Once upon a time, there was a mischievous fox who lived near a remote hamlet. Lurking in the woods by day, descending to the village at night, the beast took the greatest pleasure tormenting farmers and woodsmen.
He kept stealing food and hiding tools… but also loved to terrify small children with whispers in the dark. More often than not, frightened cries would rose. And the fox’s laugh would ring in the air:
– Oh come on, don’t take it bad kid! That was just a joke!
Villagers had tried many things to catch him. They had dug deep pits, set nasty snares, raised high fences. But alas, the clever animal kept evading them.
In the end, they had all but resigned to simply live along with this pestering creature, shrugging his not-so-funny tricks off.
One day, a wandering samurai came passing. It was a tough man, all broad shoulders and strong arms. When he overheard farmers complaining about the fox’s pranks, he stood tall, flexed proudly, and said with a booming voice:
– Fear not good people! I’ll get you rid of that sly beast!
And on that note, before the villagers could stop him, he headed towards the forest.
The samurai was not exactly a subtle man. He strolled stomping over mossy stumps, rustling thick ferns. Of course, with all this noise, the fox didn’t show up. And soon his patience ran thin:
– I know you’re here! Show yourself coward!
For hours, the warrior walked the woods, more and more somber as day flew by. Finally, as he had halted near a bubbling creek to refresh himself, a tiny voice startled him.
A small girl was shyly standing near the water, nervously playing with her hands:
– Mr samurai… I- have lost my way… C-could you help me back to the village, please?
Big tears were building up in her eyes.
The man stood up and smiled:
– Of course! I have lost my day anyway, that fox will not show up today…
And he extended his calloused hand.
Yet, when the girl took it, he grabbed the back of her kimono in a tight grip:
– Got you, beast!
The girl’s eyes grew wide for a moment. Then, she slowly grinned, and winked impishly:
– So you think!
With a puff, she vanished into thin air. In the samurai’s hand only remained a ragged kimono which had seen better days.
Seething, the warrior took off running. Only to stumble upon a soft looking old man:
– My my, where are you going in such a hurry?
The samurai roared:
– You won’t trick me twice!
He unsheathed his sword and, with a swift strike, pierced the old man’s heart.
But, no blood appeared. The fox in disguise only sighted forcefully, rolled his eyes and teased:
– You’re not very bright, ain’t you?
And with a puff and a mocking laugh, the animal turned into an old woman. The samurai struck her down without mercy. A stern monk took her place, then a plump merchant, then a beautiful courtesan, then a thin fisherman.
The warrior kept striking relentlessly, again and again. Until finally, exhausted by all those magic tricks, fox showed it’s true form, his russet fur shining brightly in the late afternoon sun.
Out of breath, ears down, he pleaded:
– All right, all right, I surrender! I swear I won’t harass the villagers again!
Panting, the samurai grunted:
– That just another ploy of yours!
And he lunged at the fox. Beast and man rolled on the ground, in an indistinct ball of arms and paws and fur and hair.
The fox had nearly managed to escape when the samurai quickly caught him by the tail. With a yelp, the animal tried to vanish in a puff once more, without success: his magic had not returned yet.
As the fox resisted with all his might, claws gripping the forest floor, the samurai pulled harder and harder. And suddenly, the fox’s tail went off with a loud popping sound.
Without further ado, the animal disappeared into the woods, running for his life.
The samurai, who had fallen down with the momentum, barked out a laugh as he looked at the bushy tail he was still holding tight:
– That will teach you well!
With a bright smile on has face, he returned to the village. Proud with himself, he bragged:
– See that tail? That fox will never torment you again!
Yet, instead of cheers, all the farmers whispered, throwing him quizzical looks. Finally a braver one stuttered:
– Hum, Mr Samurai? What tail are you talking about?
And sure enough, when the fierce warrior counter checked, he found his hand was only holding a big juicy radish.
In the air, the fox’s laugh rang: the master trickster had struck again.
I have covered kitsune (magical foxes) in several other tales. This one depicts a “wild fox” (yako or nogitsune) which are foxes not sworn to the benevolent kami Inari. Those creatures are playfully mischievous, but also sometimes downright malicious and dangerous.
The tails of kitsune are probably their most famous feature. Folkore says foxes grew tails as they aged, the more tails the more potent the kitsune is, the kyubi (nine tailed fox) being the most powerful of all. In some traditions, kitsune draw their magic from their tail, which is why cutting it is thought to prevent them from using their powers. It is similar to the nekomata/bakeneko motifs and explains why some superstitious would cut their cat tails.
Today’s story shows quite well a moral which is kinda unsettling for Westerners. In the end, the “bad” fox is still on the loose and it’s implied that no one will truly be able to do something against it. It is a motif often found in Asian stories: humans are not the center of the world but merely part of it. And there are some things they will never be able to change!