Tales of monsters invading Japan are a longstanding tradition, usually involving menacing kaiju—literally “strange creatures”—rising from the sea to wreak havoc on a Japanese city. At this very moment, the country is engaged in just such a war, with an entire army of invasive creatures, but they’re both less fearsome and more adorable than Godzilla or Mothra. And they’re from North America, not the bottom of the ocean. They’re common raccoons, Procyon lotor. Sometimes real life is stranger than fiction.
Our story begins when a young Wisconsin boy named Sterling North adopts an orphaned baby raccoon and names him Rascal. The boy and the raccoon were inseparable as best friends, and for a year they did everything together. They fished the local streams and lakes, wandered the rural countryside together, and went for bike rides with Rascal riding in a basket attached to the handlebars. At the end of their year together, the young North began to realize that the raccoon was truly a wild animal, and not a pet. A critter that was once tame as a juvenile became more mischievous as he aged. The maturing male raccoon began to draw the attention of female raccoons and the aggression of other males. When North’s neighbors could no longer bear Rascal’s incursions into their fields and chicken coops, he knew that he would have to release his best friend. A life inside a cage—the only safe way to keep Rascal as a pet—was no life for a raccoon. North constructs a canoe and uses it to cross a nearby lake at the edge of a nicely wooded forest. There, he lets his best friend go, and returns home.
The true story of Sterling North and Rascal the raccoon formed the basis for North’s award-winning 1963 memoir, Rascal: A Memoir of a Better Era. In 1969, Disney would go on to create a feature film based on the book, predictably called Rascal, and a 52-episode anime series called Araiguma Rasukaru, based on the book, aired in Japan throughout 1977.
Keep reading in my latest at Nautilus Magazine: How a Kids’ Cartoon Created a Real-Life Invasive Army