February 28, 2021
He acts as the go-between for Randi and Primm, and he always wishes for everyone’s happiness over his own.Koichi Ishii, the Art of Mana
Popoie is one of the most memorable characters in the game, if nothing else because…what is he? Not only is Popoie an undefined Mana Spirit, but there’s been an eternal debate on his gender, which we’ll address in the Localization Notes. Popoie’s name is usually localized as Popoi, which is the same as his Japanese name. But this often leads to mispronunciations in English, so I use the older alternative of Popoie.
He fills the role of both a black mage and comic relief, being an easily disgruntled mini friend for Randi and Purim. He also provides much needed motivation at times. Randi finds him at the dwarf village in Gaia’s Navel where he recently washed in after a flood. Unfortunately, he has amnesia and doesn’t remember who he is or where he’s from. However, being that he’s a sprite, it’s deduced that he’s likely from the Sprite Forest of the Upper Land, and he and the dwarf Elder create a show featuring oddities like a (fake) half rabite, half man, and Popoie himself, who’s been made to look even smaller than he is and more vulnerable. But instead of telling the truth, that they have a vague notion of where he’s from and need money to get him back, they instead use the line that he’s 50000 GPs in debt. I have to admit I never understood this—why would an audience have any less empathy for a sprite that’s lost his way vs. one that’s in debt? An inn conversation in the 2018 remake indicates that Randi was the only one to fall for the ruse, but I still struggle with what there was to fall for in the first place.
Cut content from the remake explains that the recent shifts in Mana were affecting the power of the Wind Seed, ushering in a “Time of Calamity” for the sprites. As a result, Popoie’s grandfather sends him on his way to inform Luka when the flood happens and he’s washed to Gaia’s Navel instead. It’s not up to us if this is canon or not, but it makes for a nice little backstory.
Once Popoie gets Randi’s money, he’s more than proud of himself:
POPOIE: Geh heh heh! Thank ya, I’ll take that. …What’s your problem? Hurry up and go home.
While this is going on, some earthquakes have been happening in the village, and it turns out to be the work of Tropicallo, a sort of mutant pineapple that can detach its head. One of Square’s Japanese guides reveals that it became corrupted after growing up on poison, and moves freely underground by rotating its shell at a high speed.
After the battle is over, we get more background on Popoie:
POPOIE: If this guy hadn’t butted in, I could’ve taken [it] on myself!
(DWARF) ELDER: [You little…!] …I’m really sorry. When this child was washed here, he forgot his name and way home from shock…As a result, he’s quick to lash out with a sharp tongue. He’s really a docile child, but…
POPOIE: Heh heh heh, well, in the meantime I’ll get by somehow. I’ll go on patiently!
ELDER: That Tropicallo, who should have been sealed in the Palace, was able to come out means that the buried Palace is possibly able to be entered…If you receive power from the Mana Seed, your memory may return…
POPOIE: What!? Say that kind of thing upfront! I’ll go now–let’s go right now! (It’s this redundant in Japanese.)
ELDER: For you to go alone would be impossible! Since the Palace was buried, it’s become infested with monsters! …[You] Traveler, who defeated Tropicallo! Is there any way you could take this child with you to the Palace?
Popoie joins Randi, and eventually makes his way back to the Upper Land, where he returns to his village. Upon entering, he finds it empty, and only hears the shriek of a demonic bird in the vicinity. One of Square’s official sources says that this bird prefers internal organs and its nails are always dyed with blood, leaving us with a gruesome possibility for the village attack. After defeating it, they find that Popoie’s grandfather is possibly the only survivor; the attack is the work of the Empire. Grandpa, as he’s called, tells Popoie more about the sprites and their relationship to Mana:
GRANDPA: Humans are dissolving the seals on the Mana seeds and trying to once again resurrect an ancient evil…If Mana disappears, we sprites will also vanish from this world…
POPOIE: Alas…So that everyone can come back to the village, I’ll show them that *I* can protect Mana!
Here we see that Popoie is of a group of individuals who are sometimes at odds with humans, who abuse Mana and affect the sprites’ very livelihoods. I see some similarities between the sprites and characters from other Square games of the time. In Final Fantasy VI, we have the Espers from a separate world who are exploited for their abilities. In Chrono Trigger, there is tension between the humans and mystics, and also between the Enlightened Ones who can use magic and the Earthbound Ones who they exploit. As a side note, Popoie is likely the spiritual ancestor of Charlotte in Trials of Mana.
Sadly, Grandpa’s words ring true when Randi must defeat the Mana Beast, which will cause the world of humans and the world of spirits and sprites to split in two. The exact reason for this is not clear. It seems that the balance of Mana keeps the world in harmony. The Mana Beast is trying to restore the Mana that was taken by the Fortress, and with Randi defeating it, that Mana is not fully rebalanced and the worlds must separate. The final image of Secret of Mana is of Popoie looking back at the world he just left.
- Popoie is referred to as, “chibi”, “chibi-chan”, and “chibisuke” throughout the Japanese script. We’ve left this untranslated on the site. It’s close to, “little one”, or “squirt.”
- Different releases of the game have approached the gender issue in various ways. Ted Woolsey’s SNES translation used masculine and gender neutral pronouns. In the French translation, Popoie is male, and in German, female. The 2018 remake used the singular “they” for Popoie, but if you look at the Art of Mana quote at the top of the page, you’ll see that only masculine pronouns were used by the creators in 2020.
Much discussion centers on Popoie using gender neutral third person pronouns in Japanese. This is not the same in English, as just about anyone uses these pronouns regardless of gender. On the other hand, Popoie uses a first person pronoun that’s understood to be masculine, and characters refer to him with words that are generally used to address men.
Further confusion comes from the creators using a word that’s close to “genderless” when the game was released and also this from the Japanese manual:
As one translator explained, the words here that indicate unknown gender are likely referring to the question of what is Popoie, rather than a matter of gender expression. In other words, Randi is a human male, Purim is a human female and Popoie is a _______? I’ll borrow a quote from a Japanese person in the Secret of Mana: Reborn commentary who explains the tricky situation succinctly:
“Popoie’s gender self-identification is ‘male’ by our standard according to how he behaves and presents himself. The sex/biological classification is ‘unknown’ or even nonexistent because he is not necessarily an organic being. He is more of a manifestation of Mana/magic.”
As you can see, this is a difficult thing to get “right.” While I used “he” in my writeup here, there’s nothing wrong with “they”, or even a combination of the two. All three of these approaches have been adopted at various points. It’s been personally fascinating to hear so many different perspectives from so many folks on this, one the many rewarding aspects of exploring this game.