You’re wandering the streets of feudal Japan, enjoying a night out with your friends. A woman in a beautiful kimono approaches, the lower part of her face modestly hidden behind an elegant fan. Golden eyes glint in the lights lining the street and she glances away, giggling at your blatant stare. She passes you. As you turn to watch her walk away, you notice a strange shadow cast by the nighttime glow: a fox. Then you see it. Peeking out under the edge of silk that trails behind the strange woman is a bushy, red fox tail.
The kitsune is as mysterious as she is alluring. There are tales from ancient Japan of men marrying strange and beautiful women, only to one day discover that their wives are foxes. These fox-women are described as devoted and loving, even bearing children, but will flee if they are revealed. How do you tell if your significant other is a fox? Kitsune retain many fox traits even when disguised, such as a tail, their fox-shaped shadow, and even very vulpine features. They can be startled into revealing themselves if something scares them, like a dog, or their husbands might notice a tail sticking out from under their kimono or a fox’s shadow drifting along the wall. Although not all kitsune are female, most of the old tales focus on them.
The word “kitsune” means fox in general and has only in more recent years come to refer to the creature of lore. This trend has a lot to do with the rise in popularity of anime and manga, such as Kamisama Kiss; No Game, No Life; Fox Spirit Matchmaker; and Naruto. In my experience, these fox characters are often attributed with being extremely beautiful, or handsome, and skilled with magic, and the females are often hyper-sexualized, with large, bouncing bosoms and slinky clothing. They sometimes have nine tails, a being known as kyuubi-no-kitsune (nine-tailed fox), and these particular denizens of the spirit world are usually powerful to the point of being god-like. But this is their depiction in popular media.
So what can a traditional kitsune do? A variety of things, according to folklore, and all of this can depend on their number of tails. According to some lore, once a kitsune reaches 100 (or 50) years of age, they gain the ability to shapeshift. Nine-tailed foxes tend to be rarer because they are so old, with 900 or 1000 being the age at which they achieve this ninth tail. At this point, their fur turns gold, or perhaps white, and they ascend into the upper spiritual realms. The idea seems to be that, as they grow older and gain more tails, their knowledge and magical abilities also increase. This allows them to do things like cast elaborate illusions or influence the elements. Some stories claim they can be gifted tails through completing great feats or doing favors. Sun showers, those times when it’s raining but the sun is out, are an opportunity to see rainbows in western culture. In Japanese folklore, these events are known as fox weddings and you should beware of where you turn your gaze during these times: kitsune don’t like humans peeping on their ceremonies and doing so, even accidentally, can bring bad luck.
Foxfire, commonly known as will-o-wisp in western culture, is attributed to these creatures and is considered both a help and a hindrance. There are stories of people following balls of light at night, thinking they belong to a town or the lanterns of other people, only to find themselves more and more lost. Other times, they’re credited with guiding lost travelers safely home. This difference in function seems to revolve around whether it’s a good fox or a bad fox. I know that sounds very “Wizard of Oz”, but it’s believed that there are at least two different groups of foxes. Field foxes are usually considered enormously mischievous and can be downright malevolent in their pranks. They might infest a home or possess a person, and it can take divine intervention to drive them out. The second group is attributed to the Shinto god Inari, and they serve as messengers for this deity, as well as benevolent helpers to humans. Don’t be mistaken: a fox is still a fox, and they are all considered mischief-makers, even if the prank is (mostly) harmless.
My novelette, The Fox Bride, is first and foremost a work of fiction. I don’t claim to adhere to all of the lore, and I definitely put my own spin on it, but I’ve tried to incorporate as much from the tales and culture as seamlessly as I can. When it comes to magic, I like to have semi-plausible explanations for things that enrich the world as much as possible, and this applies to magical creatures. My main character, Katsumi, can shapeshift, summon foxfire, and work some minor magic. You’ll find that her grandmother and fiancé, on the other hand, are capable of a great deal more. As you read, pay attention to the little details for clues about what’s to come, and let me know how you think I did with blending horror, romance, and folklore to bring you my first horror-lore story.
As always, thanks for reading!
~Ashley Aikey, aka your Dea in the Machina