’t wander too far from his charge or ignore his duties, and so… Senzou the once-great Fox Spirit must figure out how to be an actually-great babysitter to a innocent little tanuki or risk being stuck without his powers forever!

Thoughts: From the title, you may initially dismiss this manga as being too kid-oriented to be worth paying attention to. And while it is clearly a manga designed more for younger readers than older ones, I think it would be a mistake to pass it over, because there’s actually a good entertaining story in here.

Senzou is a powerful black fox spirit, imprisoned for three hundred years, and finally set free by the very deity who initially sealed him away. But his freedom comes with one caveat: he must raise a tanuki cub, named Manpachi, to be a good servant of the gods. If he does this, he’ll be given full freedom. If he does not, then the magical beads he’s forced to wear around his neck cause him pain. Cruel? Yes. But Senzou did more than make mischief before he was sealed away; he was a force of destruction that took down anything in his path. This is not only only Senzou’s punishment, but also his rehabilitation.

And yes, there are definitely moments in here that will sound like focus points of a kid’s cartoon, like Manpachi coming to understand that family is more than just the people related to you by blood. And there are the expected struggles within Senzou as he continues to insist that he doesn’t really care for Manpachi, but I mean, come on, we know from the moment Manpachi is introduced that Senzou will come to think of him fondly because it’s just that kind of story.

But there were moments in here that really resonated with me, in a way that made me think there was more to this than a simple story for children. The first was the statement that bakemono (broadly defined in the manga as “animals with special powers”) are commonly born to regular animals, but bakemono are often quickly cast out because others sense there’s something different about them, something they don’t understand, and it scares them. It’s hardly an uncommon theme, but every time I see it pop up in fiction, it hits home. My parents never kicked me out or anything, but there have been so many times when I’ve been struck with the notion that there’s so much about me that I don’t think they understand. It doesn’t scare them, but I think it’s easy for them to pretend those parts aren’t really there, and so it feels like a rejection.

In Senzou’s case, that rejection by his parents was what started him on the path to becoming a bitter individual, someone who was rejected by those who ought to love him and so who rejects everyone else in turn. Now, I’m not saying every mean person is mean because their mommy never loved them enough, but to be perfectly honest, when you treat someone like they’re nothing, like they’re trash just because they’re not like you, you can’t be hugely surprised when they end up not giving a crap about you in turn. Or anything. You start them down that path, and they may end up okay in the end, or they may take that message very much to heart and lash right back out, and to some extent, that lashing out is entirely understandable.

Moving on…

The second part that resonated strongly with me was Senzou and Manpachi’s first task together, to get rid of a pestilence god that was plaguing an old run-down house, which was inhabited by the protective spirit of a child. Mistakes get made, but in the end, the pestilence god is defeated, and is revealed to be, of all people, the child spirit. He explains that he used to be worshiped at the house and in return gave his protection, but at some point he was locked up in a store room and couldn’t protect the house of the people within it anymore, and his frustration at being unable to fulfill his duties manifested in the pestilence god. It was another thing that really rang true with me, the presentation that there are consequences when someone can’t live up to themselves, when they’re prevented from doing what they’re supposed to do. Consequences beyond merely that thing not being done, that is.

That something negative can be born from the restriction of something positive is a lesson I wish more people could learn in life. Too often we just assume that if something positive doesn’t happen, then everything is just neutral. But in that vacuum can come negative things, unbalanced by positive, and that negativity can thrive. I feel like we all know that on some level, but we don’t seem to acknowledge it very often. If someone is held back from doing what they need to do, what they feel they exist to do, then the result isn’t just “someone not doing a thing,” but instead “someone not doing a thing and something harmful that results from it.”

Be good and true to yourselves and each other, is what I’m saying.

But all of this is why I think The Fox and the Little Tanuki isn’t a story that can be just dismissed by adults as being unworthy of attention because it’s geared towards kids. Similar to the way My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic resonated so powerfully with so many adults, I think The Fox and the Little Tanuki could do the same, appealing to that same part of our hearts that MLP:FIM did. Being ostensibly for children doesn’t mean that it has nothing to say to adults, and some small things turned into thought-provoking moments that made me really enjoy my time reading through this first volume of the story. Already I’m hoping it picks up enough steam for the publisher to think it’s worth releasing other volumes, because it’s a story I’m invested it, it has characters I’m interested in, and it’s a glimpse into aspects of Japanese mythology that many people, young and old, don’t always get the chance to see.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)