“The Hunt for Tsuchinoko: Exploring the Evolution of a Cryptid in Japan”

A new documentary film in Japan explores how the belief in tsuchinoko has evolved over the years. Tsuchinoko, a creature that resembles a fat snake, has never been proven to be real. However, it has taken on various beliefs, from folklore to a trophy-hunt animal, and finally to a fictional regional attraction. The 71-minute film, titled “The Hunt for Tsuchinoko (Little Mallet),” was produced by Tomoki Imai and took nine years to complete. It features interviews with eyewitnesses, folklore specialists, snake experts, and local politicians. It explores how changing beliefs in the cryptid reflect Japan’s evolution over the mid-20th century until now.

For decades, there had been stories of the Tsuchinoko, a creature with a triangular head, short and stubby tail, that can jump and move forward and backward instead of slithering like snakes. The unproven existence of the Tsuchinoko has not stopped numerous local governments in Japan from organizing hunts, which began in the 1980s. Although the prize money has fizzled, the tsuchinoko remains a popular symbol for promoting local areas in a bid to support their economies.

Tomoki Imai, who grew up in Gifu Prefecture’s Higashishirakawa, a village with the most recorded tsuchinoko sightings, directed the film. Initially, Imai’s childhood belief in the creatures had given way, followed by embarrassment that his hometown is famous for them. But he returned to his roots to discover the evolution of the legend and its impact on Japan’s changing landscape.

Imai’s film interviews people in rural communities, folklore specialists, local politicians, reptile and snake experts, and other experts. The interviews were depicted as long conversations where stories would eventually emerge naturally. The film explores how automation, economic necessity, and a falling birth rate have propelled more people to live away from their small communities, with Japan’s nature encroaching in their place.

The documentary did not entirely focus on believers as it also includes skeptics, such as snake experts, who gave their views on what animals people may have mistaken for tsuchinoko sightings. The candidates include venomous native species in the mamushi viper and the yamakagashi tiger keelback. However, the documentary does not identify any definitive tsuchinoko-moonlighter.

Imai discovered that belief in tsuchinoko is a serious business for some rural folk who fear the tsuchinoko as messengers of the gods. However, Imai said he avoided the temptation to question his subjects’ credulity. Interviewees spoke with conviction about their recollections of strange sightings they believed were the tsuchinoko, some for the first time ever.

The screening of “The Hunt for Tsuchinoko (Little Mallet)” began on May 18 at theater Pole Pole Higashinakano and will run for at least two weeks. It will tour the country, with showings in Osaka and Nagoya in the pipeline. There is also a version with English subtitles. The film aims to inspire people to reflect on Japan’s changing beliefs in the cryptid, which has taken on various beliefs, from folklore tales to trophy-hunt animals. The film also suggests that beliefs have a significant influence on society’s culture, traditions, and the promotion of local areas


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