Shapeshifting. Illusions. Deception. If these are the elements you crave in a narrative, then Zoroark’s origin story is right up your alley! Like every fox Pokémon to enter the series, Zoroark and Zorua draw inspiration from the ever-popular kitsune legends running rampant throughout Japanese folklore.
A kitsune is a magical fox. Zoroark also spurs the imagination of western audiences with werewolf undertones. These accents help drive home the dark type Pokémon concept.
When Game Freak decided to do a complete Pokémon reboot in generation 5, they ditched the elegant Ninetales design. They created a fiendish replica that highlights a more sinister side of the saga. Honestly, the more I reflect on gen 5 Pokémon, the more fond I grow of its charm. The Pokémon designs were vaguely familiar yet completely fresh!
I covered Ninetales in part one. So, let’s fire up part two of this kitsune series. Let’s see how Zoroark ties in with traditional fox shapeshifting!
Black: Bonds between these Pokémon are very strong. It protects the safety of its pack by tricking its opponents.
White: Each has the ability to fool a large group of people simultaneously. They protect their lair with illusory scenery.
B2/W2: Stories say those who tried to catch Zoroark were trapped in an illusion and punished.
Ultra Sun: It doesn’t just transform itself—it also has the power to make hundreds of people see its illusions.
Ultra Moon: If it thinks humans are going to discover its den, Zoroark shows them visions that make them wander around in the woods.
Sword: This Pokémon cares deeply about others of its kind, and it will conjure terrifying illusions to keep its den and pack safe.
Shield: Seeking to ease the burden of solitude, lonely Trainers tell Zoroark to show illusions to them.
Setting aside the fact that people in Galar would rather wander through mirages than make new friends, we spot a recurring theme: Zoroark can generate some fairly elaborate illusions. There’s another major takeaway: Zoroark appears to travel in packlike formations, valuing its home turf.
For every zenko romping around with a benevolent and benign nature, there’s a yako priding itself in the art of trickery and mayhem. Themes of duality always make for solid storytelling. The chronicles of kitsune are no exception.
Yako can also be referred to as nogitsune, especially in the case of Zoroark’s yōkai origins: the Kukan, or void kitsune.
The simplest way to explain Zoroark’s Kukan origins is by listing the classes of kitsune. There are 13 altogether:
Kukan (Void or Dark)
Umi (Ocean, Sea)
Mori (Forest, Woods)
Ongaku (Music, Sound)
Each type of kitsune displays an aptitude for their respective element, granting them effortless access to related skills or abilities. Kukan foxes feed off of pain, strife, chaos, vengeance, and other hostile forces of nature for strength.
Ku happens to fall under the five primary Godai elements: which I cover more thoroughly in an article that aligns BotW character design with the traditional Godai element structure.
The abundance of human suffering makes Kukan-aspect foxes quite formidable! If an infinite power source isn’t enough to frighten you, the Kukan are notorious for draining life at an alarming rate, vanishing into shadows, and absorbing light into their bodies.
These traits forge Zoroark into an ideal dark-type Pokémon.
Having said that, the kitsune species is famed for honor. Distinctly evil foxes, like the Kukan, are no exception. Kitsune repay debts, value old friendships, and never break a promise. Even the most dreadful kitsune may end up spending a lifetime of servitude to a human they once attempted to deceive.
I advise you to take your rewards as knowledge or labor. Kitsune gifts are inclined to be rotten leaves in disguise.
The river of kitsune tales flows brisk and unrelenting throughout the ages. Modern day folklorists believe it’s because foxes and humans lived within close proximity during early centuries. After all, it’s easy to talk about the shifty, evasive creatures living within earshot!
But there’s an important theme that carries through the test of time. Japanese folklore has an unwritten rule: Attempting to trick a human is a crime worthy of murder.
Deception is often synonymous with foul intent, and we repeatedly detest the thought of being taken as fools.
As a result, many protagonists in stories revolving around transfigured kitsune slay their perceived foes without hesitation. They fear no repercussions because society deems the hostile act with normalcy. Villagers believed that killing a Nogitsune came with an enormous risk of being bewitched by another of its kin, or even by the spirit of the fox itself.
They did it anyway. Their honor was at stake.
Although, most kitsune who shapeshift intend to become fox wives. Truthfully, most of these foxes live loyal and faithful lives with their husbands. Sometimes they take on the form of a foul seductress, but it’s generally to reform corrupt Buddhist monks or to give proud warriors and greedy merchants a lesson in humility.
Zoroark doesn’t transform into a lass, aroma lady, or actress. Cut Game Freak some slack. That wouldn’t translate to a very potent battle ability. We’ll just have to store the trainer class transformations in our collective imaginations. Surely, Zoroark could transform into a duchess if it held any merit in battle!
Here’s a tale from roughly 545 AD:
Ono of Mino wasted the seasons, yearning for his perfect female companion. He finally met her on a vast moor one evening – and married her instantly. With the birth of their first son, Ono’s dog delivered a pup. As the pup grew, it became more abrasive to the lady of the moors. She pleaded, “Ono, you must kill it,” but he loved it dearly and refused. Finally, one day the dog attacked the woman so indignantly that she couldn’t bear another second. She returned to her vulpine shape, hopped over a fence, and fled the scene.
“You may be a fox,” Ono called after her, “but you are the mother of my son. I will always love you. Come back when you please. You’re always welcome.”
So every evening, she returned to Ono’s arms, leaving in the earliest hours of sunrise – in her form of a fox.
This folk legend is pretty tame. Scholars often cite it for the origin of the term kitsune. Kitsu-ne could translate to “come and sleep,” and ki-tsune can translate to “always comes.” We can interpret the devout fox wife returning to her husband every evening as wordplay.
Still, how a man reacts to a foxy yōkai woman depends largely on the era and prefecture the legend takes its first breath. The newer the story, the more likely storytellers embellished it with methodical trickery and ill-intent.
Narrators habitually revere kitsune. Trifling with this yōkai means confronting a tantalizing facade. Zoroark easily slides into this category.
Humans in more modernized versions can be outright abusive without much provocation.
Here’s one from the late Heian Period (794-1185)
Our story begins with an average man, deep in the Tamagawa prefecture. He heard some rumors of a gorgeous woman standing beside the Koya River in the evenings.
Sure enough, when he reached the rumored location on horseback, he witnessed the alluring woman everyone had whispered about. She seemed timid but worked up the courage to ask him for a ride to Kyoto. He fumbled for the right words. Her attractive appearance somewhat dumbfounded him. Eventually, the man agreed.
Although, before arriving at the desired destination, the woman leaped off the horse and dissolved into the night.
This fiasco happened multiple times. Whenever the man pursued her, she transformed into a fox and briskly darted away. The elusive creature began to frustrate the man. He complained to some imperial guards.
One guard stepped forward, promising to catch and tame the wild beast. The other guards began to mock him, fueling his heart with unshakable motivation.
On his first night, the guard found the mysterious woman. She asked for a ride to Kyoto. He forcibly tied her to the saddle of his horse.
The path ahead was bustling with loud voices and bright torches. The guard didn’t want interference with his blatant kidnapping attempt, so he decided to take a less-traveled road.
Upon reaching the guard’s post, his buddies whipped out their bows, surrounded the woman, and asked him to release her. They said if she attempted to escape, they could shoot the evil spirit within her.
She morphed into a fox and made a rapid escape.
The light from nearby torches began to flicker until the men fell into complete darkness. Except, once the guard called out to his friends, he realized he was alone. Even his horse was absent. He stood dazed and confused, lost and abandoned.
The entire evening was an elaborate artifice molded from the hands of the kitsune.
The guard spent three days isolated in his own home, afraid to face the others. When he returned to work, the other guards teased him relentlessly.
Now the guard’s pride was on the line. His reputation fell into shambles. He denied ever attempting to catch the kitsune and promised her delivery again.
He set out for the mystical fox woman with more tenacity than before.
The Koya River Kitsune appeared again, although she took a different form on this dreary night. She made the same request as before, asking for a ride to Kyoto. That was all the confirmation he needed.
Despite her incessant kicking and screaming, the guard tied her up to his horse, placid and unphased.
The intricate ruse of lights and voices remained absent this time.
The guard arrived at his post, and his friends stood bewildered. He successfully caught the kitsune. After some discussion, they agreed to torture her until she showed her true form.
As expected, the woman turned out to be a fox in disguise. Their rage grew more prominent, and they proceeded to scorch the fox and pierce it with their arrows. They released her, fatally wounded, shouting that she should never attempt to trick humans again.
On the final night, the man discovered the lonely fox woman standing beside the river again. When he asked her if she would like a ride, she scampered off into some nearby bushes – begging to be left alone.
The kitsune had learned its lesson.
Pretty brutal, right?
I’m going to side with Linfamy here. The warrior caste system rose to the surface in the late Heian period. Commoners were harassed, extorted, sometimes outright murdered.
This yōkai tale flips conventional wisdom, like classic Buddhist teachings stressing the sacred nature of life. Listeners were liable to feel uncomfortable with this conclusion. It’s an attempt to highlight the greed of the imperial class.
Note: Shapeshifting isn’t exclusive to yako (field foxes.) A kitsune resembling Ninetales is liable to shapeshift, too. Of course, Pokémon abilities weren’t an in-game feature until after her inclusion. It felt more natural to cover transformation on Zoroark since it’s his primary gimmick.
Most accounts of kitsune claim that one can only reshape after a hundred years of age. Since we’re talking about folklore, there isn’t a clear-cut constant value. Sometimes a storyteller claims all foxes can shapeshift. In old Chinese texts, a kitsune gains a limited shapeshifting ability within 50 years and unlocks the full changeling arsenal at 100.
While most kitsune transformations tend to gravitate toward beautiful Japanese women, they can mutate into anyone. Kitsune can replicate the form of prominent figures, like the Emperor’s wife or a village celebrity. They can also fulfill the role of a wise elder.
But let’s be honest with ourselves. We’re more likely to fall into a trap when a gorgeous woman lures us into one.
Like many yōkai, kitsune capabilities come with limitations. It’s not unlike the concept of every Marvel superhero having some obscure weakness or crutch.
For example, a kitsune must perform a ritual before shapeshifting into human form.
Typically, the kitsune rests a leaf or reed on its head. In cases of nogitsune like the Kukan, the fox often needs to rest a human skull on its head. Some accounts take it a step further, claiming a kitsune must cover itself in leaves while facing the North Star.
Kitsune are terrified of dogs. Dogs are perceptive and usually detect unauthentic humans. They’ll throw a wild barking fit that sends a tricky fox packing! Zoroark has both prominent lycanthrope and vulpine features, so be considerate – compliment his fox attributes!
A shapeshifted kitsune exhibits signs of social awkwardness. While they may be uncommonly articulate or charming, we can’t expect a fox to memorize the finer details of human behavior.
A kitsune might do something puzzling, like addressing a stranger with the wrong honorific. The type of stuff you’d expect a foreigner to do.
“Uhh… did that strange woman just say daimyo-Kun?”
Here’s a better example: Much like the old days of British aristocracy, Zen Buddhists have a set of strict, unspoken table manners. Where a high-class Brit might require a specially-crafted spoon for soup, a Buddhist needs to exercise mindfulness while eating. A kitsune could forget to set their chopsticks down after taking a bite or neglect to notice everyone at the table facing their chopsticks to the right.
As a result, a popular superstition arose: A woman traveling alone after dusk could be a fox in disguise.
But wait! There’s more!
A transformed yako leaves behind subtle visual hints of their inhuman nature. Your average field fox struggles with showing a proper reflection. There’s a recurring theme in reports, stating that a yako yields no reflection, or a mirror might reveal its original form.
Shadows are equally challenging to master. A human without a shadow could be a mischievous fox plotting an elaborate and cunning prank.
A yako also struggles to keep its tail from peeping out after:
Those are just common examples. A yako can crack under a plethora of strenuous situations. Still, I get the feeling the tail errata was intentionally left loose to give men an excuse to look at a cute girl’s butt.
Other hints that your date might be a fox are:
This complicated the Japanese dating scene. A fox-faced woman essentially lined up with their beauty standards – aside from the obvious whiskers and patches of fur.
Actually, that’s an understatement.
A fox-faced woman was called ‘kitsune-gao.’ It’s a compliment for her breathtaking beauty, mysterious aura, and quick wit. I think, deep down, men yearned to fall into the trap of a sly kitsune.
Aside from a handful of quirks, a kitsune can mimic a human perfectly without a reference image. Personally, I find that pretty dang impressive.
That is, until an Incineroar blindly bops your Ditto on the head with ‘fake out’ and reveals a tricky little Zoroark in its stead! Honestly, you deserved it. That’s way too much transmogrification for one Pokémon party.
Kitsune can do more than alter their own bodies. No yōkai in Japan boasts stronger illusory powers than a magical fox.
If a kitsune offers you a meal, it’s probably some dried-up leaves, trash, or worse of all, fox droppings! Kitsune especially love to conjure items from leaves. You can expect leaves to take the form of valuables like gold or delicious meals.
All this talk of leaf transfiguration and complex imagery lead me to my favorite kitsune tale of all.
Tokutaro of Shinshu spent an evening out drinking with some friends. As stereotypical drunkards, their conversation ebbed and weaved until it took on the voluptuous shape of tantalizing women.
But the most alluring of women tend to reside in the most treacherous stories. One man grew solemn – His voice filled with a certain sternness that repeatedly pairs with the raunch odor of sake lingering between words.
He spoke of a kitsune.
All the men at the table laughed and rejoiced, chiming in with more kitsune anecdotes – following up with the idea of how preposterous it must be to outsmart a crafty old fox.
Tokutaro fancied himself uncommonly clever, too. He was also uncommonly stubborn. He made a bet with the men at the table. He wagered that he could catch the nearby kitsune without any difficulty whatsoever.
The men cheered and egged him on.
“If you’re to lose, you’ll buy us all drinks! But if you win, we’ll all pitch in to buy you a lifetime of sake and a grand meal!”
Tokutaro accepted the challenge without a shred of reluctance.
Tokutaro set out to find the elusive kitsune. He immediately saw a fox dart into a nearby bamboo bush and vanish. Sure enough, a few moments later, an appealing young woman materialized from the same shrub. She looked similar to the woman from the stories. Thin eyebrows. Long dark hair, both lustrous and straight. High cheekbones.
Tokutaro knew what this slick old fox was doing. Now he just needed evidence.
He offered to walk the woman home, but his eyes remained vigilant. He remained alert, looking for a tail to pop out – or any of the usual signs.
The evening grew late, but he hadn’t seen any signs of proof that he was dealing with a fox! Finally, at the stroke of midnight, Takutaro and his alleged shapeshifted foxy lady arrived at her parents’ house.
Her parents were warm and receptive. They thanked Takutaro for his aid. They told the woman they were worried sick about her – Nothing out of the ordinary. Takutaro was eager and persistent. He pulled the parents aside.
“This woman is not your daughter. I’ve watched her all night. She is a well-disguised kitsune. Please, believe me. I can prove it to you!”
The parents felt a little skeptical, but they could see the pure intentions burning from within his eyes. They could sense his resolve. They agreed to let him prove his point and lead him into their home.
Tokutaro beat the woman to a bloody pulp. She did not revert. He set her skin ablaze; Still, no signs of a fox. He finally torched her to a crisp, but alas, the woman did not change.
After witnessing the murder of their beloved child, the parents tied Takutaro up and sent a messenger to the village to notify local authorities. But before the messenger left, a Buddhist monk detected the scene.
The monk began taking measures to evaluate the situation, playing peacemaker, as monks routinely do. When speaking with Tautaro, the monk agreed that he acted earnestly. His only aim was to protect the family. It seemed like an honest mistake.
The monk spoke with the newly-mourning parents. He proposed to take Tokutaro under his wing and make a better man out of him. They offered their consent.
Tokutaro released a sigh of relief.
The monk promised that if Tokutaro shaved his head and pledged his loyalty as a disciple, he could carry on living the rest of his days in the world of spiritualism.
It sounded leagues better than a life behind bars!
Tokutaro eagerly shaved his head. As he began to bow his head to his new master, laughter filled the air. The scene faded to darkness, and Tokutaro found himself stranded in an empty field with rotting leaf piles scattered around him. His hands were clasping leaves.
His head was still 100% bald, though.
Tokutaro returned to his friends. He took a seat at the table humbled, embarrassed, and utterly devastated. Although, according to legend, he changed for the better. It wasn’t long before Tokutaro became a real monk. He devoted his life to helping others overcome their firm attachments to their ego.
Before dissipating into internet pixie dust, I want to share one more yōkai tale. Why? Because foxes in the real world are solitary creatures and Zoroark isn’t. Could this be attributed to his werewolf characteristics?
While yako aren’t forming complex councils or mandatory board meetings like their zenko brethren, they’re a social yōkai.
Brace yourself for another fox wife myth:
Yoshifuji was a married man who liked to indulge himself in the affairs of other women while his wife was away. One day, he met an extraordinarily exquisite – and flighty – woman. When he attempted to flirt with her, she constantly fled.
Eventually, he was able to talk her into escorting her home.
To Yoshifuji’s surprise, the skittish woman lived in a large, lavish mansion filled with servants and gilded furniture. The woman agreed to let Yoshifuji stay the night.
The two young lovers hit it off.
Yoshifuji decided to stay another evening. Then another. Until eventually, he had completely fallen under a spell. He’d forgotten he had a family beforehand.
Yoshifuji stayed inside of the illustrious mansion for thirteen years. He had a son, infinitely dearer to him than the son of his other family. Each day he woke up feeling rejuvenated. Each day was utter bliss.
Meanwhile, Yoshifuji’s estranged family began to worry about him in the outside world. Thirteen full days had passed, and nobody in town had caught a glimpse of him. His family prayed to the kami of mercy and compassion – Kannon.
Sure enough, a strange man entered the main hall of the mansion. All of the servants of the household instantly grew frantic. They exited the room, surrendered Yoshifuji, and hid within closets and floorboards without explanation.
Yoshifuji was released from the enchantment, kneeling on all fours. It took a few days for his mind to return to him, but eventually, he could recognize his actual wife and son again.
Still, Yoshifuji was baffled by the idea that his perception of time was so skewed. He returned to the mansion with wonder-filled eyes. Sure enough, in its stead was a beaten old shack. When he entered the dilapidated structure, a dozen foxes scurried off into the distance.
There you have it. Even a handful of lowly yako banded together to create this labyrinth of an illusion. There are plenty of stories like it, too! Although, I think that covers just about everything you need to know about kitsune and how it impacted the design of Zoroark.
Pretty wild stuff, right? Too bad Zoroark can’t transform himself into shiny Zoroark. I guess that would just be too easy for all our hardcore, hard-working Pokémon breeders out there.
I’ve got a whole series on this sort of thing. Feel free to check it out: