Eto is the “close second” of my favorite characters. This is largely because I’m a writer-artist who happens to have a thing for monsters. Of course, I found her hybrid nature and massive, demonic mode attractive. Specifically, her monstrous kakuja takes the form of a one-eyed, goat-headed monster, thereby equating her with Satan.
Satan is boring compared to the harem of female monsters embedded in Nutcracker/Mayu. (Nobody tries to make a Lilith parallel with Eto, either; there’s fodder for it, but that’s for another article.) Maybe I’m just bored of any Satan equivalents/parallels/”totally not Satan” demon bosses, but there’s a lot more to Nutcracker than just one female monster.
I mentioned youkai, the Japanese word for “phantom” and the basis for a million Pokemon, last entry. The plethora of female youkai probably merit their own entries/essays each. For now, we’re going to focus on the female spirits that somehow made it into one character without battling for space.
There are at least three different youkai embedded in Mayu’s design. One, the ohaguro-bettari, was pegged by the Wikia since day 1. These impish spirits usually take the form of a woman in a kimono, who, for whatever reason, has her head turned away. When she eventually turns around, victims are startled by her otherwise blank face and black-toothed smile. Some say she’s the ghost of a woman who never got married, or a shapeshifting youkai (fox, tanuki, badger, etc.) playing a prank. Nobody has ever been harmed by an ohaguro-bettari (or her relative, the noppera-bo – think “Japanese Slenderman”). Since the black teeth is one of the first traits we see with Mayu, and the ohaguro-bettari is a harmless youkai, this may be a reference to how Nuts was perceived as non-threatening at first. The youkai that went into this character get worse as we go down the list.
But what’s the deal with the black teeth, anyways? Ohaguro, the word for black tooth lacquer, was a way for a woman to show her loyalty and status. It was time-consuming to put the lacquer on; thus, only married women and women who had a lot of leisure time could afford to do it. Regular teeth were also thought of as looking like maggots or otherwise reminiscent of death, so the practice was seen as beautiful for that reason as well. The fashion has since died out in Japan. Vietnam and other parts of Asia still do it.
That’s not the youkai that hit me immediately upon seeing Mayu in full, though…
“OHMYGODS CARVED! Tokyo Ghoul did the lady from Carved!”
Carved is a movie centered around the urban legend of “kuchisake-onna.” The kuchisake-onna, literally “slit-mouthed woman,” is another female youkai that conceals her mouth. This is usually done using a surgical or face mask (the latter a common sight in Japan when someone’s sick). Mayu has one such mask over her black teeth in one of her early appearances. Cool syncretization.
Legend has it that, in the Edo Period (1603-1868), a samurai caught his pretty, vain wife cheating on him. As punishment, he slit her mouth from ear-to-ear, saying, “who will think you are beautiful now?!” Since then, her ghost has wandered the East, asking people if they think she is pretty, then cutting their mouths exactly like hers if they answer incorrectly.
By the way, both “yes” and “no” are incorrect answers that result in death or mutilation. In the event that you encounter a kuchisake-onna, the best answers are to say she looks average, flip questions towards her, or throw candy at her as a distraction. There’s your cheat sheet – use it well.
Despite a supposed origin in the time of samurai, kuchisake-onna didn’t really hit the public eye until the 1970’s. In 1979, a kuchisake-onna scare in Nagasaki Prefecture was so big that children weren’t allowed to walk home alone. Another woman with scissors and a red mask who chased children appeared in South Korea in 2004. Did I mention this woman usually goes after kids? She does.
Oh, and she may have been inspired by a real woman who was killed in a car crash with her mouth cut ear-to-ear. Sleep well.
Kuchisake-onna is the original “see these scars? Wanna know how I got ’em?” character. Even though we don’t see Mayu using scissors, one of her female victims in Ch.23 dies by getting her face bitten off, and the obsession with beauty is telling. In Carved, the kuchisake-onna makes a play on words between “am I beautiful?” and “cut off my head” during her “death” scene; the timing is similar to Mayu’s beauty obsession only coming to the fore as she’s dying. Just like with ohaguro-bettari, there was definitely some inspiration drawn from the slit-mouthed woman legend – even if it’s not 100%.
There is a youkai that definitely fueled Mayu’s character more than either of those two, though:
For those of you not as deep into Tokyo Ghoul, know that a lot of characters have “spirit animals” – that is, many of them use an animal as their “mask,” with usually a reference in the name and/or character design. (This aspect is worth a collage.) Although I thought the image of a testicle-eating squirrel was one of the cutest ideas for the series ever, I wound up kicking myself for thinking that a reference to a Japanese legend about a snail was just a nod.
Crash course: almost anything can become a youkai. Usually, the age at which something (animal, vegetable, or mineral) becomes a youkai is 100 years old, with a HUGE power boost at around 1,000 years old. Got it? Good.
Turban snails are among the things capable of becoming youkai. If a turban snail reaches 30 years old, it can become a shape-shifting youkai. (There’s a sort of morbid zig-zag in that a drowning woman can become a turban snail, then become a snail youkai that can turn into a human woman.) These youkai, called sazae-oni, usually prefer to take the form of beautiful ladies.
The most famous legend about the sazae-oni centers around one who pretended to be a drowning woman. Some pirates came and picked her up, unaware of her true nature, and had their way with her. During the night, she bit off their testicles one by one. When they demanded their balls, she wouldn’t give them back until they gave her all of their treasure. Thus, they traded gold for their golden balls. Sounds like something from last entry, yes?
Still not convinced? I didn’t notice this until I went on a Google run, but Mayu’s tail looks almost exactly like the shell of a brown turban snail:
The pieces of tail she cuts off also look like spiraling shells:
Her other kagune is a koukaku– literally “red shell.” This one speaks for itself, even if her claws don’t look anything like a snail shell in particular.
By the way, that kiss she gave Mutsuki was slimy:
Finally, she’s obsessed with money and balls- hello, kintama joke. We looked at you last entry, too! (By the way, this won’t come up next section.)
As a final note, sazae-oni usually aren’t drawn pretty. Mayu is one of the more aesthetically-pleasing representations of this particular monster. Toukiden‘s “Viper Queen,” a sort of blend of snail and snake, not only looks decent, but has the ability to put people to sleep. This may not seem like much, and I don’t think it’s canon to the original (don’t quote me on this), but it’s an uncommon ability. It also conveniently leads us directly to a certain Western she-devil…but more on that next entry.