From Ukiy-o paintings to your phone and tablet screens, Tamamo’s reign over the Japanese cultural imagination is still as strong as ever.
I have a dirty confession to make—I’ve never played a Fate/Stay Night game. I suppose this makes me a freak of nature. But in all honesty, I’ve been fascinated by the ubiquitous nature of the franchise. Originally a visual novel developed by indie team Type-Moon, Fate/Stay Night developed a small, but dedicated fanbase ever since its debut in 2004. The english-translated visual novel clocks in at almost one million words, which surprisingly makes it longer than Atlas Shrugged and Les Misérbles for a story about summoning anime versions of history’s greatest figures.
Fate is like a worm growing under the skin of every otaku I’ve come across—are you team Rin or team Saber? Can you recite all of Archer’s epic “Ultimate Blade Works” monologue? Do people really die if they’re killed? I’ve sat in the corner of this fandom like a lost child, washed and blinded by every Fate adaptation despite all the critical acclaim. I have no excuse.
But suddenly, the hottest new mobile game around—Fate/Grand Order (or FGO as the cool kids call it). My interest in FGO was initially piqued after reading an article about a self-confessed “whale” who’d spent over $1,000 on FGO gatcha rolls. Naturally, there must be something of interest here—engaging gameplay, weird history facts, a captivating story—right? And that’s when I met Tamamo. Tamamo first caught my attention because I’m, inevitably, a sucker for anime girls with animal ears and tails. I just think they’re cute, alright? I was also curious about Tamamo’s origin, why exactly she was one of the most popular casters in the game, and what creative decisions led to picking her of all the fascinating characters in Japanese mythology. Piles upon piles of otaku-pandering figurines and merchandise tell me she’s a fan-favorite, so obviously I needed to get to the source of this furry-tailed muse’s appeal.
Japanese Myths and Foxes
Tamamo no Mae is firstmost a figure of her time—her first written appearance was in the Otogi-Zōshi, medieval short stories of Muromachi Japan. These story collections depicted Japanese mythological figures typically shared across both visual and oral mediums (primarily Ukiy-o paintings and emaki, educational scrolls that were read by priests). Most importantly, the Otogi-Zōshi relied on hitting specific “beats” in their narrative to remain recognizable to the casual (and literate) audience. These visual and verbal re-imaginings of the folklore figures, including Tamamo no mae, relied on familiar narrative arcs and easily identifiable antagonists.
In these stories, Tamamo no mae is revealed by the cleric Yasunari as an evil nine-tailed fox (a kitsune) spirit during an impromptu exorcism in the emperor’s court. Tamamo no mae’s body suddenly becomes illuminated in brilliant light, signaling to Yasunari and the court that she is in fact, a malicious spirit who has taken the form of a woman. This climactic scene is the focus of several Ukiy-o and woodblock print representations underscoring the duplicity of Tamamo no Mae’s many forms. In one scene, she’s a beautiful court mistress—and in another—she’s a howling, snarling nine-tailed fox caught red-handed duping the Japanese huntsmen and royalty.
If Tamamo was a supervillain, her power would be transformation and the seduction of unassuming men. However, she isn’t your standard evil kitsune possessing beautiful women’s bodies. Tamamo is a master of disguise, enchantment, and most importantly—a tremendous source of inspiration for Japanese woodblock painters like Yōshū Chikanobu, and collaborative print artists like Yoshikuni and Hikokuni. Tamamo is captivating because of her eccentric narrative: a beautiful woman serves the emperor, is revealed by an exorcist, and is hunted down in a field where she is exterminated—depending on who is telling the story.
In some Noh dramas, Tamamo is depicted as a recluse who has disavowed her scheming ways in order to worship the Buddha. This “alternative ending” to the classic Tamamo myth revolves around the theme of moral redemption instead of murder, giving her a second-chance at life. The drama Sesshōseki is the most resounding example of this alternative narrative, where Tamamo seals herself inside a giant stone until she breaks free and claims she’ll repent for her evil ways.
Adaptation Versus Moe
As representations of Tamamo no Mae from the Muromachi period to the 19th century woodblock prints suggest, the capricious nature of epic mythological subjects make them apt for unanticipated duplicity across visual adaptations. In the Yoshikuni and Hikokuni print, Tamamo is surrounded by a beacon of light as Yasunari reveals her true kitsune form. In the Chikanobu print, she is also surrounded by the same revealing beacon of light, suggesting a narrative continuity between these two separate works. Tamamo is immortalized by the uncanny—she is otherworldly and bizarre, attractive but deceptive. And this is why she makes the perfect big breasted anime girl.
The Fate rendition of Tamamo is a solid demonstration of Japan’s favorite type of character archetype, the moe gijinka, or “moe anthropomorphism.” A moe version of the otherwise sinister character of Tamamo makes ideal fan-fodder for figurines, plushies, dakimakura, and all sorts of otaku merchandise outside of the FGO game. It’s not longer uncommon for anime to depict even horses and guns as cute anime girls, so what’s to say Fate can’t do the same with one of the most iconic staples of Japanese mythology?
If classic Japanese myth is butter, then moe is the iron bullet smashing straight through it. Moe itself is a form of “soft power,” a kind of cultural capital that the media industry in Japan has harnessed quite nicely. The inherently deceptive nature of Tamamo’s historical origins makes her the ideal idol in this form of otaku worship, including spending nearly $70,000 to role for servants. Tamamo is just another competitor in the race to become somebody’s “waifu” in a sea anime girls trying to nab your wallet in the form of merchandise and predatory gatcha mechanics.
Tamamo’s moe appeal as an anime character is synchronous to her appeal to classic artists and writers of the Muromachi period; she’s a figure constantly up for re-interpretation and re-imagining even in contemporary times. Tamamo is legendary for her capacity to be depicted however an artist likes, regardless of the century or intended audience. From the classic Otogi-Zōshi scrolls, the Ukiy-o paintings, woodblock prints, Noh dramas, to your phone and tablet screens, Tamamo’s reign over the Japanese cultural imagination is still as strong as ever. In the end, she’s ultimately the product of otaku demand for moe appeal, and the popular trends of anthropomorphism in a constantly evolving culture of demand for cute, but recognizable characters.