Modern Kitsune: Tomoe

Kamisama Kiss

Kamisama Kiss by Julietta Suzuki; Cover art by Julietta Suzuki; Nanami the human kami is on the left, and Tomoe the kitsune is on the right

Tomoe is a kitsune in Kamisama Kiss (or Kamisama Hagimemashita), a manga and anime by Julietta Suzuki built on the premise of a teenage girl, Nanami, being given kami (land god) status and needing to learn about her new powers while balancing her life as a kami with her life as a teen. Tomoe is not only a kitsune, but also the familiar of the previous kami. At the start of Kamisama Kiss, Tomoe has been maintaining the kami’s shrine for twenty years while the kami was absent. When Nanami appears as the new land god, Tomoe feels betrayed and does not immediately accept her.

Tomoe’s character is aloof and arrogant. He wears fine kimonos, moves elegantly, and sports white fox ears and a white fox tail on his otherwise human body. His history is slowly revealed as the story progresses with elements of his past bearing strong importance on the plot. Tomoe is hundreds of years old, but does not appear to age. He has shown himself to be incredibly loyal to a select few individuals. For example, even after the previous kami’s disappearance, Tomoe continued to faithfully tend the shrine for twenty years as he waited for the kami’s return. Tomoe strongly disdains weakness. His problem with the new kami is that she is a powerless human girl. Tomoe sees no strength in humans and believes yokai (a variety of magical creatures) and humans should not mingle. The title of the story, Kamisama Kiss, refers to the binding of the familiar to the kami with a kiss. Much of the initial conflict in the story arises from Nanami binding Tomoe to her, which doubles as the beginning of a slow romantic story arc.

Avoiding story spoilers, Tomoe went from a warmongering kitsune famed for his casual brutality and sweeping destruction to a kami’s familiar because of a story twist that involved Tomoe’s near death and a human. Tomoe’s dark past adds depth to his character and works in sharp contrast to his modern self. An implication is made at the start of the story that foxes are highly non-traditional as familiars. The kami prior to Nanami required Tomoe to soften his attitude and change his ways in order to complete his new duties. Despite centuries of service as a familiar, yokai regularly refer to Tomoe as having once been a wild fox. Even with Tomoe’s acknowledged power, many yokai seem to feel that the position of a familiar is too high for a wild fox. Other than Tomoe’s bursts of anger, particularly regarding the treatment by others of his human kami, he appears suave and collected, perfectly suited to working as the familiar of a kami and the caretaker of a shrine.

The romantic angle of the story revolves mainly around Nanami becoming aware of her feelings towards Tomoe. Despite his longevity, Tomoe is fairly clueless about many aspects of the human world and does not understand Nanami or her actions. Initially he uses his role to try and cloister Nanami away from portions of her new position that he deems difficult. He does this while meticulously learning to cook human food and caring for Nanami as best as he can. He naively makes statements as her familiar which have different meaning from a human standpoint. This creates an off-balance dynamic ideal for the romantic comedy side of the story. Of course, Tomoe’s feelings towards Nanami change dramatically from those he felt at their initial meeting. He proves himself loyal to his new kami and the end result of their relationship is still in the writing as the series is still being written.

Tomoe’s kitsune powers are very strong. He can use his foxfire in battle and one historical reference clarified his ability to create a sea of flames, killing vast quantities of yokai at once. His foxfire can also be used as a light. As an added touch to a shrine festival, Tomoe lit the area with foxfire. On at least one occasion, he sent several small flames out on an information gathering mission. The flames flew around town searching and were able to speak briefly to Tomoe of their findings. Tomoe can also shape-shift both himself and others. A simple shift involves removing his fox ears and tail in order to walk with Nanami in the human world. On an occasion when Nanami was ill and it was decided that she should not miss too much school, Tomoe changed into a replica of Nanami and attended school for her. An example of him changing another person arrived when a yokai asked Nanami to facilitate her love affair with a human. Tomoe transformed the fish yokai into human form so that she could meet with the human she loved. This transformation had the power to last for as long as the yokai did not use her own magic. Besides foxfire and shape changing, Tomoe used his powers to maintain the shrine. This ability became most clear at a point when Tomoe was not available and the meticulous shrine suddenly appeared neglected and in need of major repairs.

Tomoe’s wild fox reputation ties in with the tradition of the kitsune as an irrepressible trickster. Tomoe, however, does not play tricks. The romantic angle of the story, which seems to promise that Tomoe and the kami will end up together, links Tomoe with the tales of kitsune as lovers and mates. Kamisama Kiss appears to be intended for adolescent girls, and Tomoe’s primary role as man and kitsune seems to be that of a sigh-worthy love interest. I have found the story light and comedic.

Sources:

Julietta Suzuki’s Kamisama Kiss manga volumes 4, 8-14 (English translation)

Kamisama Kiss anime, 1 season (English subtitles)

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Modern Kitsune: Shippo

Shippo in watercolor and graphite

Shippo in watercolor and graphite. The leaves on his top reference his connection with nature and his use of leaves to shape change.

Last year I wrote a short entry on kitsune, the Japanese fox tricksters, because I had been reading Royall Tyler’s Japanese Tales. From ancient and medieval folklore, a picture of kitsune emerged as shape changers who were often up to small mischief and sometimes much worse. There were also a number of stories of kitsune using their shape changing abilities to have human mates or spouses. Foxes’ abilities, power levels, and nature varied immensely from tale to tale.

Recently I have been watching anime and reading manga. Manga is a brand new thing for me and anime is fairly new (with the exception of Dragonball and Dragonball Z, both of which my husband has exposed me to). I found myself noting the kitsune characters within the anime, watching for insight into the creatures themselves and how they are perceived in modern folklore. This started with InuYasha, a story I’ve posted on previously. Watching the first anime episode, I was certain the title character was a fox because of his ears and tail, and I found the dog references (inu means dog) bewildering. As the show continued, it became clear that InuYasha was half dog-demon. However, a secondary character, Shippo, was introduced as a kitsune kit, so I watched Shippo as representative of kitsune. After Shippo, I met other kitsune characters within other stories. Like the kitsune from ancient and medieval folklore, these characters represented a variety of kitsune possibilities all within modern outlets of art and entertainment. This post I’ll focus on Shippo.

Shippo has an overall good nature with a strong mischievous streak and a variety of minor magical abilities. Within InuYasha, Shippo is classified as a small demon. At first I felt this referenced either his age or size. Shippo is a child who joins the main characters after they help him avenge his father’s recent murder. Shippo is also tiny and regularly rides on a shoulder of one of the adult characters. As the story continued, it seemed that the description of small demon did not reference size, but categorized Shippo and all kitsune as having only small powers compared to other demonic (the term is used very loosely in Japanese folklore) characters with major powers.

Shippo sketch based on the manga by Rumiko Takahashi.

Shippo sketch based on the manga by Rumiko Takahashi. (I would pause in my reading to quickly sketch images. There is a definite beauty in the minimal line usage of manga.)

Shippo uses his powers primarily to fight in the many battles that occur during the progression of the story. Shippo’s foxfire is short-lived and more flash than flame. The foxfire does not actually burn. On one occasion Shippo’s foxfire works as a barrier within a true fire to protect those trapped from the genuine flames. This barrier proves that the foxfire is not simply illusion. Much of Shippo’s magic tricks seem to be just that–tricks. The kitsune keeps several small toys on his person at all times and for brief spans he can amplify those toys by using illusion into seemingly powerful or frightening weapons. For instance, he has a spinning top that he can blow up to tremendous size so that it appears an enormous drill. Shippo would spin his top on an enemy’s head where the top would expand, the enemy would react, and Shippo would most often take advantage of the time till the enemy realized he wasn’t actually getting hurt or the toy returned to its normal size to flee. Another toy in Shippo’s arsenal is a wooden snake that could appear to be a giant serpent. He also has a hobby horse that he can make carry a single person for quite a distance. Aside from his toys, Shippo has a couple multiplying illusions that he uses. One is the crying mushrooms. If he is in trouble, Shippo flings out a trail of mushrooms. After sprouting, each mushroom sobs loudly, creating a signal to bring help.

Shippo can also shape change, but he has trouble holding the change for long, and he tends to have some give-away error in his transformation, such as his bushy fox tail remaining visible. Shippo tends to place a leaf on his forehead prior to changing shape. While shape-changing into other people helps Shippo enter or escape enemy territory, it is most often used for minor mischief or pranks. On a couple of occasions Shippo is able to transform into a much needed object, such as a bow. Shippo’s most used transformation, however, is that of a floating pink bubble that can transport a couple of his friends out of danger in a crisis. This bubble makes Shippo look particularly comical and ridiculous, emphasizing his comparative weakness when contrasted with the rest of his team. While Shippo often needs the aid of his more powerful companions, his pink bubble allows him to provide invaluable help to his group on their mission to ultimately save the world.

InuYasha could make Shippo cry, but the one time he really got to bawling was when he thought his friends had died while in his care.

InuYasha could make Shippo cry, but the one time he really got to bawling was when he thought his friends had died while in his care. Even then, he did not break down till someone else had come to take over his watch.

Shippo is generally good natured and sweet, showing an enduring loyalty to his companions even after he has been sorely tried. However, the primary hero of the story tends to (hilariously) bully Shippo, so their relationship is one of frequent arguments, Shippo getting pounded on, and occasionally Shippo playing revenge jokes on the hero.  In one story Shippo finds himself taking the fox exams in which he gains points every time he is able to trick anyone not taking the exams. This light-hearted side story allows Shippo to vent his frustration at InuYasha in a series of crafty fox jokes. Other kitsune appear in this storyline, revealing a different brand of logic as several of the other foxes take advantage of their ability to trick humans and demons with the types of illusions that those individuals most want to see–for some characters, the fact that it is fox magic rather than reality simply doesn’t matter.

Shippo also has a tendency to have realizations and say them when the socially acceptable behavior is to remain quiet. For instance, Shippo speaks his revelations about other characters’ feelings or relationships, unaware that he is making the situation worse. While this could simply be an expression of Shippo’s young age and naiveté, Shippo’s honesty could also reflect the natural directness of the animal world in contrast to human nature.

 Sources:

Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha manga volumes 1-56 (English translation)

InuYasha anime, 6 seasons (English subtitles)

InuYasha: The Final Act anime (English subtitles)

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Ningyo: The Japanese Mermaid

11 x 15

Western influence has resulted in ningyo seen as attractive, dark-haired mermaids with golden scales.

The Japanese ningyo, which translates as “human fish,” is a monstrous and magical equivalent to the Western mermaid. The ningyo’s first written account appears in a 7th century chronicle, The Nihongi. In folk tradition, the nature and appearance of the ningyo have changed over the years. Some descriptions involve an enormous fish with a hideous human face or head, while others include more human attributes, such as arms and fingers. Golden scales, a monkey mouth, and pointed teeth appear in many descriptions. Western influence has  even led to a variation of the ningyo which looks like a seductive, dark-haired female from the waist up and a fish from the waist down. Generally, ningyos can not speak, but they can make beautiful, birdlike sounds.

Ningyos’ great fame lies in the magical powers of their bodies. Ningyo blood heals wounds. Eating ningyo meat grants immortality and youth. Whether this blood or flesh is offered willingly or taken by force dramatically changes the nature of the story.

A famous folktale, “Yao Bikuni,” involves a fisherman who brought home mermaid meat. As his companions guess the source, they avoid eating it, but by chance–in one version it is offered as a gift to a fisherman’s daughter and in another she takes it from the trash to avoid wasting food–a young girl eats the meat. In some versions she is a teen and ages no more, and in others she is a child and continues aging until she grows to about 15. The girl became a wandering nun and lived over 800 years. She was known as the 800 nun or the white nun–the second name was derived either from her white skin or her white hair. There are shrines around Japan honoring her.

Ningyos are also associated with the weather and fortune. Some stories say that if a fisherman catches a ningyo it will bring on terrible storms and misfortune, but if he throws her back he will be safe. Story variations include the devastation of entire communities due to ningyo transgressions. Similarly, taking the healing blood or meat of a mermaid by force also will bring devastating disasters. For these reasons, ningyos are to be utterly avoided.

One modern variation of this tale can be found in Rumiko Takahashi’s Mermaid Saga, which is available as manga and anime. Yuta is a fisherman from the 1400s who ate mermaid meat and became an unaging immortal. His companions who also ate the meat transformed into deformed ones. Yuta’s dear ones are frightened by his lack of aging. He discovers that when he dies he is miraculously reanimated. Yuta learns that his immortality is a curse rather than a blessing. He travels constantly, searching for a mermaid who might be able to make him human again. After 500 years he meets a woman who has eaten mermaid flesh and survived. Together they continue to search for a method that would allow them to grow old and die. Mermaid Saga is more horror than fairy tale, as monstrous humans and ningyos vie for youth and immortality. If you decide to seek out the story, check a source such as the Rumic World website to help you sort out the various versions of anime available. I found a copy of the out-of-print OVAs through rentanime.com.

Interestingly, contradictory evidence from some sources suggests that encountering an elusive ningyo would mean good fortune. In these sources the ningyo is described as helpful to man, protecting him from harm and offering beneficial magic freely. The ningyo is contrasted with water creatures from other cultures that seek to harm humans. These descriptions, however, are only found in encyclopedic sources non-specific to Japanese folklore and mythology.

Sources:

Acres, Harley and Dylan Acres. “Mermaid’s Flesh.” Rumic World. 2002. <http://www.furinkan.com/mermaid/index.html>.

Bane, Theresa. Encyclopedia of Fairies in World Folklore and Mythology. Jefferson: McFarland, 2013.

Death and the Afterlife in Japanese Buddhism. Ed. Jacqueline Stone and Mariko Namba Walter. U. of Hawai’i Press, 2009.

Mermaid Forest. Dir. Takaya Mizutani. DVD. Manga Corp, 1991.

Meyer, Matthew. “Ningyo.” Yokai.com. 2013 <http://yokai.com/ningyo/>.

Poitras, Gilles. The Anime Companion: What’s Japanese in Japanese Animation? Berkely: Stone Bridge Press, 1999.

Rose, Carol. Giants, Monsters, and Dragons: An Encyclopedia of Folklore, Legend, and Myth. New York: Norton, 2000.

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Cherry Blossoms & InuYasha

InuYasha and Kagome with Cherry Blossoms, 9" x 12" watercolor on hot pressed Acquarello

“InuYasha and Kagome with Cherry Blossoms,” 9″ x 12″ watercolor on hot pressed Acquarello

The cherry blossom is the national flower of Japan and has a long history of representing life and death or the transience of life. Flowers are the reproductive part of plants, firmly equating them with life. Folklore associated the cherry trees with mountain deities. Folk religions held that the mountain deities would drift down to the populated regions on the falling petals, ensuring the rice crops, which further linked the trees with life. Cherry blooms are famously short-lived, providing an ephemeral burst of fragile beauty. Rather than wilting and dropping with decay, the blooms are lifted on the wind and float to the ground in the prime of their beauty, dying at their most glorious moment of life. The death of the blooms at the height of their blossoming power led to the symbolic connection between cherry blossoms and dying warriors. The medieval samurai claimed the cherry blooms as representative of their way of life. Cherry blossoms became traditional decorations of samurai accoutrement. Anthropologist Ohnuki-Tierney explains that the cherry blossom was further embraced by the Japanese emperor in the 19th century as a meditation of fearlessness in battle. Soldiers were told, “You shall die like beautiful falling cherry petals for the emperor.” Kamikaze pilots of World War II also accepted the symbolism of the cherry blossom. Photos reveal kamikaze pilots’ planes with cherry blossoms painted on the sides and the pilots posing while holding branches heavy with cherry blossoms. Warriors’ long held connection with cherry blossoms has not stopped them from being beloved by people of all backgrounds who gather beneath the falling petals of the trees to celebrate life.

detail of InuYasha with Cherry Blossoms

detail of InuYasha with Cherry Blossoms

Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha focuses a great deal on life and death, with Japan’s Muromachi period serving as a backdrop of warring discord. The long lives of yokai are contrasted with the short lives of humans. Select characters are brought back from the dead via mystical powers. Rather than falling into a category of the undead, these people serve to represent both life and death in their tenacity to continue living and their status as having already died. The drifting petals of the cherry blossom recur to highlight impermanence and beauty.

InuYasha and Kagome in the cherry tree

InuYasha and Kagome in the cherry tree

Link to previous post with cherry blossom poetry

Thanks to Glynis Irwin for pointing me towards samurai.

Sources:

Rolfes, Ellen. “For Hundreds of Years, Cherry Blossoms Are Matter of Life and Death.” PBS. Apr. 12, 2013. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/for-more-than-1000-years-cherry-blossoms-move-world-to-emotion/>.

Takahashi, Rumiko. InuYasha. Trans. Gerard Jones. San Francisco, Viz: 2004.

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Sesshomaru from InuYasha

Lord Sesshomaru in watercolor and graphite

Lord Sesshomaru in watercolor and graphite

Within Rumiko Takahashi’s InuYasha, there are many yokai, including the half-yokai title character and his full-blooded yokai brother, Sesshomaru.

Yokai is a Japanese term for supernatural creatures that covers a diverse variety and is generally translated into many different English words. Widely speaking, yokai includes spirits, faeries, ghosts, and nature gods. To learn more about yokai, check out http://yokai.com/, which includes a portion of Matthew Meyer’s illustrated encyclopedia of yokai.

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Shippo the Kitsune

Shippo in watercolor and graphite

Shippo in watercolor and graphite

I wanted to draw Shippo, the kitsune kit from InuYasha. My requirements were that we could see his feet and fangs, with bonus points if he looked irritated. My husband found a screenshot for me. Those tiny fists take the cake.

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InuYasha: A Fairy Tale of Feudal Era Japan

InuYasha and Shippo in watercolor and graphite

InuYasha and Shippo in watercolor and graphite

InuYasha, created by manga artist Rumiko Takahashi, is my new favorite thing. InuYasha is described as a fairy tale of feudal era Japan, but I think of it as more of a demonstration of collected Japanese folklore. Kagome, a modern day girl, falls down the temple well and is transported to the past where she finds a boy, InuYasha, pinned by arrows to a tree. The ensuing drama results in Kagome releasing InuYasha, and the two working together, although not entirely in harmony. The story and characters are complicated and enticing Takahashi said that when she created InuYasha she wanted to deal with darker subject matter, and InuYasha reveals complex motives and Sengoku period violence.

InuYasha means dog forest spirit. The creatures, good and bad, are translated as demons in the subtitles, so since InuYasha’s father was a dog demon and his mother a human, InuYasha is known as a half-demon. His characterization is terrific. InuYasha is growly, rough, and stand-offish. He wants to be a full demon, so he seeks the Sacred Jewel, which greatly enhances the power of its bearer. His upbringing as a half-demon has resulted in life of social ostracization, distrust, and loneliness.

Not realizing that inu meant dog, I accepted InuYasha as a cat demon, since he has cat ears and acts so much like a cat. I didn’t understand or dismissed the terms as insults when he was called a dog or mutt, pejoratives that InuYasha took extreme umbrage at. InuYasha tends to perch in trees. He growls and yowls. He wants to be by himself sometimes. He has golden, reflective eyes. He eats fish. He watches the moon. He fights with his claws. Despite being a dog demon, I still consider InuYasha a cat demon.

Kagome is the reincarnation of Kikyo, the priestess who pinned InuYasha to the tree fifty years before. Kikyo was the protector of the Sacred Jewel and had the power to cleanse it of its evil aura. Untrained, Kagome also has this power, but as she tries to recapture the Sacred Jewel from a demon, the Jewel is shattered and its powerful shards cast across the land. Kagome can sense the presence of the shards, but she doesn’t have the training to overcome the demons who are so eagerly gathering the pieces. She’s also a fifteen-year-old girl who is normally stressed by exams, but now surrounded by life-threatening violence.

Old Kaede is Kikyo’s sister and the priestess of the village near the well that Kagome fell through. Kaede guides Kagome to work with InuYasha to gather the shards. Kaede also places the Beads of Subjugation around InuYasha’s neck, so that whenever Kagome says, “Sit!” InuYasha slams into the ground. On their adventures, Kagome and InuYasha gradually meet three other characters, who join them.

Shippo is an orphaned kitsune kit. He has fox magic, including the ability to call foxfire or temporarily hold small illusions, especially if they’ve been built upon leaves or his arsenal of toys. I’m normally not a fan of cute, but Shippo is so kawaii that I regularly find myself exclaiming, “Look at his feet!” which are beyond adorable, and any time that InuYasha decides to start beating on Shippo in order to show the kit who’s stronger, I just can’t stop laughing. Shippo also has the habit of voicing his sudden realizations, which tend to be observations which should have remained unsaid, creating awkwardness or revealing a weakness that could be taken advantage of by evil demons. Shippo adds interest as a companion, but, to his dismay, he often can’t help when trouble arrives.

Miroku is a Buddhist monk who has been cursed by Naraku, the demon who eventually takes the position as ultimate baddy in the story. Miroku’s curse is a hole in his right hand that, when not bound by holy beads, sucks everything present into it. Someday this hole, known as the Wind Tunnel, will become so large that it will yank Miroku into it as well, just as the same curse had killed Miroku’s father. While Miroku aims to break the curse by destroying Naraku, he also has decided to use the Wind Tunnel to destroy as many demons as possible. While a reliable companion and fierce demon fighter, Miroku is also a dodgy monk, using his position to trick the naive into feeding and sheltering him and his party for fake exorcism services. Miroku also asks every woman he meets if she will bear his child, and takes any opportunity to caress a female bum.

Sango becomes the final member of the shard-seeking group. Sango is the last survivor of a village of demon slayers. She has been raised since childhood to fight demons, notably with her Hiraikotsu, a boomerang almost the same size as Sango. Sango’s weapons and armor are constructed of demon parts. Sango, a formidable addition to their group, is accompanied by her demon cat, a two-tailed creature that can expand to a size large enough for several people to ride. Sango was introduced with her little brother, who is manipulated by the demon Naraku and becomes a complication of love for his sister. Moved by the loyalty shown to her by the others, Sango allies with them to gather the Sacred Jewel and avenge her village against Naraku.

The manga serialization of InuYasha began in 1996 and the anime in 2000. InuYasha the anime ran till 2004. Takahashi wrote the final manga in 2008. To finish off the anime story, a new InuYasha, called InuYasha: The Final Act, ran from 2009-2010. I’ve only made it through series three, so I still have quite a ways to go.

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Hugin & Munin

Hugin and Munin

Hugin and Munin

I painted Hugin and Munin again. Here is a bit I wrote about the ravens and an earlier attempt at the same painting.

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Folklore

Folklore, volume 124, number 2, August 2013

Folklore, volume 124, number 2, August 2013

Folklore, self-described as “one of the earliest English-language journals in the field of folkloristics, first published asThe Folk-Lore Record in 1878,” is offering free access for the month of July to its online special editions, which consist of five collections of recent scholarship. 

Here is a link.

I’ve been reading their August 2013 edition on Death, Burial, and the Afterlife, and finding it absolutely absorbing. My favorite read so far has been Philip Clarke’s “Indigenous Spirit and Ghost Folklore of “Settled” Australia,” which includes accounts of Aboriginal understanding of the initial Europeans, as well as interesting yet brief studies of Aboriginal faery creatures (not referred to as faeries, of course) and sorcerers with their feather shoes and boning knives.

One enticing line Clarke offered was that “On the frontier, Aboriginal people frequently treated the first Europeans they saw as dead kin returning from the grave with their rotting skin peeled off and underlying white flesh exposed.” How fascinating that they would understand these strange looking people to be returning kin. I highly recommend those interested seek out the article.

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Night

I drew Night using tips from Ed Org's art book.

I drew Night using tips from Ed Org’s art book.

I’m going to call this one done before I start forming too tight a bond with Lovecraft and his mind-altering geometries. I’m not sure if I prefer the darker version over the lighter version. The darker version certainly involved more graphite smeared all over my drawing table.

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