What a weirdo. An absolute misfit. A complete, utter, thorough and total oddball.
And she has a close but dedicated following because of it.
And I’ll count myself in that number, because she’s absolutely adorable.
The best I could tell when I first saw her is that she was some form of burrowing flatworm, which is a fair enough choice. Most media doesn’t glorify worms as a cool animal, so it could be fun to feature one as actually credible and charming.
Unfortunately, Dunsparce is a bit of a mess. She’s a bright-yellow and cyan (which are fantastic colors for a non-poisonous cave-dweller), bears little vestigial wings, and she generally just looks kinda like a dopey larva. A lot of why this doesn’t necessarily work at a glance is cultural, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
One thing that I will grant her is that she looks like a proper burrower. The little “whiskers” on her chin look like spines that I can imagine being great for gripping rock and dirt or steering her head around, and that tail is a slick little tool. Usually you expect a creature to dig forward with paws or jaws, but tunneling backward makes a great “gotcha” defense mechanism, and having a drill on her rear illustrates that perfectly clearly.
The overall quality of this monster seems to zig-sag on me, though: the flip-side is that there’s not a lot positive to say about her in-game. Most of her moves are pretty passive, the Normal type isn’t very exciting, and her stats are what you’d expect from something that has yet to fully evolve (which she doesn’t). She can do fine at addling an opponent and outlasting them, but that’s kind of not what the main game is built for, and she doesn’t stand up to competitive play.
The real story behind Dunsparce is that she’s almost certainly based on the Tsuchinoko, a Japanese cryptid in the same vein as a Unicorn or the North American Jackalope. While yokai and spirits certainly have their place, the Tsuchinoko has so many purported sightings (especially around the ’70s) and is so close to an actual animal that it’s often presented more like a “what-if” creature: a fat and flat snake with the ability to jump, which Dunsparce absolutely reads as if you have that context.
Dunsparce’s Japanese name even reflects this, being an anagram of “tsuchinoko” (ツチノコ ) – “nokocchi” (ノコッチ)! Do you know what her name is derived from in every single Latin-based language? Some derivative of “dumb” or “dunce” or “graceless” combined with a physical descriptor. No respect.
That isn’t to say that there isn’t fanciful folklore around the tsuchinoko, like its tendency to lie, or taste for alcohol, or a propensity to bite its own tail to roll down hills in a wheel-shape. She seems to mostly just borrow visual elements, though, being most noted on her not-at-all-related-to-Tsuchinokos ability to dig elaborate networks of tunnels.
Amusingly, with Diglett and Dunsparce both being presumably-herbivorous cave-dwellers, they even reportedly share those tunnel systems without competing. It’s kind of a “rising tide” situation, which is a delightful little show of cooperation to sprinkle into a colorful series largely targeted at kids, and not unlike how certain reef animals share their hiding spaces. Granted, I don’t believe we ever see the two spawn in the same place in the games, which is a shame – surely they have enough monsters running around now that they don’t have to spread these two across multiple areas?
I will grant that Dunsparce being a rare and lucky sight is a direct call-out to Tsuchinoko lore, and its wings seem like a nice little allusion to Tsuchinokos’ jumping ability, with the specific phrase “it can fly just a little” seeng repeated use. Even that gets slightly dashed, though, by a line speculating that Dunsparce’s wings used to be larger and flight-worthy in previous eons. They almost seem to be trying to evoke the European-dragon idea of a winged serpent or Mesoamerican Quetzalcoatl there, which just confuses the message.
In some ways, including its very name, Dunsparce feels like an example of “but not too foreign” localization, where some series will drop concepts that are too inherent to the writer’s own culture when translating and editing a work for an overseas audience. You get a lot of this even within Pokémon itself; the TV anime used to frequently replace balls of rice with “doughnuts” or even “hamburgers” in dialogue, and even drop Japanese lettering from signs in some cases.
And, to be fair, this is a totally reasonable track to take when the product is aimed at eight-year-olds. Little Timmy from Oregon probably isn’t going to go out and learn about Japanese folklore – and wouldn’t even know to by Dunsparce’s design, so he has no context. It would ultimately be pretty clunky to stop and explain this particular reference; why not just tie Dunsparce into a more general sense of fantasy?
It’s kind of a shame that Pokémon lost some things like that in translation – and, to their credit, they’ve retroactively solved at least one instance of similar issues. The comment about ancient, flying Dunsparce is alarmingly recent, though, suggesting to me that the writing team still hasn’t found an elegant way to inform Westerners about Tsuchinoko without breaking the fourth wall to bring up actual cryptozoology.
Anyway, where were we?
Oh, yeah: Dunsparce orients itself within familiar cave systems by identifying different soil by scent. What a delightfully specific skill.
But for all that, be honest: either you forgot about Dunsparce entirely until you ran across this article, or you probably only remembered her because she’s kind of a joke. I’m sorry, she’s fun and the series benefits from having weird one-offs like Dunsparce, but her whole aesthetic in the series itself is a bit confused, especially in an international context. She’s prime Retirement material.
Any and all appreciation for Dunsparce is welcome in the comments!