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Kawauso Illustration by LordDonovan Kawauso Illustration by LordDonovan
This is my third illustration for the upcoming tabletop game Mysteries of the Yokai.

In a return to the cuter side of creature design, the subject this time is the legendary kawauso. Well, not entirely legendary actually, as magical stand-outs aside, kawauso are an entirely mundane species of otter native to Japan. Or at least they were... Sadly, kawauso are now considered extinct, having fallen victim to over-hunting and modern habitat destruction. In that case, they are sort of legendary now, though not in the good way.

However, the magical yokai version of the kawauso is definitely legendary, in the sense that they're from fantastical old stories with little to no evidence to back them up. (Though it sure would be cool if they were real.) As seems to be the case for basically every kind of animal in old Japanese folklore, it was believed that if a kawauso lived long enough, it would transcend its normal animal limitations and develop human intelligence, human speech, and magical powers - basically becoming some kind of magical animal spirit-person-thing.

It's a fun idea that animals basically "evolve" into magical humanoids once they level up enough by living long enough, but there's one particular detail that I have to question: What stops the animals from simply dying of old age before they hit the magical upgrade point? Like, if animals were basically ageless and went forever as long as they weren't killed by something else or succumbed to illness, starvation, etc, then it'd make total sense. But like anybody else who's had pets all their life knows far too well, it doesn't work that way at all. Even if nothing else goes wrong, age alone takes its toll, and those Japanese magical animal legends require the animal lives to its theoretical extreme or maybe much longer. So do animals have to be special in the first place to break the normal age barrier to graduate to the potential of going full yokai eventually? If legends explain that one, I haven't seen it. And besides, I think I read somewhere that house cats have to hit 20 years of age to split their tales and start becoming magic, but I had a cat who got that old and she sadly did not become a magic talking cat. So does it not count for pets since they had human help living that long? For that matter, it seems like your magic nine-tailed foxes and whatnot never seem old and decrepit once they graduate to yokai status, but they had to hit the age where they'd be super old regular animals before getting there. So does the upgrade to magic mode reverse the animal's physical age? To go back to the example of my old cat, it wouldn't have been fun for her to be stuck in the sorry state she was in, had she in fact managed to become a magic two-tailed cat. So I have to assume that the yokai upgrade either makes animals young again, or the animals with the potential to become yokai have greatly increased lifespans from the get-go. I hope it's the first option, because it's more fun to think that ANY animal can become magic and intelligent and all that if they live long enough, as opposed to only a tiny minority being born with that potential at all.

But enough about me overthinking ancient legends, there's art to over-discuss! If you've been paying attention and noticed that this is the third illustration that's been pretty dark, you're not the only one. With the first kodama illustration, I just added the dark foreground for the sake of an attention-grabbing high-contrast color scheme, without thought to what might be next. Then for the Hunting Shadow, the concept of a monster that hunts at night and avoids light pretty much required a very dark scene. So I started this one with the intent of making a very much not dark scene to change things up, but in the end a dark scene was the only good, mythology-accurate choice. As previously noted, I wanted to avoid generic model pose style illustrations in favor of setting an overall scene and context for the character subject in addition to simply suggesting what it looks like. Since kawauso are from actual legend, I wanted to use a scene from their actual legends for maximum authenticity. So that meant picking the best option from their legends, and this was it. Otherwise, the options just weren't good choices for one reason or another.

For example, they were known to magically disguise themselves as humans in order to go into towns and buy alcohol, because like basically all yokai, they like to get drunk. (But for some reason can't make booze of their own, I've never been clear on why magical beings find it so hard to do that.) But that wouldn't be a good illustration since the point is to show them in their standard otter form, not disguised as some generic human. Plus, the context would require them being in a store with all the detail that requires, designing and drawing additional characters, and so on. That'd be a lot of work AND be a lot of detail getting in the way of showing the kawauso itself, which is the main point. These are supposed to be quarter-page illustrations, so try to cram in too much and it just won't read well. Another trick they liked was calling traveler's names from the water to either simply mess with people or trick them into walking into the water, possibly to drown them. Once again, that was a lot of elements to make the scene make sense at all, and the whole "drowning people" thing went against the friendly, harmless trickster angle the producers wanted to focus on. Beyond that, in yet another example of stuff lots of yokai apparently have in common, there was the ol' "seduce humans into having sex with them" trick. I don't think I need to explain why that wasn't an illustration option, this isn't THAT kind of game. So that just left their most harmless and simple-to-illustrate interest: For some reason they really like to magically extinguish lanterns in order to mess with people. Finally, an idea that didn't require a lot of extraneous detail to establish the context, other characters, sex, or murder. The only drawback was that it only makes sense for lanterns to be lit when it's getting dark, so... Yet again, another dark illustration. So yes, while I like dark scenery, that's not why I keep making these illustrations dark. I really hope they end up printing right, I know I'm playing with fire by making these really dark illustrations explicitly intended to be printed on physical media.

To wrap up a few last points: First, the blue flower print kimono wasn't my design choice, but specified by the person who sponsored the inclusion of the kawauso. For that matter, her hair and hair accessories were also specified, though I did change the hairstyle itself. Otherwise, the design was all my work, and the original outfit didn't include that middle belt... wrap... thing. (Not sure what they're called.) I added it to make the kimono fit tighter and better communicate the long otter body proportions, without it she was kinda shapeless. Second, as usual, my digital coloring still isn't good enough. There is something the bestest best of the best do differently that I am just not getting, and it frustrates me. I mean, I'm not saying this is bad, but compared to the superior work of my digital coloring idols, it could be so much better.
SageOfTheStars Featured By Owner Oct 29, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
Very pretty. And the kawauso is cute. : 3
LordDonovan Featured By Owner Nov 1, 2016  Professional Digital Artist
Thank you very much! Though now that I've had more time to reflect on this piece, I think I could have done the coloring better, she was cuter in the original sketch. I got sick and then had to rush to get it done and it shows, the coloring is kinda muddy and drab. Definitely not as cute as it should have been.
SageOfTheStars Featured By Owner Nov 2, 2016  Hobbyist General Artist
It's still quite a nice picture. I don't think I could pull off something like that myself.
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Submitted on
September 18, 2016
Image Size
1.1 MB


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