You may not notice it, but video games are often packed with cultural references. You may not notice it because, if you’re a westerner, many of these references come from western culture, mythology and religion, and are thus so familiar to you that you don’t think anything of them, like a local accent – maybe you’re fighting Medusa heads and vampires in Castlevania titles, or maybe you’re using the down of a phoenix to resurrect an ally in a Final Fantasy game. You may also not notice it because the references you don’t catch fly completely over your head.

I find customs and myths and even foreign pop culture to be very interesting, especially when they’re new to me. It’s weirdly inspiring. Right now, it’s inspiring me to try and introduce you to some of the neat stuff I’ve come across over my many years of studying the Bomberman franchise more deeply than any rational person ought to. Without further ado, let’s take a look at some Japanese myths and pop culture that made its way into Bomberman in the form of various enemies.

1. Gamera

GamebukuShogakukan

It’s the first image in the article, and I’m already at a loss for captions.

I’m starting off with a very basic catch here. In Super Bomberman 3 for the Super Famicom, the third boss is a large turtle-shaped robot called Gamebuku (“game” means “turtle”, and “buku” means “bubbling”). It has a habit of tucking its head and limbs into its body, emitting flames from its leg-holes, and spinning in circles. To be honest, I never thought anything of this until perhaps last year, because I am generally pop-culturally inept. Then, one night, while watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, it dawned on me.

It dawned on me like an ancient terrapin ass-blasting its way over the Nippon sky.

The boss is based off of Gamera, a popular kaiju (basically a giant movie monster) who has been around since 1965. Much like Gamebuku, one of Gamera’s trademark powers is the ability to tuck his limbs into his body, emit jets of fire from the holes in its shell, and spin like a ridiculous flying saucer. It also sometimes just shoots jets from its hind legs while putting its front legs forward like a weird Superman. Gamebuku doesn’t even do this in the game, but if you take a look at its official artwork, it totally does, securing the reference. To be honest, Gamera references are probably pretty common in media over there. They’re still making them. Just last year, Final Fantasy XIV introduced a turtle boss that also uses Gamera’s spinning technique.

…What if Superman did tuck his legs into his body and shoot flames from his hips to fly? Just imagine it. It looks insane, doesn’t it? Somebody needs to draw this and link it in the comments section… Shit, I’m digressing.

2. Matango

One type looks like fungi. The other looks like a fun guy.Shogakukan

One type looks like fungi. The other looks like a fun guy.

Here’s a more obscure one. Well, the reference is obscure; the monster is actually weirdly prominent in the series. Matango is a bipedal mushroom person that generally has the power to shoot deadly spores. It first appeared in Super Bomberman 3, then went on to reappear in Super Bomberman 5, Bomberman World, Bomberman Quest, Bomberman Story, and, arguably, Neo Bomberman (the enemy is unnamed and looks and behaves somewhat differently).

Even before Super Bomberman 3, though, Super Bomberman 2 featured a secret level called “Matango Jump”, which was full of mushrooms. But the Matango monster predates even that, hailing from an earlier Hudson Soft franchise. Here’s a bit of Bomberman history: Many enemy characters in the series actually came from the Hudson Soft games Neutopia and Neutopia II, mostly from the latter. Matango is one of these enemies, and even had the same basic tactics (walking around and shooting spores at the player).

…I’m digressing again. I apologize. Sometimes I get a little too invested in this stuff.

Anyway, as it turns out, the name “Matango” is a reference to yet another 60’s Japanese monster movie. Can you guess what it’s called? Just guess. It’s called Matango. It’s about a group of people who crash their boat on an island full of weird fungus. They feel weirdly compelled to eat the fungus, and, even though they’re aware that the urge is unnaturally strong and probably wrong, they still do it (this is some OCD shit…take right here). To make a long story short, the fungus turns them all into mushroom people. Oh, the humanity.

These are probably less-than-fun guys.

Though I admittedly know little about it, Matango seems to be another source of inspiration for various other media in Japan. For instance, it’s the name of a town of mushroom people in The Secret of Mana. It’s also in other stuff with which I’m unfamiliar, because I can read Wikipedia. Yeah. I suppose I could delve into this further, but there are more interesting things to discuss, like…
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3. Korobokkuru

Never trust strangers who give out free hugs.Shogakukan

Never trust strangers who give out free hugs.

This is yet another enemy from Super Bomberman 3, and another that originated in Neutopia II. It’s starting to seem like I just pulled everything in this article from one single Bomberman game. Well, I kinda-sorta did, but not entirely. It’s just that this particular title had a lot of Japanese culture packed into it.

Korobokkuru is a small, bipedal creature that is so obscured with fur, only its eyes and ears are visible on its face. It can walk up and down or curl up into a ball and jump around. Don’t expect me to explain that part. If it has anything to do with real-world lore, it’s far too obscure for me to know. My best guess is that it’s a name pun – “koro” could sound like “gorogoro”, an onomatopoeia for rolling, and/or “kuru” could be similarly linked to “guruguru”, meaning “spinning around”.

I can explain what the creature as a whole is supposed to be, though. According to the official guidebook, it’s a genjin, or “primitive human”. In case it isn’t clear, we’re not talking about pop culture anymore.

Korobokkuru, also known as koropokkuru, were said to be actual, real people, according to the Ainu of northern Japan. The name has been thought to mean either “people below the butterbur/petasites” or “people below the ground/pit-dwellers”, depending on whom you ask. There is a strong implication that they are diminutive humans, that they lived in leaf-covered pits, and that they are responsible for the ancient pottery and stonework that was scattered throughout the area inhabited by the Ainu, but beyond that, the legends differ from tale to tale. One story tells of korobokkuru who saved an Ainu village from starving in a lengthy and arduous winter by bringing them food every day. Other stories depict them as timid creatures who hate being seen, and who fled forever from the humans when tricked and trapped by them.

If this sounds familiar to you, and you’re not familiar with the legends of the korobokkuru, then congratulations, you grew up on planet Earth. It’s somewhat fascinating how, regardless of where our people have grown, we always seem to come up with the same sorts of stories. Seriously, look at this statue of a koropokkuru and tell me it doesn’t remind you of a dwarf:

“It doesn’t look like a dwarf” – people who take everything literally.

As with just about any myth, there is some basis in reality. Remember how I insinuated that these legends grew out of ancient pottery and stonework found long ago in northern Japan? Well, back in the 1880’s, some scientists sought to answer the question of who left them. An anthropologist named Tsuboi Shôgorô believed that they were indeed created by a more ancient people – the korobokkuru, in case you dozed off and happened to just look at this paragraph – because the Ainu he studied didn’t live in pits, and they didn’t craft anything similar to the ancient artifacts. Eleven years later, though, another anthropologist by the name of Torii Ryuzo checked out some Ainu on the Chishima Islands and found that they did live in pits and make the same sort of stuff attributed to the korobokkuru, which led him to believe that the korobokkuru were just an early offshoot of the Ainu themselves. As far as I’m aware, though, there’s currently no word on whether they used to be tiny, bushy-beared leaf people.

4. Chōchin-obake

 

Lightron is the green thing at the bottom. I don’t understand the appeal of depixelizing filters, but I’ll take what I can get.

Lightron (literally “raituron”) might be the most obscure Bomberman enemy on this list. From what I can remember, it only appears in the Bomberman MAX games for the Game Boy Color. Look at this, I don’t even have official artwork for it. Well… okay, that might just be because I don’t own the guidebook for the game, though from what few photos I’ve seen of the book, I don’t even know if it contains enemy artwork. You could just send me about $37 USD and I could buy it and find out. Search your soul. You know you want to.

Anyway, Lightron is a fairly ordinary enemy that just moves around and spits out floating flames. It appears in a world called Secret Star, which seems to be Edo-themed, and if you know much about Japanese decor, you should know that it’s a lantern. If you know much about Japanese yokai, you’d know what it really is – a chōchin-obake, or “lantern obake” (Wikipedia can screw right off for this one, because it’s not a ghost).

“Whassuuuuup?”

In Japanese myths, practically any supernatural being is a yōkai. Of the yōkai, there are many subclasses. One of these is the obake, which is basically a shapeshifting spirit – anything from a creature that switches between fox and human and an inanimate object that gains sentience and takes on human traits. The chōchin-obake is of the latter sort. It is basically a paper lantern with one or two eyes and a long, protruding tongue, and all it really does is spook people. The most violent story I encountered was one in which a samurai tried to attack a chōchin-obake and left a gash in the stone wall behind it with his sword. Some yōkai just exist to look at you weirdly, I guess.

Others, however…

5. Wanyūdō

I've heard of burning rubber, but this is wood, and that is a bit ridiculous.Shogakukan

I’ve heard of burning rubber, but this is wood, and that is a bit ridiculous.

I’ve saved what is quite possibly the weirdest entry for last. You’re welcome. Also, a spinning, burning wheel seems like a fitting bookend (buku-end?) for the Gamera entry.

Bōbo is an enemy that first appeared in Bomberman ’94 and then appeared in… Super Bomberman 3. Yeah, another one of those. Super Bomberman 3 took a lot of stuff from Neutopia II and Bomberman ’94. It’s not a bad thing, just very, very noteworthy.

Bōbo is seriously just a wooden wheel with torches at the edges and a face in the middle of it. Two faces, really – one on each side. It has the simplest AI in the game and it’s only worth a meager 200 points. Between its simplistic design and base-level movement pattern, it’s easily one of the most forgettable enemies in the franchise.

But that’s just because you don’t know about the wanyūdō.

Some yōkai are inanimate objects or animals that have gained strange powers. Others are ogres and demonic beings. But still others were once ordinary human beings that, for one reason or another, transformed into horrific abominations. Such is the wanyūdō.

Remember, kids, wanyoudon't behave...Toriyama Sekien

He seems like a pretty O.K. guy.

The term “wanyūdō” literally translates to “wheel monk” or “wheel priest”, but the human from which it is said to have been created is often stated to be a daimyo. According to legend, the tyrannical, abusive daimyo was killed on an ox cart and his spirit manifested into the wanyudo to seek revenge. Now he rolls through the streets at night, murdering the fuck out of people by tearing them limb from limb or just casually stealing the souls of anybody who looks at him the wrong way. Some sources claim that he ferries the dead or just guards Hell (the one I just linked even erroneously refers to him as a god), but those seem less prominent. In one particular story, a woman stared at him for long enough until she noticed that he had baby arms and legs attached to him… and then he revealed that they came from and, well, you can pretty much guess how this one ends.

On that deeply dark note, this concludes part one of our cultural lesson. Stay tuned, and maybe I’ll have another for you. Bomberman is chock full of this stuff.

h/t: Bomberman-specific information and images come from Super Bomberman 3 Hudson Official Guidebook (Shogakukan, 1995) and Bomberman Quest Official Guidebook (Shogakukan, 1998). I’d like to personally thank Ragey for all his hard work over the years, collecting and scanning these books. Please, Ragey, if I can pay you back, let me know what I can do for you… *shoulder strap falls down suggestively*.

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