Turtles in Folklore – The Kappa
In Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III when Prince Kenshin was transported to New York City, he took one look at the turtles and called them “kappa”. He immediately fainted, distressed to be in the presence of what he believed to be demons unlike any seen in his homeland for hundreds of years. But what exactly are kappa, and why did the prince believe the turtles to be such a thing?
Kappa areyokai (supernatural creatures) found in Japanese mythology. They are also a classification of cryptid, or creature believed to exist, but unproven by science. Kappa are small, humanoid creatures about the size of a child. They have rough, scaly skin that is usually a green, brown, or yellowish color, allowing better camouflage in their natural habitat – lakes, ponds, and rivers. Kappa have webbed digits on their appendages, and are sometimes depicted with shells. They have beaked faces and a plate on the top of their heads that must always stay wet. It is said in legend that if a kappa leaves the water, the plate must be full of water, because if it dries out, the creature will lose all its power or die. When viewed by someone unfamiliar with their legend, the kappa may look like giant frogs, or even turtles.
Kappa have a long and storied past when it comes to their behavior. They are generally considered to be tricksters, but their tricks can get pretty nasty. Some are harmless, like making objects disappear, or passing gas loudly. But some can be deadly, with kappa being blamed for drownings and kidnapping children. It is said that they will pull people who get too close to the water’s edge into the depths, and wrestle them down until they drown. The reason behind this is a matter of opinion, but many believe it’s to drain the life energy from that person’s soul after they pass.
However, there is hope for the mere mortal if he or she came face-to-face with a kappa. They certainly have their quirks and weaknesses, after all. First, kappa are very polite. It’s claimed that if you find yourself confronted by one, all you have to do is bow, and it’ll do the same. That will cause the water in the plate to spill, leaving the kappa incapacitated until it can be refilled. If someone were to do that, the creature would have to be his or her servant forever. Another way to beat the kappa is to take its arms. The kappa’s arms can be detached with little effort, and then the creature will share knowledge and secrets just to get them back. Or, if games are more your style, kappa like to show their skills, so winning a challenge will allow you safety from the creature.
Given the history of such a water creature in Japan, it’s only reasonable that Prince Kenshin thought he was in the presence of four kappa; in fact, an ancient scroll found in the castle showed similar creatures fighting against Norinaga’s ancestor. This alone showed how powerful the legend was to that particular family, although there’s always a possibility that those drawn were actually the turtles themselves. While never confirmed (and likely never will be), the comics have often played with time travel, including several stories that sent the turtles back in time to the very creation of the Foot clan. There’s always a possibility that they were seeing a drawing of themselves from a time that they had yet to go back to.
The kappa, however, is still a powerful part of Japanese folklore. Even today signs warn passersby about getting too close to the edge of any body of water. You just never know when a kappa will feel like playing a little game of life and death. Whether they exist or not, the kappa will remain an influential presence, and perhaps more can be done with it in the TMNT universe. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to see an episode or storyline where Raphael, in a battle with a samurai, becomes the basis for all kappa legend.