When it comes to Japanese folklore, one of the more familiar characters is the kitsune (狐), the fox demon. Kitsune are capable of possessing humans, but they are most well-known for being shapeshifters. Foxes are known to be tricksters, fooling humans, stealing food, all kinds of petty crime.
One aspect they are most well-known for is taking the shape of a human woman and seducing a man into being his wife.
The basics of a common kitsune story is, a man travels from home in order to find himself a wife (of course, referring to medieval times when this practice was common and not at all creepy) and on the way he sees a beautiful woman. The man falls in love and marries her and they have children. But then, the man gets a dog. One day, the dog attacks the wife and in fright, she reveals herself to be a kitsune in disguise.
There are variations when it comes to how the wife ends up revealing herself, most of the time its an involuntary reaction to fear or pain. There are versions where the man claims to still love her even after knowing what she was and they continue to live as man and wife. Minus the dog.
Of course, there are also versions where the wife flees after revealing her true nature. Sometimes, the man wakes as if from a dream, dirty, filthy and in an abandoned hut and has to go home in disgrace. But even when this happens, the wife’s departure never seems all that voluntary, and there’s a sense of romance in the story.
There is apparently, a reason why most of the kitsune stories involves the fox turning to a woman. It’s not a sexist thing, but supposedly, fox demons, male or female, all turn to women.
The theory behind it stems from the influence of Chinese folklores, specifically the philosophy of yin and yang. Foxes are yin creatures, therefore in order to maintain the power that gives them their abilities, they need the balance of yang qi, which they take from human males.
There’s another story about a man who falls in love with a geisha and visits her every day. But then his brother notices how the man’s pallor gets more sickly as the day pass. The man admits that the woman he sees is a fox and takes his energy every night. But he professes to love her and is unwilling to leave her. In the end, he dies.
To me, the story has logic to it. Kitsune needs yang qi, takes it, kills a man to do it. It’s cut and dry.
The devoted wife story however, that has gaps. Such as, why did the fox stay? Why this man and not another, was it on purpose or purely coincidence? There are a few stories that circle around an animal spirit wanting to repay a kindness and they take human form to do it – was there a missing prologue to the story?
It’s the mystery of the story that is fascinating, and based on the variations of the story, I guess people then were also trying to figure out what the motive of the kitsune was. Was it love or a deception?
Which ending would you prefer?