If you’re unfamiliar with gyroids, they’re a mainstay of the Animal Crossing series. They’re squat, cylindrical little statuettes who sit in place and dance, gyrate, and shuffle while making an odd assortment of clicks, whirs and chimes.
Gyroids are found by digging suspicious spots in the ground, the same way one finds fossils and occasionally precious gems. To most Western gamers, they’re just one of those very Nintendo incongruous oddities. They’re a little strange, kind of cute but also kind of creepy. Sometimes they’re just sources of information sat around in the world. When they’re overused in someone’s house, they’re a delightfully sinister touch.
In Japan, however, gyroids’ origins are absolutely clear. And it only makes them even more creepy.
Haniwa are a ubiquity in Japanese Archaeology. They were clay statues, made from circular segments built up on top of one another, used as part of a burial ritual. For around three hundred years, these statues were buried alongside, or placed atop the burial mounds of, important, powerful or rich figures in society.
This burial practice was so widespread, and its evidence more than a millennium later so common, that the historical period is actually named for burial mounds. The Kofun period lasted from the 3rd to the 6th Centuries AD and atifacts from it are as to Japanese archaeology what Roman pottery is to European.
Much of the actual religious significance and details of the rituals have been lost to time, as written records didn’t come to Japan until comparatively late in the nation’s history. Archaeologists can see the figures grow more complicated as the period developed, sometimes evoking the actual characteristics of the deceased, sometimes depicting a warrior in armour so as to provide defence in the next life.
In Japanese popular culture, these more complex statues are normally forgotten. The classic depiction, in cartoons, videogames and even educational materials, is of the rounded, simplistic person with little more than stumps for arms. This is the version which will seem most familiar to Nintendo fans, recognising it as perhaps a villain in Kirby or indeed as a Gyroid in Animal Crossing.
Just as in Western popular culture the religious practices of Ancient Egyptians are not common knowledge but the horror movie cliché of the Mummy is, in Japan the Haniwa are most commonly depicted only as haunted, ghostly caricatures.
When you dig up a gyroid in Animal Crossing, you are most definitely plundering a grave.
When you put it into your house and it starts moving and making noise, it is haunted.
You are inviting a ghost into your home. In a move that would make you shout at the screen in a horror movie, screaming at the characters not to be idiots, you have taken a vessel from a tomb that might have been specifically designed to house the spirit, and taking it home as a nice little decoration.
This isn’t even wanky internet fan theory speculation, this is explicitly the inspiration behind these objects. In Japanese pop culture, this is basic shorthand. Gyroids are even called Haniwa in the Japanese games, in case you thought this was just about the two looking alike. Like a white sheet with black eyeholes or indeed a shuffling, bandaged mummy, this is an explicit indicator of haunting and the macabre.
Perhaps the real reason nobody can ever leave their village, but must instead live in a perpetual loop of owing Tom Nook ever-greater debt, is that they are living above a cursed life in a ghost story.