Kogitsune (Little Fox) is a newly-born kitsune, a fox god sired by Inari, the ancient god of rice and prosperity, who is also a kitsune. Kogitsune grows and learns about the world through Inari’s lessons. A kitsune has shapeshifting abilities and powers that grow as one gains knowledge. Their journey and power are reflected by increasing the number of foxtails from one to nine. As Kogitsune grows, he shows his knowledge and naiveté in equal measure.
One day, Kogitsune finds a boy trapped in the snare of a spider ayakashi—or vengeful spirit—who plans to eat him. Kogitsune shifts into the shape of a mask-wearing boy and rescues the trapped boy. Kokaji had climbed the sacred mountain to find Inari and request a blessing to become an excellent swordsmith. Kogitsune knows that his father will never bless a human with such a gift—it is beyond Inari’s power at the least—yet still wants to spend time with this intriguing human boy. He convinces Kokaji to build a shrine to Inari, and the boy agrees.
All summer long, Kogitsune and Kokaji spend days swimming together, sharing meals and stories, and building the shrine to Inari. Inari warns Kogitsune that humans are fickle, and that he will have great heartbreak if he continues to spend time with the boy. But Kogitsune is determined to do so, noting that learning about heartbreak is still gaining knowledge. The shrine is nearly complete when Kokaji is forbidden to visit the sacred mountain by his mother—she fears (rightfully) that the masked boy Kokaji speaks of is a yokai, and could curse their whole family. Hearing Kokaji promise to stay away from the mountain breaks Kogitsune’s tender heart, his grief erupting as flames that burn the mountainside. Kogitsune gains a second tail reflecting his new knowledge, but it is cold comfort.
Years pass and Kogitsune pulls away from humanity. His powers grow enough that he senses the presence of Kokaji on his mountain one day. For weeks, Kogitsune steadfastly watches as Kokaji completes the shrine carvings he’d stopped making ten years before. He leaves a gift to Inari, still hoping to earn the god’s blessing. It seems Kokaji has a great task in front of him, and he desires Kogitsune to help him complete this task, now that he is able to return to the sacred mountain. Not only this, but Kokaji has loved the boy he’s long-suspected of being a kitsune from the start of their acquaintance ten years before. Kogitsune is afraid that his true face will scare Kokaji, as he had never revealed his immortal golden eyes to the boy—now a man. Can Kogitsune forgive Kokaji for abandoning him all those years ago? What future can they hold, as a god and human together?
Kogitsune is the first in a series of supernatural, historical love stories set in medieval Japan. This is a remarkable piece of historical fiction, blending Japanese folklore, myth and the supernatural into a quiet and touching romance. Kogitsune and Kokaji connected in a way that was not usual or expected, and is opposed by both the god and human realms. I wished that we had longer to observe their love, to see how Inari would handle his foxling falling in love with the human. Unfortunately, we only have a brief glimpse into their future.
I appreciated the embedded descriptions of the Japanese words and concepts as I read this story. I had the barest knowledge of a kitsune before—my boys are fans of Japanese manga and anime, and the kitsune is a prominent character there. The rest of the Shinto pantheon was unknown to me, and I got the gist of some of that folklore through this book.
It seems that there is a happy ending for Kogitsune and Kokaji, but it’s not assured. Truly, there are hints within this story, with both descriptions and use of tense, that indicate Kogitsune has lived far past his time with Kokaji. I expect further books could explore their full relationship, but I am not sure when, or if, that may happen. As it stands, I was blown away by this novella, and the lush and historically-inspired, supernatural love story it conjured in the setting of medieval Japan.