The Shadow Of Courage, Courage The Cowardly Dog

At first I wondered if the title “The Shadow Of Courage” were a riff on The Red Badge Of Courage but no — apart from the grammatical structure and perhaps some of the themes (of bravery vs cowardice) this plot line borrows little from the classic American novel.

Shadows who disentangle themselves from their bodies are a staple of horror, and especially, perhaps, of camp horror comedy.

STORYWORLD OF “SHADOW OF COURAGE”

The Moon

Set in ‘Nowhere’, the moon in this particular story is even more important than usual. The very first image we see is of a huge moon. We see it again and again. The moon, we are lead to believe, has something to do with anthropomorphised shadows.

See also: The Rule Of Oversized Moons In Picturebooks

moon

The house of Eustace and Muriel itself is a dream house, with the kitchen as a metonym for happiness (during the day and when Muriel is working away in it) but a terrifying prison by night. When Courage makes mischief after Eustace locks him in the attic, Eustace threatens that next he’ll be ‘sleeping with the termites’. This is a real threat because in the dream house there is only one place more terrifying than the attic, and that is the basement.

See: Symbolism Of The Dream House 

Mismatched Shadows

A trick sometimes utilised in graphic design is seen in the two images below, in which the shadow cast differs from the person/object casting the shadow. It’s generally used for ominous effect, but could also be comical. I use it in our picture book app Midnight Feast to show how the main character is angry at being sent back to bed.

Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds movie poster
The Shadow magazine cover
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson
In Powder and Crinoline, 1912, Kay Nielson

STORY STRUCTURE

In this story we have elements of

  • “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”
  • A psychological thriller, in which a character doubts his own sanity

SHORTCOMING

Courage is terrified of the thunderstorm outside. He imagines a burglar breaking and entering.

imaginary-burglar

Unfortunately for Courage, he first coaxes Eustace and Muriel out of bed by telling them (via transmogrification) that there is a burglar in the house. When it turns out there is no such burglar Eustace and Muriel are disinclined to believe him when a real baddie enters the house. That’s where The Boy Who Cries Wolf analogy comes in.

DESIRE

He wants to save his family from the intruder, whatever it is. This is the same in every episode.

OPPONENT

The opponent, as in the previous Courage story, is introduced to us first. At first we think the main opponent of this story might be the evil old man looking at the moon through his telescope. But he soon dies of a heart attack.

Here is the establishing shot of the aristocrat’s house. He lives all alone in a big, dark mansion. We know that no good comes to old people who live alone in massive houses.

See Old Dark House at TV Tropes

You know that old, foreboding house up on the top of the hill, surrounded by thick forests, and accessible only by a single bridge that has a tendency to wash out during every rainstorm? Yeah, that one. Have you ever noticed that it always seems to attract eclectic groups of strangers who get invited for the reading of a will or a dinner party with a mysterious host? And why is it that the strangers keep getting killed off, one by one, during the night? It must be one of them doing it? But which?

aristocrats-house
evil-aristocrat

Next, we think the opponent of this story might actually be the butler, who has just been fired and looks about to turn evil. In fact, the butler is just a McGuffin. We don’t wonder what happens to him after he throws down his napkin and runs off, free for the first time in 50 years.

loyal-butler-mcguffin

We then see the dead aristocrat’s shadow morph into a shape on the wall, taking on a life of its own. This is the real opponent of this story.

The viewer is shown right away that this shadow is playful in nature. First it terrifies a little girl eating an ice cream.

After she runs away it terrifies the scoop of ice cream she has dropped on the ground, which wobbles in fright. As a show for little kids, it’s important to establish that the baddie is playful/hapless/ironic/quirky.

As usual, Eustace is another of Courage’s long-term opponents. Not least because it is Eustace who locks Courage in the attic.

courage-in-the-attic

Eustace takes great delight in scaring Courage for fun and criticising him for failing to be a real dog, which strikes me as a variation on fathers jibing their sons for failing to be a real man. Here he scares him, but when Muriel enters and whacks him on the head with a rolling pin he gets his comeuppance and the audience is pleased that justice has been served.

eustace-scares-courage

PLAN

The worst thing that could happen to Courage right now happens — Eustace locks him in the attic all alone. From the third-floor window he can see the evil approaching.

courage-in-the-attic

He breaks out to tell Eustace and Muriel, which is always his first plan — taken, of course, from the nature of real dogs.

breaking-out-of-the-attic

Although this series features a 1950s sensibility, Courage uses the Internet to find out how to defeat an evil shadow. This series was made in the early days of the Internet and the writers make a joke out of the way Google asks if you really mean such-and-such. It’s hard to remember now that this was ever novel.

searching-the-net
computer-courage

BIG STRUGGLE

There is an extended big struggle sequence as the evil shadow chases first Courage then Eustace around the house.

scary-kitchen

At one point Courage is hiding under the sink and Eustace in the fridge. We don’t know where Eustace is hiding until he emerges, which heightens the comedy. He has also lost his hat. Eustace’s baldness is also a source of amusement.

eustace-in-the-fridge

Eustace starts to doubt his own sanity, running around his own house chased by a shadow.

ANAGNORISIS

The Evil Shadow turns out to be a meek and mild character who has been held captive by his evil aristocrat for many years. He’s always wanted to work in show business and is really not evil at all.

evil-shadow-confession

NEW SITUATION

For the short future, at least, Eustace and Courage are just a bit more afraid of shadows than they were before. When Muriel comes back to bed they first see her hair in curlers and are terrified once again.

muriel-curlers

In a scene reminiscent of E.T., the shadow flies into the sky because Courage has suggested he be the shadow of a star.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Cajun Granny Stew Courage The Cowardly Dog

“Cajun Granny Stew” has influences from:

  • Shakespeare
  • Classic Fairytales
  • Road Runner
  • Mr Magoo

STORY STRUCTURE OF CAJUN GRANNY STEW

SHORTCOMING

Courage is scared of birds. So how is going to possibly deal with a formidable opponent like a shady fox?

park-bench-courage-scared-1
"I don't like birds. They make fun of me!"
“I don’t like birds. They make fun of me!”

Quite often in a comic story there is a main opponent and then there are lesser evils. The birds are actually harmless, despite their… teeth.

DESIRE

When a fox abducts the sleeping Muriel for stew Courage wants to get her back.

OPPONENT

The fox. The fox has an evil plan of his own, which is to make himself a delicious Cajun stew. Although he has sourced all kinds of hard-to-get items he is in the middle of cooking it before realising with horror that it tastes disgusting and needs a granny as a major ingredient. We see right away that this fox, unlike other craftier foxes, doesn’t plan ahead. (This will be his downfall.)

cajun-stew

In this episode we see the opponent first. But we are introduced to him gradually, bit by bit. First we see the outside of his lair.

foxs-lair

Then we see him cooking a Macbeth type concoction. But we only see his skinny arms. His body is revealed slowly, and we wonder who is talking in this deep, smooth voice a la Isaac Hayes (the chef off South Park).

"One pair of elephant ankles..." Oddly specific body parts make for good comedy.
“One pair of elephant ankles…” Oddly specific body parts make for good comedy.

Much of the comedy of this character is that he is serenading the granny as if she is a love interest rather than a cut of meat.

Courage and this fox are evenly matched. Both have obstacles thrown into their paths. For example, the fox tries to get away with granny in a taxi but then gets a flat tyre.

fox-taxi-granny

Although the fox is making cajun stew, he himself is not Cajun: he is try-hard Cajun. We see this when he slaps a pair of cool sunglasses on before leaving his lair. Later we also hear him say ‘vinegar’ with a slight French drawl. The Cajun from Louisiana as a baddie is a common trope in fiction, so the audience knows immediately that this fox is a badass.

Cajun people are originally from Canada.

Cajuns are originally from Canada. They trekked down to Louisiana by several routes after the French and Indian War resulted in the transfer of Canada to British rule. As a result, the Cajuns have a Southern U.S. culture with French-Canadian roots, and are an ethnic group mainly living in southwestern Louisiana

TV Tropes

The cuisine is noteworthy and since many Cajuns were farmers and not especially wealthy, they were known for not wasting any part of a butchered animal. It makes sense that these animal parts were made into stew. Likewise, the fox in this story does not waste a single part of his meat, including her overcoat, gumboots and spectacles.

Original Cajun stew uses sausage, which explains why Courage tries to swap Muriel for one of those.

PLAN

Courage is forced to change his plan when each one is foiled. Because Courage is a sympathetic character he first tries to do the right one. He steals a salami from the butcher and offers the salami to fox in exchange for the granny back.

butchers

When this doesn’t work he slaps the fox over the head with it.

He persuades the Fox to have a game of pokies. When he wins with three (ironic) hearts the fox gets punched in the face.

When the fox loses Muriel altogether he floats with a single helium balloon over the landscape and uses a pair of binoculars to scout her out.

balloon-binocular

And so on.

BIG STRUGGLE

This is a Road Runner type big struggle involving roadblocks, cliffs, drops into rivers, smashing against cliffs and cartoon bombs.

bomb
a cartoon bomb
bottom of a cliff
bottom of a cliff

Although this is a country area, props appear out of nowhere — e.g. the pokie machine which punches the fox in the face, the telephone booth to call the police.

As also tends to happen in picturebooks (see Walter The Farting Dog and A Fish Out Of Water) the police turn up right away when called.

A lot of this episode takes place high in the air, which feels as if the stakes are raised even though cartoon characters can fall to the ground at any time and get right back up again.

When Muriel puts her own life in danger Courage and the fox unite to save her from plummeting to her death. As they stand together counterbalancing the plane we see for ourselves just how similarly matched these foes are.

Muriel sleepwalks across the wings of a plane
Muriel sleepwalks across the wings of a plane

Muriel wakes in midair but assumes she’s just having “one of those floating dreams.”

muriel-sleep-floating

As in every episode of this series, someone comes very close to death.

Here Muriel is ready to be eaten, but after seasoning her the fox decides to roll her in flour.

muriel-on-a-plate

This ghostly colour makes her look even closer to death.

ANAGNORISIS

There is no anagnorisis. Courage falls into the fox’s lair by pure accident, through a chimney hole in the roof.

NEW SITUATION

Like the ending of (non-sanitised) Three Little Pigs and similar classic tales, the evil canid ends up in the stew himself. Granny wakes up and smells ‘fox stew’. (We don’t see the fox go into the pot.) From inside the pot the fox says, “Cajun stew is not for you!”

Muriel suggests they eat and Courages says, “No thanks, I’ve had enough Cajun for one day!”

fox-stew
Lemon girl young adult novella

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At The Katz Motel (Pilot) Courage The Cowardly Dog: A Night

“The Katz Motel” is the wonderful pilot episode of horror comedy for kids, Courage The Cowardly Dog.

If you’re anything like me you can’t stand anything on the Cartoon Network for too long. A lot of those shows seem like ill-conceived, overly chatty, highly-polished but vapid productions designed to sell toys. Courage The Cowardly Dog is an exception. My daughter saw this on Netflix and persuaded me to watch it ‘because I know you’d love it!’ and she was right. Courage is now a family favourite. Courage is a product of Cartoon Network Studios, also responsible for Cow and Chicken, Johnny Bravo and more recently — also a hit with my daughter — Adventure Time, which is a high rating on IMDb so much also be popular with adult men.

Four series of Courage were made between the years of 1999 and 2002. I’m guessing Courage was influenced by Ren and Stimpy, which ran between 1991 and 1996.

Courage The Cowardly Dog was created/written/directed by John R. Dilworth, who previously wrote for Sesame Street. We first see Courage in the short cartoon The Chicken From Outer Space.

This chicken makes a cameo in the pilot of the spin-off series, floating in Muriel’s bath.

chicken-bathtub

GENRE BLEND OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG

Horror comedy

Done well, this is a highly successful blend. Horror and comedy have a lot in common when you look closely at story structure. The line between the two is also very fine, and the advantage of writing a horror comedy is that you don’t need to worry about accidentally tipping over into comedy territory — you can indulge fully in the ridiculousness of horror and have fun with it.

Horror is a highly symbolic genre with a vast library of tropes and established storylines. Each of the Courage stories explores one of the main horror tropes. This affords the show a dual audience, as adult viewers will recognise a lot of them from well-known horror films and novels.

In this pilot episode the writer makes use of the trope of the Hotel California. (You can never leave…) At TV Tropes it’s referred to as The Inn Of No Return.

In horror, the spooky hotel has a long history. For example:

Short stories which rely on the reader’s familiarity with this trope, so , indirectly:

STORY WORLD OF COURAGE THE COWARDLY DOG

There are three main characters plus a variety of baddies. Some of the baddies are recurring. The viewer doesn’t have to have seen earlier episodes in order to understand subsequent ones, because the setting is summed up succinctly in the intro of each episode:

Narrator: We interrupt this program to bring you… Courage the Cowardly Dog Show, starring Courage, the cowardly dog! Abandoned as a pup, he was found by Muriel, who lives in the middle of Nowhere with her husband, Eustace Bagge! But creepy stuff happens in Nowhere. It’s up to Courage to save his new home!
Eustace: (turns off TV) Stupid dog! You made me look bad! (pulls out mask) BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA!
Courage: AAAAAHHHHH!!!

The story appears to be set in the mid 20th Century, with similar technologies (except when it suits…)

courage-intro-tv

I came across a theory about the setting of Courage The Cowardly Dog. Eustace and Muriel live in a place called ‘Nowhere’. It is literally one house in the middle of a plain. This makes it all the more hilarious that so many evil characters come by their place. (All bad, no goodies!) Someone said that the town of Nowhere is simply a representation of how Courage sees his world, not how it actually is. Because his owners are too old to take him for walks, all Courage knows is his immediate environment. To him the rest of the world is completely unknown and might just as well not exist. Each baddie who comes into the vicinity — be it the milkman or the postman or the guy delivering a new mattress — is simply perceived by Courage as the baddie, because he is a poorly trained, anxious dog.

Eustace and Muriel's living room
Eustace and Muriel’s living room

I like this theory very much, as the human companion of an anxious dog. I’m going with it.

Hilariously, even though Muriel and Eustace seem to be the only human inhabitants of Nowhere, the town gets its own newspaper. This is read by Eustace, who is oblivious to huge headlines which will say something about an evil chicken coming to town, or whoever the opponent happens to be for that episode. Eustace never notices these headlines.

An argument against this theory is that Muriel and Eustace really are country farmers. Muriel wears black gumboots. They drive a pick-up truck. The music has a country twang and their house is a ranch style building. The good thing about this setting — storytelling wise — is that it allows for the full complement of Western tropes, too — another highly symbolic genre.

Like the scenes out of Ren and Stimpy, there is a grimy feel to this cartoon. The backgrounds are an admixture of different textures and unattractive palettes (contrasting, say, with something like Spongebob Squarepants, which has an appealing palette of bright colours that one might use to decorate a baby’s bedroom.) The perspective is off-kilter, with rooms in the house appearing lopsided. The stories themselves are ‘off-kilter’ — before the action begins in each story Courage and the viewer realise that there’s something not quite right about this scenario.

Establishing shot of the Katz Motel.
Establishing shot of the Katz Motel.

MAGIC REALISM

There is something magical about this world. For instance, the sign to the Katz Motel is shorting, with the NO flashing on and off. This makes the sign look like it’s alive and is saying ‘No! Don’t stay here!’

katz-motel

They stay in room 666 and a half. This is a world in which the devil has influence. (666 is the devil’s number — the ‘half’ positions this setting somewhere between natural worlds.)

room-666-and-a-half

HORROR/NOIR TROPES

the-revolving-bed
A revolving bed which flips over and takes the sleeper to a different place
moving-eyes
Eyes that move in the portraits on the walls. This trope is also used in the picturebook Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner
staircase in Courage the Cowardly Dog
A dark staircase with shadows in the corners — a scene straight out a noir film set in a city
A secret lab of genetically engineered terrifying creatures
A secret lab of genetically engineered terrifying creatures

STORYBOARDING TECHNIQUES

Much use is made of shadow, high and low angles and also framing.

For more on framing see Composition In Film and Picturebooks.

bath-through-door-frame
a-disturbing-scene

CHARACTERS

Muriel and Eustace are an old married couple who don’t seem to particularly like each other but have settled into homely familiarity. Not only are they oblivious to each other, they are oblivious to everything. A notable feature is that they both wear round spectacles which have no eyeballs. They go about their day-to-day routine not really noticing that they are in great peril.

Muriel

Muriel is a Scottish woman whose accent underscores her basically reassuring and cosy attitude towards life. Nothing gets Muriel into a flap. This on its own provides for a lot of comedy because she regularly finds herself close to (ridiculous) death.

Muriel provides the comic juxtaposition between comfort and horror. Straight horrors do this too. You know if a movie opens with a character driving down a dark road at night singing joyfully to a song on the radio something bad is going to happen to them. Muriel, likewise, is inclined to sink into a hot tub, make a comment about how nice it is to finally relax, before facing a near death experience.

Muriel doesn’t have a catchy catch phrase as such, but she regularly comes out with platitudes such as suggestions for cups of tea and a lie down. She reminds me very much of the Mrs Scott character in the Disney miniseries adaptation of Little House On The Prairie.

Mrs Scott from Little House On The Prairie, though this character is unsympathetic. Muriel is very likeable.
Mrs Scott from Little House On The Prairie, though this character is unsympathetic. Muriel is very likeable.

Eustace

Eustace is different altogether. He is the archetypal grumpy old man who enjoys playing tricks on Courage (who we understand belongs to Muriel). One of his favourite tricks is to put on a huge mask just to scare Courage.

Eustace has a catch phrase: “Stupid dog!”

He mutters a lot of things by way of complaint, and viewers understand that these obscured words are profanities.

Courage The Cowardly Dog

Courage, at first glance, is ironically named. But what does it really mean to be courageous?

He can talk, but only to the audience. He can’t talk to the other characters in the setting. In order to communicate with them — usually at the climax where the baddie is about to ruin everything — he has the ability to transmogrify into the baddie he is trying to describe. This is visually very effective comedy.

courage-transmogrifies

Another trick which allows Courage to succeed against evil so effectively: He is able to produce all manner of items from nowhere (from a pocket?). He is able to run off screen for a second and come back with a cannon, as he does in this episode.

courage-cannon-ball

Courage is the ‘everydog’ hero. He is regularly thrust into life-and-death situations but deep down would love nothing more than to stay at home with his beloved Muriel and live a quiet life. However, these characters come close to death in every episode.

Courage has catch phrases:

  • “Oh nooo!”
  • “…or my name is [Aloysius], and it’s not!”
  • Courage also has the final words in each story, speaking to the camera.

Courage is a grandson to Muriel and an annoying little brother to Eustace.

An appearance quirk of Courage is that sometimes his teeth appear to have holes in them and other times they don't.
An appearance quirk of Courage is that sometimes his teeth appear to have holes in them and other times they don’t.

The Opponents

There is a recurring young Chinese man (Japanese?) who drives a flash convertible and is very good with technology. He uses technology as weapons in Wiley Coyote fashion.

Other baddies are often animals — chickens, ducks etc. — and they’re often doing human jobs. In this story we have a cat managing a hotel.

STORY STRUCTURE

Each episode is a precise 22:30 minutes give or take just a few seconds. Each episode is divided into two shorter complete and stand-alone stories, much like Cat Dog and other shows inspired by Looney Tunes. That makes each story about as long as a picture book.

This particular story has what I call a ‘circular’ ending, or at least the hint of one.

SHORTCOMING

Because this is the pilot episode quite a few seconds are spent on setting up the most salient point about this dog: He is easily scared. The ‘camera’ lingers on him shaking as a lightning bolt flashes. He is huddled on an old woman’s lap in the car.

Despite being terribly afraid, Courage will need to save the day because he regularly notices things about the environment which laid back Muriel and self-absorbed Eustace are oblivious to.

DESIRE

no-dogs-allowed

The three of them have just pulled into a Motel in the middle of nowhere and plan to stay for a night. Courage would love to sleep in the same bed as his beloved owner Muriel (we assume) but is not allowed.

Instead, he is tied up outside.

courage-defeated

OPPONENT

The evil master of this joint is a red cat called Katz. The viewer is left in no doubt as to his evilness.

  1. He speaks in received pronunciation, which to an American audience (and increasingly to a world audience) means evil and also smart.
  2. He is a cat. The audience needs no help to get the idea that a dog’s natural enemy is a cat. This makes Katz an excellent choice for the opponent in the pilot episode.
  3. His facial expressions are decidedly evil. The camera lingers on his face and he gives an unambiguous, over-the-top scowl to the audience.
katz-the-opponent
Katz addresses his unseen 'children' as 'my lovelies' and tells them to clean up their room, like any benign parent visiting upon a teenager in their bedroom.
Katz addresses his unseen ‘children’ as ‘my lovelies’ and tells them to clean up their room, like any benign parent visiting upon a teenager in their bedroom.
spiders
The viewer is treated to a close up and later an extreme close up of the spider's maw.
The viewer is treated to a close up and later an extreme close up of the spider’s maw.
Though not captured in this still shot, Katz has a wonderful saunter. We often see only part of his body at a time, making him seem comically ominous.
Though not captured in this still shot, Katz has a wonderful saunter. We often see only part of his body at a time, making him seem comically ominous.

PLAN

Courage is tied up on the verandah. When Katz opens a box and a massive spider crawls out, heading straight for him, he pulls a variety of industrial tools from his ‘pocket’ and breaks free (ironically he is unable to break the leash with the tools but manages to do it with his own teeth).

box-of-spider
Notice the storm going on, with thunderous clouds. Pathetic fallacy.
spider-approaches
The spider scuttles towards Courage, which is also towards the viewer. Viewer = Courage.
courage-industrial-tool

He gets inside using a cannon ball.

He tries to wake up Eustace, who is a heavy sleeper.

waking-eustace

Next, his plan is to save Eustace and Muriel from the evil spiders who are under the command of the evil cat. The spiders are entering the bedroom (where Eustace sleeps) and the bathroom (where Muriel bathes). They will bandage them up in webs and eat them.

spider-from-faucet

Courage comes up with a variety of ways to defeat the spiders in an action sequence which ducks between scenes of Muriel in the bath and of Eustace in the bed. At one point he pulls a plank of wood off the wall, uses it to reach the web near the ceiling, then uses the same plank to whack the spider on the head.

plank-rescue

Muriel, struggling with a huge spider in the bathtub tells Courage to find help.

high-angle-view-courage-reception-area
A high angle view of Courage to make him look small and powerless.

BIG STRUGGLE

All of these challenges with the massive spiders lead to the main big struggle, between Courage and Katz.

In a scene right out of a nightmare, Courage has gone to get help from management (Katz) but ends up being chased down a long corridor after accidentally stumbling upon a laboratory where Katz has been breeding these monstrous spiders. The corridor comes to an end. There’s no escape.

Note the Ken Burns effect. We've entered a nightmare-scape now.
Note the Ken Burns effect. We’ve entered a nightmare-scape now.

So, in pure comedic fashion, Katz suggests they settle this big struggle with a game of squash. It makes sense, in a dreamlike way, because the end of a corridor is basically great for playing squash against. This is the main big struggle.

The big struggle is comedic because Katz is excellent at squash whereas Courage ends up in a puddle of sweat. Katz is so good at squash that he can hit the ball with a nonchalant flick of the tail while reading a book on spiders or leaning against the sidewall sipping a cup of tea. (Remember he is English.)

katz-drinks-tea
katz-reads-spider-almanac

Meanwhile, the big struggle continues for Muriel in the bath. She manages to throw her massive spider into the toilet and flush it away.

muriel-flushes-spider

Then she dries herself (comically), puts on her black gumboots and in no-nonsense fashion sets out to find Courage.

Courage collapses onto the floor in exhaustion.

courage-exhausted-squash

Good use is made of camera angles, which make Katz seem huge and Courage seem very small.

low-angle-view-of-katz

Suddenly Katz is captured by bringing his squash racket (which has appeared out of nowhere) down over his head. Muriel has saved the day, using a ridiculously benign weapon against this formidable character.

katz-defeated-with-squash-racket

ANAGNORISIS

Muriel makes a dismissive comment about this being ‘a fine way to spend a holiday’ (a great example of understatement) and realises they should cut their holiday short.

The hierarchy is that Courage saves Eustace and Muriel saves Courage.

courage-rescues-eustace

NEW SITUATION

going-home

Muriel is driving them home in their utility vehicle. Eustace is snoring, still tied up with spider’s thread, unable to move but completely oblivious. Muriel says, “That’s a fancy blanket Grandpa has on. Maybe we should get you one!”

This is a trick used by many picture book authors to encourage the reader to think about what might come next. With Muriel’s joke we can see the whole saga happening again. There’s no rest for Courage.

As mentioned above, horror and comedy have similar story structures. An example of an adult horror film which makes use of this circular ending is Dead Calm (1989) starring Nicole Kidman, Sam Neill and Billy Zane, whose acting style as a baddie often embraces the comedic. Another way in which a horror baddie is similar to a comedic baddie: They just keep on keeping on. In horror they’re like machines. They’ll crawl through a pool of their own blood with their legs missing to get you back. In comedy the opponent is just as irrepressibly annoying/oblivious/scheming. (Think Newman off Seinfeld, who never changes.)

However, we assume the trio gets home safely — we haven’t seen where home is yet — and that another perilous adventure awaits us in the next episode, even if it doesn’t involve spiders exactly.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Another successful of a cartoon horror comedy is, of course, Scooby Doo.

Lemon girl young adult novella

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Wolf Children Japanese Anime

Wolf Children movie poster

The Japanese anime Wolf Children is an inspiring and engaging film for miniature nature lovers. I have recommended this film to people completely forgetting that it is basically a very sad story though, so consider yourself warned!

I wonder if the author of Wolf Children was inspired by the story of Amala and Kamala, two “feral girls” from Bengal who are alleged to have been raised by wolves.

Transgression

By Western standards, this film feels transgressive in parts. For example, the bedroom scene between a human and a dog (kissing). It’s one thing to read in a novel about a young woman in love with a werewolf type creature, but I note with interest that Bella Swan never once kisses Jacob while he’s in his wolf form, at least not in the film adaptations. Imagine interspecies romantic scenes getting through in Hollywood.

Likewise, there is a conspicuous absence of nipples and breastfeeding in Western children’s stories. Why on earth don’t we see nipples in every single picture book about getting a new little baby brother or sister? If you want to normalise breastfeeding for your kids and expose them to cartoon nipples that are also not pornographic, to Japan you must go.

breastfeeding wolf children

Storyteller As Narrator

The film is narrated by a nostalgic ‘character as storyteller‘.

The vast majority of stories make use of an unseen, omniscient narrator, but Yuki makes a good storyteller since she likes school (presumably making her good at words) and lives in the human world as an adult.

Wolf Children As An Allegory For Autism?

The director made this film to explore parenthood, and motherhood in particular. But this story is interesting to consider as a possible metaphor for having an invisible neurological difference such as autism. I can’t find anyone else who has come up with the same conjecture in English, but I did find someone in Japanese.

I wonder what she'll grow up to be
  • Reading all you can about the condition
  • Having to give up your part-time job and study, having no time to take care of yourself.
  • Having neighbours judge your children without understanding the reasons behind it
no pets in the city
  • Wanting to shield your children from the outside, judgmental world.
  • Navigating the medical system: “Should I take her to a paediatrician or a vet?” (“To a paediatrician or a psychologist?”)
vet or pediatrician wolf children
  • Watching a group of other mothers laughing in the park, hiding behind a tree, thinking what it must be like to be ‘normal’.
  • Having weird interests and collections. (Nightmare fetishist)
strange collections
  • “That brat of yours needs a muzzle.”
  • Being keenly aware of negative depictions of your children in children’s books so steering your children away from them, curating to the point where you even feel like you need to write your own.
  • Deciding who to disclose and not disclose to.
long shot of neighbours
  • Having your child notice: “Everybody’s always mean to [wolves]. Because of that I don’t want to be a [wolf].” (I just want to be normal.)
Why is the wolf always bad
  • Seeing your daughter struggle with the complex social world of girls: “I didn’t know how girls were supposed to act. All I knew is I was doing it all wrong.”
upset at being different
  • The transmogrification into a wolf body as a metaphor for meltdowns
  • Ame is bullied at school. (Loners are freaks.)
  • The feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere
  • Feeling more attracted to the animal/natural world than to the human one, which seems impossible to navigate without the neurotypical levels of intuition
  • Letting go of your children to make their own decisions even though you feel they’re still too naive to navigate the world. (Though they’re adults in terms of years they may be younger psychologically, which is hard for a parent to deal with.)
  • The city is a metaphor for isolation. So is the country, but by surrounding ourselves with just a few people who are genuinely caring it’s no longer isolating at all.

Wolf Children, being a classic coming-of-age story, is also an allegory for growing up in general, and making the decision to be one thing or another, all the while realising that if you choose one path, the other is closing over.

Chimera

Like a lot of anime, including many of the popular Hayao Miyazaki, this one is about transmogrification. The European tradition won’t find this particular transformation foreign: It’s basically a werewolf tale.

Beast and Beauty Trope

Plot Structure Of Wolf Children

Note on the plot structure: In the city Hana is isolated. The opponent/ally character web is set up only after she moves to the country. (Later than in most movies.)

Though the director says the story is about all three in this family, the main character is Hana. The focus is on her internal growth between the ages of 19 and 32, particularly her growth into motherhood. In order to work out which character is the main one, ask which changes the most, psychologically, not in circumstance. The mother goes from loner to living as part of a community, whereas the children simply grow up and become who they really are, so I make an argument for Hana as main character.

This is unusual in a story which is essentially for children/young adults.

wolf children with mum
In anime it’s common to make a distinction between two characters by making one wear red and the other wear blue. But by the end of the movie this colour coding has been reversed. Perhaps because Ame is now the wild one and Yuki is the tame, calm one.

Anagnorisis, need, desire

Hana needs to learn how to deal with isolation.

She also needs to learn how to live in nature rather than learning entirely from books, which is what served her in the city. Hana is a bookish City Mouse.

Hana’s Name

hana surrounded by flowers

Written as ‘flower’ in Japanese, Hana is basically learning to get in touch with nature, and since flowers are a part of nature, her name suggests that this aspect is an inherent aspect of her true self.

wolf children library

A ‘city mouse’ in a story is most often female. This is a version of the Fish Out Of Water Story. Generally, the advice to writers is:

[I]f establishing a pre-existing norm isn’t absolutely vital, skip it. Leave it out altogether, if you possibly can. Instead, start in médias res. In general practice, that means starting your actual narrative just before, or even during, the first major conflict or confrontation: the point at which things start to get serious, when they start moving toward final crisis.

Specifically, that means starting a short story just before the main crisis which will provide the story’s resolution. Start a novel during the first crisis, because you’ll have time to draw back and explain how things got that way later in the first chapter, or even in chapter two.

Don’t tell how the protagonist decided to go out and buy fireworks, how much they cost, how he brought them home, how he stored them, what his wife said. Begin when the fuse is lit and the reader sees a bang coming any minute.

Ansen Dibell

But certain genres demand the establishment of a norm, e.g. The fish out of water story. (A fish has to be ‘in water’ before s/he can be out of it.)

the city equals books

Hana’s apartment is full of books.

Ghost (a.k.a. backstory)

Hana’s father is dead (as can be seen in the photo on the book shelf) and her mother isn’t mentioned — Hana is a slightly exaggerated version of an isolated person.

Setting

The Contrast Between Urban and Rural

The choice of story arenas here are linked closely to Hana’s psychological development. Ironically, when surrounded by people, Hana is completely alone. It is only by paring down the noise of crowds that she is able to ‘find her people’.

Initial Setting: Tokyo, 1980s or 1990s

a Tokyo 'mountain' scenery with buildings instead of landforms
a Tokyo ‘mountain’ scenery with buildings instead of landforms

Compared to other, Western fish-out-of-water stories such as Crocodile Dundee, Big and 40-year-old Virgin, Wolf Children affords Hana a significant amount of time in the city. This is not a true fish-out-of-water story — this is the story of a city girl who learns to live in the country — a backwards version, perhaps. A better fit is perhaps the trope of the Naive Newcomer. This type of story is popular in the speculative fiction genres. When Hana gets in touch with nature, the audience goes along with her since we, too, are new to the country village and would have no idea how to survive there alone.

Here Hana sits in a park in Tokyo, wondering what's beyond those trees. But the city is still there, evidenced by the power pylon punctuating the horizon.
Here Hana sits in a park in Tokyo, wondering what’s beyond those trees. But the city is still there, evidenced by the power pylon punctuating the horizon.

The city — as evidenced by all the time Hana spends around books — is a place of book learning.

Wolf Children University crossing the road

The university where Hana and Wolf man meet is modelled on Hitotsubashi University. This is an arts university, so naturally the students of a slightly earlier era are spending a lot of time around books.

The university is in this part of Tokyo:

A lot of the scenes in the animation can be seen in and around the area of Hitotsubashi University. This coffee shop actually exists:

Hakujuji Cafe Wolf Children
Hakujuji Cafe
coffee shop wolf children

This dry-cleaning store also exists:

Wolf Children dry cleaners
City Apartment

Hana’s apartment is just big enough for one to comfortably live. At one point Hana and Wolf Man are shown dipping their kebabs into the same glass of sauce.

kebab dipping
Wolf Children pregnant in apartment in front of drawers

But even in the cozy apartment, there is danger for baby wolves.

danger inside an apartment

The apartment is a haven but turns into a prison.

apartment also a prison
Symbolism of the Bridge

Wolf Man’s initial revelation (that he is a wolf) almost happens on the bridge – but he’s standing too far away from Hana and is unable to tell her in words. The location of the bridge is obviously symbolic: ‘a bridging of two species/minds’

He later dies in the canal below the very same bridge, and because we accept that this bridge is near their apartment, we don’t mind the heavy coincidence.

Seasons

The seasons are super important to Japanese culture and this film includes shots that linger on scenery to show the changing of seasons and therefore the passing of time.

Tokyo at Christmas time
Tokyo at Christmas time
Leaves falling in autumn
Leaves falling in autumn

This rural homestead is also based on a real house. (It’s in Kamiichi, Toyama.)

Subsequent Setting: The Rural Village In The Mountains

Hana takes her children to an old-style Japanese homestead, a la My Neighbour Totoro, Summer Wars and various other Japanese feature-length anime, in which this way of living induces a feeling of nostalgia in a Japanese audience, and also exists for symbolic contrast against the cramped and crowded but convenient life of most Japanese people today. This traditional Japanese sink seems to have particularly evocative associations for a Japanese audience. The same kind of sink can be seen in the old house of My Neighbour Totoro:

traditional sink

This type of beautiful setting is so often used in Studio Ghibli films that it is referred to as Ghibli Hills.

In most anime, especially with ones trying to deliver a message, this speaks to the nostalgia of many older directors for the traditional Japanese countryside that largely no longer exists because of urbanization. One historical western equivalent is Merry England for historical settings. Other times the pristineness is explained by alternate history, particularly the avoidance of major conflict or wars which lets people concentrate on improving themselves.

The house is very cheap to rent but the surrounding area is ‘not viable as farmland’ because “animals come down and eat all the crops and have pushed humans out. In most places it’s the other way around.”

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Psychological Shortcoming: Hana is lonely. In my adult, slightly world-weary view of this relationship, Hana puts up with Wolf man’s shit, smiling stupidly when he turns up late, chasing after him even though he brushes her off rudely. Though it’s now an overused phrase, she really is a bit of a pixie dream girl (without the mania, so much). But this is not the intended reading, I’m sure. Hana is the perfect Japanese girlfriend. She turns into an apron-wearing housewifely figure even before she’s pregnant. (Hey, maybe she shouldn’t have worn that apron…)

Hana’s shortcoming is that she isn’t in touch with her wild side.

She needs to find her place in the world where she can thrive.

Inciting Incident

Hana notices a good-looking young man in her lecture. She’s instantly fascinated by him.

Wolf Man is gruff and his body language suggests he doesn’t want to be bothered. This is the All Girls Want Bad Boys trope in action.

Mystery

Why does this guy come to lectures as an auditor student without bothering to fill out an attendance card?

Desire

To get to know the mysterious good-looking guy in her lectures who never comes with the right gear but who appears to be bookish.

Wolf man is a similar character is Jess in Gilmore girls. (Troubled but cute.)

Ally/Allies

Wolf Man is duplicitous by his supernature, so is Hana’s ally (as a loyal provider and boyfriend) as well as her opponent (by turning into a wolf occasionally and being reckless.)

Once the setting switches to the country, the character web widens to include more complex relationships:

Fake opponent: The grumpy old man who is horribly judgemental about the vegetable growing but ends up helping with his advice. (Jerk with a heart of gold.)

grumpy old man
“Nature just killed your tomato vines. What do you think of that?”

Opponent

In the country, the generic middle-aged neighbour is Hana’s friend but because she’s a regular woman and Hana doesn’t trust her, she is also someone Hana needs to hide her children from. This woman stands for a lot of the people Hana would meet in that environment — very friendly but possibly too sheltered to welcome diversity into the area.

Fake-ally opponent

In a minor way: the two old men who do try to help Hana end up bickering among themselves and offer conflicting advice which is no real use to Hana at all. They stand in contrast to the contrasty old man who is nevertheless useful: “Not all useful advice comes coated in sugar.” (That’s not an actual idiom, but I’m sure there’d be something similar in the history of East Asian thought.)

Attack by ally

Constant jibes from the old man about Hana’s lack of gardening ability.

Changed desire and motive

Hana just wanted to study before but now she wants to know who this fascinating man is.

First revelation and decision

“Hana. Look at me. Tell me what you see.” Fascinating guy turns into a wolf.

Plan

To live as a human couple in the city. Wolf Man will buckle down as a human and get a job as a delivery truck driver. Hana will wear an apron and prepare meals.

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

Presumably due to Wolf man’s irrepressible wild side, she becomes pregnant.

Drive

Now they will bring up a child while hunkering down. Their plan to couple and nest is basically solidified by the news of pregnancy.

Apparent defeat

Wolf man dies in the canal. How can Hana live as a single parent in an expensive city, with two wolf children? All he had in his wallet was 2000 yen (about 30 dollars.) He’s actually left a bit more than that, but we get the idea it’s not much.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Hana will stay in the apartment but live a secret live, concealing her children’s true identity from everyone.

Second revelation and decision

When neighbours send the child protection authorities to the house Hana realizes Tokyo is no place for wolf children. So she decides to move to the country, despite having no money and no job prospects there. Hana wants her children to have the choice between being children and being wolves.

Third revelation and decision

Rather than learning all about gardening and wolves from books, Hana decides to ditch the books. She diligently and humbly takes advice from the crotchety old man neighbour. When Yuki is upset that all the wolves in books are baddies and end up dead, she further shies away from book knowledge. From now on she’ll learn from the natural world itself. (A common response to adversity in Japanese stories is that in order to grow and get out of trouble, the character just has to be humble and work hard. Spirited Away is another example well known in the West.)

Audience revelation

Much later, the audience realizes when Souhei and Yuki are stuck at school debating how they’re going to survive if nobody ever comes to pick them up that this is a replay of Hana and Wolf Man when they were living in Tokyo, trying to work out how to survive alone. Someone comes to check the building is empty: “Hey, what were we hiding for?”

locked in at school

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

The first visit to death is symbolised by the play in the snow in which they all end up as snow angels, looking up at the sky. After this, Ame is catching a bird and almost drowns in the freezing cold river. This creates a juxtaposition between extreme joy and extreme fear.

Battle

There are three big struggle scenes in this epic. The  big struggle between brother and sister is foreshadowed by the big struggle at school in which Yuki bites the new boy’s ear. Next we have man against nature, which is what all the big struggles have been about all along.

Some years later, as adolescent hormones course through her body, Yuki loses her temper at school and bites a new boy. He’s not being mean when he asks if she has a dog at home but she perceives it as being mean, since he says she smells like one.

Next is a literal big struggle scene, rolling around on the floor, noisy big struggle between brother and sister after they make different decisions about going to school (and not). This is an outworking of the psychological turmoil each is having on the inside.

arguing on opposite sides of the table

The third big struggle is the one between Ame and nature. The rain storm that closes the school. Ame takes off into the mountains to look after his secret animal business. Meanwhile, Yuki waits in school for her mother to pick her up, while Hana’s off looking for her son. She comes face to face with a bear and is terrified. (The Bears Are Bad News trope.) But then two bear cubs turn up and she sees the ‘humanity’ in the fearsome wild animals. She falls down a cut bank and is knocked out briefly.

Anagnorisis

I figured out why you made me plant so much. We’re all in that together.

She tells her dead wolf husband that she was wrong about moving to the whop whops because it’s isolated – in the rural area she is surrounded by more people. But it was a good decision.

There is another talk to the drivers’ licence altar when she realises her children are starting to make their own decisions.

Moral decision

After meeting the fox sensei Hana decides to let her own children make their decisions about whether they’ll live the rest of their lives as human or as wolves.

New situation

Yuki takes the human course, though she’s not happy about it and wishes her brother would do the same. But the more introverted Ame has met a fox who he uses as his animal mentor and has fallen in love with the beautiful scenery of the mountains, so decides to live out the rest of his life as a wolf. He answers a ‘call of the wild’ to be the guardian of the mountains. (A classic call-to-adventure, which we don’t actually see all that much of in modern stories — usually, shit happens, characters respond reluctantly and end up growing psychologically.)

Lemon girl young adult novella

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The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

Time travel! Romance! Japan! If you love the films out of Studio Ghibli you’ll love The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, too.

ARC PHRASE

An arc word/phrase is also known as a ‘leitwort’, which literally means ‘lead word’. In order to be an arc phrase and not just a catch phrase the phrase must help define the tone of the entire work, or at least the plot arc.

‘Time Waits For No One’ is a fairly cliched English phrase, but perhaps a Japanese audience finds it a little more exotic, like we find Chinese characters exotic when we tattoo ourselves with them. This idiomatic expression is written across the black board, presumably after an English language lesson, and explains the basic message of this tale: Even if you had the ability to go back in time and change things, you wouldn’t be able to do anything about the basic nature of fate.

The first fire in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The first fire
transferred fate in home economics in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
transferred fate in food technology class

The magic in a very early Twilight Zone episode called One For The Angels (in fact this is the second episode ever) is such that even if you yourself manage to avoid death, the fate must be transferred to someone else.

Proud of having outsmarted Mr. Death and now virtually assured of immortality, Lou is informed by Mr. Death that “other arrangements” must now be made, that someone else will have to take his place. Mr. Death chooses a little girl, one of Lou’s good friends who lives in the same building. When she is hit by a truck Lou immediately offers to go with Mr. Death but is told it is too late.

Wikipedia

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a Japanese anime from 2006 directed by Mamoru Hosada, who is also known for my daughter’s favourite Wolf Children and the long but engrossing Summer Wars. This film based on the novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, which was originally published way back in 1967. It has been adapted many times.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time Japanese Book Cover

For example, there was another (non-anime) film adaptation of this novel made several years later in 2010, but reception wasn’t as good. (Yasutaka Tsutsui also wrote the book Paprika, another well-known anime adaptation.) After the novel The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was adapted into film, it was then adapted back into book form, this time as a graphic novel.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time novel
English version was released 2011.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time has elements of a portal fantasy.

What Is Portal Fantasy?

If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.

If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.

Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.

A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.

The room into the science lab beside the classroom is treated as a kind of portal, with the camera lingering on the door, with a shadow forming a cross over the door. Inside there is a kind of witch’s lair. The mother has already mentioned a ‘witch’ in jest when saying goodbye to Makoto in the morning. She finds something magical on the floor. The colour scheme switches to blues as we accompany her through time, with images of mustangs running across plains and something like the inside of a computer.

This is also a coming-of-age story.

What Is A Coming-of-age Story?

A coming-of-age is film genre that focuses on psychological and moral growth of a protagonist who is growing from youth to adulthood. Personal growth is the most important characteristic in this genre; it relies on emotional responses and dialogue, rather than action.

After finding the time-leaping device Makoto visits her auntie witch who works at an art gallery. Auntie exists to explain the magic/science of time travel and it often happens to girls your age. This marks the motif of the time-leaping device as a metaphor for growing up and its confusion, as well as the almost universal desire to have do-overs after you’ve reflected on a mortifying scene in your teenage life and performed less well than you would’ve liked.

I would also argue that this story is an example of magical realism.

What Is Magical Realism?

Magical realist stories are basically set in the ordinary, everyday world we all share but there is a little bit of magic, unexplained to the audience. We just know that it’s there and accept it. In the case of this story, Makoto’s mother wishes her goodbye in the morning and makes a reference to her going to see her ‘Witch Auntie’. We don’t know exactly why this woman is a witch, but we accept that witches exist in this world.

If the mother had not mentioned the witch auntie I would be more confident in calling this magical realism, because ideally there should be some doubt in the reader’s mind about whether the fantastic elements are real or not. If they mother hadn’t been ‘in on it’ the visits to the witch auntie might well have taken place entirely in Makoto’s mind.

FEMALE RELATIONSHIPS

In the West it can be difficult to find good stories about girls who are friends, without being ‘frenemies’ or without fighting over a boy, or over who looks the prettiest. The abundance of mean girl tropes is frustrating because it’s simply not how female relationships work, and it paints girls out to be nothing but bitchy. To find some excellent stories about female relationships we can instead go to Japan, where we’ll find stories such as this one, with its more nuanced female character web.

IS THIS A FEMINIST STORY?

poster-11262

The film poster itself is a shot of a high school girl who seems to be dressed from the male gaze. By Western standards, the school skirt is far too short. I’ve yet to work out though if Japanese culture sexualises legs to the extent that Western culture does. Short skirts in Japanese schools — at least those that don’t rule otherwise — are very short, and I believe it comes from the fact that legs look longer if skirts are shorter. (An optical illusion as much as an expression of sexuality.) What I am quite sure of, though, is that this female main characters in Western animations are not designed with such short skirts unless that character is the designated hot mean girl.

There are a number of diehard tropes that come out of Japan. One of them is the sharing of the umbrella as a way of striking up a relationship with a stranger you meet on the street. Which is fine. It’s the classic ‘meet cute’ scene, and is common in the West as well.

a scene from Goro Miyazaki's From Up On Poppy Hill
a scene from Goro Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill

Another is the ‘riding bitch’ trope, in which we see a boy give a girl a ride home on his bicycle, him leading the way.

riding bitch trope

This trope is popular in Studio Ghibli animations also.

A father rides with his young daughters in My Neighbour Totoro
A father rides with his young daughters in My Neighbour Totoro
the riding bitch trope in Kiki’s Delivery Service
From Up On Poppy Hill even uses the riding bitch trope as a promotional image

Is there anything wrong with the riding bitch scene? When it happens over and over again it tells boys they must take the lead and girls that they must submit. The real problem is that we never see the gender reversed. That’s when you know it’s a problem.

There is a danger in ‘tomboy’ stories that they border on femme phobic. The empathetic female protagonist has short hair, a unisex name, likes to play baseball and hangs out with guys. She could easily become your classic ‘guy’s gal’, the kind who would say things like, “You know, I really just prefer guys over gals because gals are waaay too much drama.” (Internalised misogyny.) This film avoids that because Makoto doesn’t only have guy friends, she is also close to a girl, and she has a slightly dramatic but loving relationship with her sister, too.

Makoto with her girl friend
Makoto with her girl friend
The two sit together in class.
The two sit together in class.
By the end of the film Makoto has learned to articulate her feelings. Actually, I like that boy she tells her best girl friend, who in another reality hooks up with him. The friend is fine with it.
By the end of the film Makoto has learned to articulate her feelings. Actually, I like that boy she tells her best girl friend, who in another reality hooks up with him. The friend is fine with it.
Don't jump, sis!
Don’t jump, sis!
Makoto with her slightly younger sister
Makoto with her slightly younger sister

Another thing I like about this story is that the girls are allowed to eat. Makoto works up a ravenous appetite by extending her days time-leaping. She raids the fridge in the way most often attributed to teenage boys.

fridge the girl who leapt through time

THIS STORY AS AN INSIGHT INTO JAPANESE CULTURE

When Makoto falls asleep in class her teacher drops a book on her head. While unacceptable in the West, I have seen this sort of interaction happen in Japanese classrooms in this general era — male teachers in particular can sometimes slap students about the head and come down heavy with the ruler right next to someone’s hand. This sort of intimidation is no longer acceptable in many countries.

The ‘purin’ that Makoto’s little sister eats is a loanword from English ‘pudding’ but refers to a specific product. The purin is as much a part of Japanese childhood food culture as the Twinkie seems to be in America. It’s basically set custard that you eat cold out of the fridge in summer.

Purin

In the fridge you can also see cans of Asahi beer, almost certainly for the father’s consumption. They eat teppanyaki one night, which the more feminine younger sister has helped the mother to prepare. Japanese housewives spend a lot of time in the kitchen, as traditional Japanese meals require a lot of preparation time. (Similar to Indian food in that regard.)

Japanese high schools don’t employ cleaners. It’s up to the students to clean their own classrooms daily, and at the end of each term there is an entire afternoon spent on ‘Big Cleaning’, in which students scrub the corridors and toilet floors. It’s therefore quite normal that Makoto would be doing the errand of delivering the stack of books to the science lab, even though in my Western high school this room was full of dangerous chemicals and equipment, and therefore off-limits to all students unless a teacher was present.

Story Structure of Up On Poppy Hill

Anagnorisis, need, desire

Makoto Konno is the classic loveable heroine: clumsy and nondescript (like Bella Swan) who describes herself as average in ability. This is a story of an ordinary girl in an extraordinary situation. I mention above that she is a Japanese ‘tomboy’. Her body language is masculine. In Japan it’s frowned upon for girls to cross their legs while sitting on the couch. When laughing you cover your mouth. But Makoto’s body language is wide and expressive and when she laughs she throws her head back and her mouth becomes comically huge. If you listen to the original Japanese she speaks in a much more masculine manner than the English dub would lead us to believe, even referring to herself as ‘ore’, which is slang for the first person pronoun and generally used only by boys.

Even the name Makoto is more commonly given to boys in Japan (though it’s reasonably popular among girls, too).

Symbolic names work best in comedy and children’s literature.

真琴 is the kanji used for Makoto’s name in this story. When written like this it’s generally a given name for boys. The ‘koto’ refers to the traditional Japanese stringed instrument. ‘Ma’ means ‘truth’.

(The first name of the original 1967 novel was Kazuko is now an out-of-date sounding name, because it was very popular after WW2. In that era girls were given ‘peace’ names, and Kazuko is often written as ‘Peace Child’. It’s therefore reminiscent of grandmothers (and great grandmothers).

Makoto, phonetically, means ‘truth’, which makes this an allegorical name, or an ‘aptronym’ — Makoto must learn to be truthful rather than mucking people around, using time travel to play with their emotions.

Makoto is always leaving disaster in her wake, like setting fire to a pan in cooking class. She tells us via the storyteller narration that she has no real skill in anything and doesn’t even know if she’s going into arts or sciences in senior high school. This is a very important decision in her Japanese life in her third year of middle school because she’s about to enter the ‘study hard’ years. She jokes with her friends that she’ll be a media tycoon or maybe an oil baron.  ‘You need to take life more seriously,’ she is told.

This is a specifically Japanese psychological need for a main character –- in Hollywood you’re more likely to find a main character who needs to lighten up a bit, especially when it comes to teenage girls, who often have their glasses removed as part of their character arc.

Ghost (backstory)

The ghost is something that happened to a character in the past that explains their motivations and reactions. The ghost will be revealed at some point in the story, often quite late.

Since Makoto is depicted as the ‘every girl’ (with a tomboyish nature to make her more endearing) there is nothing really unique about her. A Japanese audience (especially girls, perhaps) will be able to imagine themselves in her position, in this generic Japanese suburb. Therefore, Makoto doesn’t have her own ghost.

The ghost instead belongs to the mysterious Chiaki, who has a secret — where did he come from? Chiaki even gets a ghostlike sequence when he disappears in the ‘statue’ scene, where he and Makoto walk through the frozen crowd. First his body disappears, then Makoto can hear his voice, then he fades away to nothing as if slipping into death.

Setting

the-girl-who-leapt-through-time-movie-poster-2006-1020481806

Place

This story is set in a middle-class Japanese suburb and high school — Shitamachi in Tokyo, which is closely connected to the area of Yamanote. (Shitamachi means Under City.)

This is more like the residences you’ll find in Shitamachi these days. (Google street view.)

Any standalone house in Tokyo is very expensive. This is an affluent family and although Makoto needs to watch her purin to make sure her little sister doesn’t nab it first, things like money and starvation are never an issue. This is a Wind in the Willows type of utopia, where the necessities of life just are. All that’s left is to worry about the social aspect. Even the news announcer is talking about a day which has been designated as a celebration of nice. Makoto runs to school saying ‘Good morning!’ to everyone.

Japanese high school students spend long hours in school and more than in Hollywood high school dramas, this high school feels homelike, with the characters trusted to relax inside the classroom, gazing through windows as if from their own living rooms.

The house where the main character lives is ‘cottage-like’ insofar as a Japanese suburban house can be described as such – there are vines growing attractively across the front.

This is the first we see of Makoto's house — peeking from behind a pole.
This is the first we see of Makoto’s house — peeking from behind a pole.
Even at night the house looks cosy and inviting.
Even at night the house looks cosy and inviting.
Makoto's house, worthy of a desktop image
Makoto’s house, worthy of a desktop image

This suburb is almost a kind of utopia — people are basically kind to each other and there is no real feeling of physical danger.

In Japan, men seem to be standing around doing nothing more than keeping an eye on things.
In Japan, men seem to be standing around doing nothing more than keeping an eye on things.

Among this suburban utopia though, commuter trains running through suburbia present a vague threatening presence; there is just an inadequate safety bar between pedestrians and instant death. Trains are the opponent in nature, the forest equivalent would be a hungry wolf, leaping from behind bushes.

In the vicinity of the train line in the shopping district is a town clock featuring creepy elves. Childhood images equal horror symbols in Japan as in the West, with our clowns, night-time playgrounds and ice-cream van music.

The river running through the suburb is where Makoto goes to practise her time-leaping, and is also a universal metaphor for the inevitable passage of time — the message in this story is that, try as you might, you’ll never really alter the inevitability of getting older, and you can never truly go back. This is demonstrated when Makoto tries to replay things, but finds they are never exactly the same second time around.

The crossroads where Makoto meets with her two friends (time and again) have a sign which says ‘koko kara’, meaning ‘from here’. I haven’t seen this road sign in Japan so I don’t know if it’s a real thing, or a motif designed specifically for this movie. The sign seems to be asking the question: Which road will you choose from here?

crossroads

Time

The story is set in the modern era – the flip phones give us a guide as to exactly when. (That said, flip phones seem to be making a bit of a comeback.) Housewives put dinner on the table. Fathers go to work. Children are given full autonomy to conduct their own school lives during the day. This is no doubt partly due to the fact this is based on a 1967 novel, in which mothers almost always stayed at home and suburbs were almost always safe.

It is July – the height of summer, and they are in the middle of a heat wave. We hear lots of cicadas, which for mainland Japanese mean heat. Our story starts on July 13. Time is important to the plot so we’re told the exact dates and times of events. Clocks are everywhere, in every form — on phones, announced on the TV, digital and analogue clocks.  The main characters are planning what they’ll do during their upcoming summer vacation – they discuss attending the fireworks festival together wearing yukata (summer kimono) or going to the beach.

Shortcoming & Need (Problem)

Makoto’s childhood is about to be left behind because she is preparing to enter senior high school, which in Japan is a really tough undertaking. Once Japanese students get into good universities they are permitted to slack off a bit, but those three years of senior high school definitely mark the end of childhood. (In the West I argue that the age of 12 marks the end of true childhood, at least in children’s stories.) This is symbolised by Makoto being required to choose either the arts or sciences track but having no idea. This is a big problem for her.

That said, high school — at least, the high school in this story — is a kind of utopia. High schools as depicted by Hollywood are so often cold, hard places, and always have the symbolic locker scene, and the running of the gauntlet down the hallway, planning routes to avoid bullies. Bleachers are scary places where bad things can happen. Locker rooms even more so. But this Japanese high school, which looks exactly like a fantasy-enhanced version of the Japanese high school I attended on exchange in the mid nineties, is utopian in nature.

japanese high school utopia

Utopias in Young Adult Literature

It’s significant that this film is based on a young adult novel from the 1960s because we have since entered an age (and I include Japan in this) of the ‘snail under the leaf setting’, in which everything seems hunky dory, but scratch the surface and you’ll see the horror and the rot.

In Sweden, a critic [Sonja Svensson] has coined the notion of idyllophobia, a fear of presenting the world of childhood as idyllic. Children’s and juvenile literature becomes more and more violent, not necessarily in actual depictions of violence, but in the general attitude toward the essence of childhood. The narrative strategies which writers use, most often the autodiegetic unreliable young narrator, amplify the tone of the novels as uncertain, insecure and chaotic. In many novels, notably Cormier’s I Am The Cheese, we see a total disintegration of character, narrative and structure. YA novel as a narrative which goes beyond the point of no return to idyll also transgresses all conventions which are normally ascribed to children’s fiction.

Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature

So Makoto needs to make some big decisions in her life about her future but she is no good academically and has no idea what she wants to do. Most kids her age would at least know whether they are of a science or literature bent, but Makoto needs more time to grow up before facing these decisions. One way around that, of course, is to play around with time. Her days are about to become much longer and jam-packed, because she’ll be reliving the same day over and over until she gets it right, in a Japanese version of Groundhog Day.

Many high school aged main characters are outsiders. I don’t get the feeling that Makoto is an outsider at the beginning of the story. Rather, her magical experiences turn her into a kind of outsider as the events progress.

Here Makoto is framed with her 'head in the clouds'. She is apart from the crowd, cast in shadow.
Here Makoto is framed with her ‘head in the clouds’. She is apart from the crowd, cast in shadow.

Inciting Incident

At the beginning of a coming-of-age story, childhood has already been left behind, and the hero has concluded that the world is not a safe or blissful place. An event that occurred prior to the beginning of the story, or the hero’s overall situation, has made the hero feel lost or stuck in a world over which she has little or no control. 

After the hero’s introduction in the setup of the story, she is presented with an Opportunity that will either make life even worse, or will hold the promise of some escape from his pain. In response, these heroes’ outer motivations are declared, and their pursuit of those goals begins.

The Opportunity Makoto gets is the magical ability to leap through time and have do-overs. This is made possible by the discovery of the time-leaping device, and with practice she learns how to make use of it.

In the original novel, the protagonist is cleaning the science lab and is overcome with the overwhelming scent of lavender. She wakes up three days later, therefore spending significant time in the portal. In the film, too, the screenwriters make sure to linger on the science lab. First we have the door. (The portal is literally a door in this story.) The shadow moves to form a cross on the door knob, as if daring Makoto to enter. The lab is chock full of equipment which gleams in the shaft of light coming through a window — this is a beautiful depiction of a science lab and invites the eye to linger. It’s more like a witch’s lair than a school equipment room.

the portal science lab
This bulbous test tube almost looks like a crystal ball.
This bulbous test tube almost looks like a crystal ball.

Desire

At the beginning of the story Makoto only desires to be left alone in her childlike state, playing baseball with her friends after school, planning fun things to do over the summer holidays, singing karaoke.

playing baseball girl

There is no oft-mentioned ‘Call to Adventure’. I don’t think many modern stories operate on that basis. It’s only ever young men pumped up on testosterone who have had the desire to go out and save the world of their own volitio n, and those stories now seem old-fashioned.

Ally/Allies

main characters
Three Amigos

Chiaki has reddish hair to mark him out as distinct from Kousuke, in a classic red-devil, blue-devil trope. The coloured hair also makes Chiaki seem more alluring and mysterious. Kousuke, in his sexy glasses, is the brains while Chiaki is more brawn, but is later revealed to have a sensitive, artistic side when it is revealed he came back in time to see a painting.

Auntie Witch – This character understands what time leaps are, and in the narrative she functions as the character who explains to the viewers how the science works in this story.  In fact, to a modern audience, this form of exposition feels like a bit of a hack once you’ve given it a bit of thought. But it’s far from unusual in film.Michael Caine functions this way in Interstellar and various other films by that filmmaker.

Michael Caine Interstellar

In the film it is not explained how Makoto even knows the Auntie Witch. This is where it helps to have some background on this classic Japanese story — the Auntie Witch is meant to be the protagonist of the original 1967 novel (though she does look a little young… She should be the age of a grandmother by 2006.)

Opponent

If this were a Hollywood production I’ve no doubt the group of airhead junior girls — the volunteer club — would have been depicted as clearcut love rivals in the mean girls tradition. The Japanese dynamics are a lot more nuanced and, in my opinion, more realistic. The girls in this story are not outright rivals — they are interested in the same boys (for varying reasons) but they cheer each other on and take their share of ‘love hits’. Theirs is a spirit of sharing and caring for each other. In this story, Makoto finally declares her interest in Chiaki and her love rival backs off before her crush even begins. All of this is far more interesting than your usual mean girls crap.

But the writers of the Pixar film Inside Out, a hugely successful story, say that the most relatable villain is yourself, or nature:

I came on Inside Out, Pete [Docter] was not leaning towards any villains. I think at one point there was the idea floated that those Forgetters are villainous in trying to grab the core memories so Riley would forget them. But it just never really caught Pete’s imagination and it really wasn’t what he wanted to focus on. And as a storyteller, I love that more complex idea. And so Pete Sohn [the director of The Good Dinosaur] decided very early that you’ll have characters that Arlo will come into conflict with and challenge him for sure. The villain is, if there is one, you want it to be nature. The movement of nature and the idea that nature is something to be respected—that was the antagonist of this movie.

Interview with Pixar writer

Who is the villain in a Japanese high school story, in which the bullies versus the good kids tends to be less stark? Could it be that the villain in this story is time itself, or the nature of the magic inside the time-leaping device?

Mystery

In this film the romantic mystery is presented quite late. Until we overhear some speculation between students we have no idea that Chiaki is new to the school and that no one has any idea where he came from.

The magical part of the mystery is: What is this little device Makoto found in the science lab, how does it work and what can it do? We watch her figure it out.

Changed desire and motive

When the story began Makoto just wanted to remain childlike, but after almost being (almost?) killed by the train Makoto realises something weird is happening. She wants to find out what.

First revelation and decision

Her aunt who works at the art gallery clears everything up for her. Makoto can put this tool to good use and help her to arrange her life in such a way that she is ready to move on.

Plan

Makoto will use this time-leaping skill firstly for inconsequential things, like getting more time in the karaoke booth and avoiding embarrassing situations socially at school, and redoing maths quizzes. The Witch Auntie is glad that she’s only using her ability for inconsequential things, but asks Makoto — and therefore also asks the viewer — if the outcome of changing time is really as inconsequential as it seems.

Gazing out onto the river she realizes she can do anything with this trick. The setting of the river is a metaphorical juxtaposition — in fact, you can’t stop the flow of time. At least, you can’t stop things happening to people, even if the victim is not you.

If you keep track of the timeline, or even just the set pieces, you will realize that Makoto discovered her powers, got asked out by Chiaki, and had her heartfelt goodbye at the exact same spot at the river, at the exact same sunset. In fact, the entire movie never progressed beyond that last sunset until that last goodbye, which is when everyone finally moves on and the Airplane of Love beautifully tops off the ingenious Three Parts of the Story created by Makoto’s choices at this single junction in time.

TV Tropes
symbolic river

Opponent’s plan and main counterattack

The opponent is the magic itself, which does not always do what Makoto hopes it will.

When Makoto saves herself in cooking class, another boy gets into trouble instead, and this leads to a whole lot of bullying. Makoto can deflect disaster from herself, but it seems someone still needs to be sacrificed, according to the laws of this magic.

Drive

Makoto is determined to make the time-leaping work. Sometimes it means trying time-leaps again and again to get a situation right, and sometimes it means leaping back much further than she has energy for. This is basically a version of the very Japanese trait of trying again and again until you get it perfect (a la The Karate Kid).

Attack by ally

auntie witch knowing look

Auntie Witch continuously asks Makoto questions which lead to Makoto’s character arc. She’s talking to Auntie Witch, and tells her everything in her life has been fixed. Auntie, in her greater wisdom, asks if someone else may be suffering due to her good fortune.

After these trifling time leaps turn into something more serious — Chiaki’s declaration of love —  Makoto talks to her witch auntie about her love life. The auntie advises her to be honest with Chiaki rather than ignore that he ever told her how he feels about her.

visiting auntie witch

Later in the film auntie witch advises Makoto to go out with Kousuke, since he’s always the one helping her out. Auntie Witch points out that Makoto has ‘been playing all sorts of mind games with people.’

Auntie says, “I wonder who was able to create such a beautiful painting when it must have seemed like the world was coming to an end.”

I can’t be bothered putting them all in order, but each time Makoto has a revelation, it happens in Auntie Witch’s office, or as a direct result of her sage advice.

Apparent defeat

The crossroads/riding bitch scenes replayed over and over teach Makoto that she can’t change Chiaki’s feelings for her. She leaps back through time in order to give herself time to think of a good response and get out of the awkward romantic situation. To her disappointment it’s not as straightforward as she’d thought because the conversation is slightly different each run through. In the end, she leaps back to the crossroads and refuses to be dubbed home at all.

Things are going wrong now – Chiaki is blamed for the fire in food technology class and Makoto knows Chiaki likes her now, though Chiaki has no recollection of having told her he likes her (because he hasn’t). He wonders what’s up with her avoiding his gaze.

Now she avoids him entirely. (Montage sequence)

Chiaki looks for Makoto in vain and concludes he’s pissed her off.

Obsessive drive, changed drive, and motive

Makoto decides to use her time leaping for good.

Second revelation and decision

Magical revelation: She works out her time leaps are limited in number. That’s what the number on her flesh means.

Plans Never Go To Plan

The important thing about plans made by main characters in stories: The plan never works out the way they expected.

Audience revelation

Chiaki reveals that he came from the future.

There is a series of montage stills with muted colours and lots of muted red, including a red balloon in the sky.

He explains that he had a device that let him time leap but he lost it. He eventually found it in the science lab but it was all used up.

He came back because there was a painting he desperately wanted to see “White Plum Two Camellias’. In his time the painting has already been destroyed. This is the only place he can find it.

Now he’s unable to go back to his future time. He used up all his time leaps stealing the bike Kousuke was supposed to ride.

Kousuke and the girl did die once at the train crossing. He had to come back because Makoto was sobbing and blaming herself for it.

Chiaki has decided to stay here because being with Kousuke and Makoto has been so much fun. He rode a bike for the first time, discovered how enormous the sky was, and has never seen a place with so many people.

Makoto asks about the painting and its connection to the future. As they walk through the statue crowd, Chiaki explains that the painting is getting restored and he’ll be able to see it soon. She wants to take him to see it, with Kousuke.

But he’s not meant to tell anyone in the past about time leaps.

Third revelation and decision

Magical revelation: Makoto ponders this one at home then realizes one of her leaps has come back (from the number on her arm.)

She’s now convinced if she goes back far enough, Chiaki can get a leap back too. (I don’t quite understand this logic.)

We see a montage of times the three of them have spent together, with a staticky filter in muted colours. There’s a Japanese love song playing.

She’s back in the science lab with the notebooks and refinds the time leaping device. This time she doesn’t use up the device. This time she tells Yuri she really likes Chiaki a lot. Yuri is disappointed but says she thought so. She advises Chiaki to go see Chiaki and tells her, ‘Time waits for no one.’ This time she invites the volunteer club to play ball with them, so Kousuke can organically get to know the girl.

Plan to stop anyone from getting killed on her bike: She says he can’t borrow her bike unless he pays her five thousand yen. There is a scene where we see her running flat out. A lot of films show this scene when the main character has had a revelation. It’s meant to show that they’re resolving to do something, forming a plan, and that this plan is going to take a lot of effort to achieve.

Romantic revelation: She realises she likes Chiaki as more than a friend and if she doesn’t tell him, she’ll lose him.

“Why couldn’t I take what he said more seriously? He wanted to have a difficult conversation and I couldn’t handle it.” She goes to the roof and cries (a classic Moses scene) because big revelations in films often take place somewhere high.

Gate, gauntlet, visit to death

Makoto’s time leaps need to get really dangerous as she jumps from higher places in order to leap further back in time to change ever having used up the leaps in Chiaki’s device.

But the real visit to death is the near death experience of Kousuke and Yuri as Kousuke takes Yuri on his bike to get an X-ray after one of the horsing-around kids lands on her (instead of on Makoto, as happened earlier.)

Her number has changed to zero. She realizes she’s used up all her leaps. But just then he zooms past. She drops the phone. “I need to borrow your bike a bit longer!”

Now the situation is dire – she can’t catch the two of them. She falls over trying, and is covered in scratches and bruises. Kousuke and his new gf are thrown into the path of the train.

We see the image from the very beginning of the film, with the red numbers on black. (Symbolic colours — red = blood, black = death.)

Makoto yells ‘stop!’ and everything does freeze. The only two people who haven’t frozen are Makoto and Chiaki, who has her bike with its broken brake. It turns out Chiaki can time leap too.

Battle

I’ve noticed that although films always have a big struggle scene, the big struggle is often a transferred one. I mean, the big struggle Makoto faces is an inner psychological big struggle. But the literal fight the audience sees played out on the screen in front of us is actually the fight between the boy who ended up setting fire to his pan in food technology after Makoto changed her own fate, and the boys who have decided to taunt him because of it, taunting him with the fire hose. Finally this boy retaliates — goes off the edge — and in the first round of reality the bullied boy, Takase, who has a bowl of noodles on his head, throws the fire extinguisher at Makoto. Chiaki steps in front of her to save her. Makoto leaps back through time so the situation plays out differently, and Takase ends up throwing the extinguisher at Yuri, injuring her shoulder instead.

Anagnorisis

Makoto feels very bad that by changing fate she has lead to the injury of her best friend. Not only that, Chiaki is now going out with her best friend instead of her. She realises that this would never have happened had she accepted Chiaki’s declaration of love in the first place.

(Makoto promises Yuri if the incident leaves a scar she’ll fix things, but doesn’t explain how. Perhaps this is where Chiaki realises Makoto knows all about time leaping.)

Moral decision

Kousuke and Chiaki are playing baseball together. Makoto has told Kousuke Chiaki has gone to study abroad. We know this isn’t true because it was Makoto’s plan for herself.

Makoto has made a decision about her future. “It’s a secret.” She looks up at the towering cloud. I hope she’s not pinning her hopes and dreams on a future with a boy. (It’s possible that in the 1967 novel, that’s exactly the track the female protagonist will take, and in the setting of respected housewives, it’s not such a bad one, either.) But we never get told whether our young, modern Makoto chosen the arts or science track, or is just going to hang about waiting until she can reunite with the boy.

Makoto changes time until she can meet Chiaki in the baseball field. She hands Chiaki the device he dropped. She gives Chiaki back the device and when it explodes in the palm of his hand he gets an extra leap appear on his arm.

Makoto tells Chiaki she’ll work out a way to preserve the special painting he loves – “It’s not going to get lost or burned.”

Chiaki says goodbye. He tells her not to get herself hurt by jumping out in front of things. “The old look before leap thing definitely works.”

Chiaki disappears and by coincidence a couple who look very much like them on a bike sails past. She cries alone with the sunset in the background but then Chiaki rejoins her and gives her a hug. “I’ll be waiting for you.”

“Okay, I won’t be long. I’ll come running.”

A jet leaves a contrail across the sky in a long shot then fades to black, with red numbers.

i'll be waiting in the future

New situation

Makoto is now playing baseball with the volunteer club juniors, and the audience surmises that she will be friends with them rather than almost-rivals. The audience knows that Kousuke will end up going out with Kaho (pronounced incorrectly as ‘Ka-who’ in the English dub), the girl with the crush on him, so he is sorted romantically for now.

The_Girl_Who_Leapt_Through_Time_poster
original Japanese film poster
Lemon girl young adult novella

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