Little Muriel Courage The Cowardly Dog

Little Muriel

Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.

SETTING

The first thing we see about this setting is that it is very windy. The sky is an ominous shade of purple, the windmill spins quickly and Muriel’s washing is flapping on the line.

We see the metaphor of a cliff in this story, as Muriel and Courage (and Eustace) come close to death. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Altitude.

STORY STRUCTURE

SHORTCOMING

In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.

The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.

The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel from the hurricane.

OPPONENT

Although it’s perfectly possible to make a story with only a natural opponent (hurricanes, tsunamis), the most successful stories (what others have called ‘3D stories’) require human opponents.

The natural opponent is introduced early on and is of course the hurricane.

The human opponent will be revealed later — in this story it is Muriel as a bratty three and a half year old.

PLAN

Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.

After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).

BIG STRUGGLE

I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.

I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.

It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.

The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.

And this is the main big struggle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.

When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.

The classic transfer of the hat (crown).

SELF-REVELATION

When Muriel walks out her own self we know Courage has saved the day.

The TV announcer lets us know that the hurricane warning is over. (Darkly humorous given the house is in total disrepair.) Now there will be a tsunami.

NEW SITUATION

In this circular shaped story, we last see the Bagge family riding away on a massive wave.

EXTRAPOLATION

We extrapolate that Courage will save them somehow because he knows ‘how to ride the waves’.

Beauty And The Beast by Carter and Schroeder

Beauty and the Beast is a strongly mythic tale: A girl goes on a journey and ultimately finds her true self.

Beauty and the Beast front cover

Beauty and the Beast back cover

Beauty and the Beast is a tale featuring multiple levels of misogyny and much has already been said about that. For example, Was Disney’s Beauty and the Beast Re-Tooled Because Belle Wasn’t Enough Of A Feminist? Angela Carter has rewritten the tale in a way that feminists may find cathartic. It’s called “The Courtship of Mr. Lyon” and can be found in Carter’s collection of feminist fairytales retold: The Bloody Chamber.

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter includes Beauty and the Beast revisioning

In this picture book version, intelligently illustrated by German artist Binette Schroeder in the mid 1980s, the coincidentally similarly named Anne Carter retells a tale which — I was surprised to learn — dates only so far back as the mid 1700s. This is a ‘literary fairy tale’, meaning that unlike a ‘true’ fairy tale, it did not originate from any oral tradition (unlike a tale such as Little Red Cap, for instance). It was written by a French governess who had the most erudite sounding name it almost sounds fictional in its own right: Mme Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont.

That said, Anne Carter explains in the afterword that this tale is quite similar to a Greek myth about Cupid and Psyche called The Golden Ass. This dates from the second century A.D. Both stories feature:

  • the palace
  • nasty sisters
  • the return home

The main differences:

  • In versions of the Greek myth the monster turns out to be merely invisible
  • Psyche’s is a journey towards intellectual/spiritual love; Beauty’s is a journey towards understanding the difference between the superficial and the real.

The main differences between the original tale by Mme LePrince de Beaumont and many modern retellings is that the original author

  1. Wrote the tale for adults, not children
  2. Emphasised that what makes for a good partnership is respect, understanding and the ability to see past your partner’s superficial charm and into their deeper soul. Modern retellings tend to sensationalise the romance.

Anne Carter’s retelling is not in any way subversive, but the afterword is definitely worth a read because it puts the story in historical context.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “BEAUTY AND THE BEAST”

SHORTCOMING

With a modern reading, Beauty is indeed a flawed character. She is far too willing to please. But to a contemporary audience, Beauty was perfection itself. A model of feminine virtue, sacrificing herself to the needs of the men around her and acquiescing to her older sisters in the family hierarchy.

It’s possible that Beauty’s mother died in childbirth. I think that because she is the youngest in a large family and because women often died in childbirth in the 1700s. Perhaps Beauty’s ‘ghost’ or backstory, is that she feels guilt for bringing this misfortune upon the family, and why she feels she needs to be her father’s stand-in female companion in his old age.

DESIRE

Beauty wants to stay with her father and be his loyal companion.

OPPONENT

Beauty’s opponents are her older sisters.

Below, we see how psychologically separate the sisters are from the heroine. There are not one but two frames (doorways) between them; the sisters are from another world entirely.

beauty sewing with dog
Notice how the dog — its eyes, its colouring and its open mouth — look very much like the Beast when we meet him in the night garden. If this dog can love Beauty, so can the similar-looking Beast, apparently. Note also the bird, depicted in the same pink and greys as Beauty — who chooses not to fly away even though the cage is open.

The Beast appears to be an opponent but we find out he is a false-enemy ally. (Or he’s meant to be. I code him as a coercively controlling menace.)

Here's the Beast, looking very much like Beauty's little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.
Here’s the Beast, looking very much like Beauty’s little dog. He is depicted in this story as a chimera. Even more terrifyingly, his castle is full of chimeras — most startlingly, the table with leopard legs.

table chimera

PLAN

When Father returns with the news that one of his daughters must marry a terrifying Beast, Beauty offers herself as sacrifice, feeling that the rose incident, too, is her fault.

It’s worth remembering that Christianity in the 1700s looked a bit more like modern-day fundamentalist Islam in the respect that the devout really, truly believed that if they lived their lives according to the word of God, they would find themselves in a Heavenly paradise. When Beauty sacrifices herself to the Beast it is clear that she believes she is going there to die. But she also believes she will end up in celestial Heaven due to having been good all her life.

The Hans Christian Andersen tales are based on the same belief. That’s why the ending of The Little Match Girl, who dies from hypothermia and goes to meet her grandmother in Heaven, was written to be a ‘happy ending’, and the evolution of Christian belief is why modern young readers usually fail to find it so.

The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty's ascent to Heaven. That's where she thinks she's going, after all.
The atrium with its glass ceiling gives the characters a direct view of the Heavens. The stairway symbolises Beauty’s ascent to Heaven. That’s where she thinks she’s going, after all.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle is a Christian-like test. The Beast (in god-like fashion) is testing Beauty when he allows her to go home to visit her natal family. Will she come back or not?

It is the Beast who goes to the edge of death rather than the beautiful and noble Beauty.

ANAGNORISIS

As Anne Carter says in the afterword: ‘for Beauty the challenge is to move from the superficial to the real, to see through the loathsome outward appearance to the goodness within. Only then, when Beauty knows and loves the virtue of her Beast, can the transformation take place.

Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.
Dreams and revelations are prominent in this tale. Anagnorisis is delivered via dream.

NEW SITUATION

Beauty and the prince were married in great state and lived together throughout the length of their lives in the most perfect and deserved happiness.

See Also

Even going by the most generous estimates, Mrs. Potts, the Beast’s faithful housekeeper, is clearly way too goddamn old to have given birth to her “son,” Chip. […] 

A Theory That Will Change How You See Beauty And The Beast

Honest Movie Trailer for the Emma Watson adaptation

The Beauty and the Beast. Illustrator – Margaret Evans Price

Beauty and the Beast taught me that I can be just an awful shitmongrel and still expect a beautiful woman to find and save me if I accidentally start doing the least. Am I doing this right

Studio Glibly

Stockholm syndrome is often mentioned in relation to Beauty of Beauty and the Beast, but Pop Culture Detective makes an argument in favour of avoiding that term, because it heaps undue blame on the female victim, assuming she has been brainwashed. In fact, these characters show great resilience in the face of extreme abuse.

The Symbolism Of Altitude

Hills and valleys, cliffs, mountains — altitude in story is highly symbolic. When creating a story, remember to vary the altitude as much as you’d vary any other setting.

mountains and valleys

Something weird happens when humans position ourselves in high places. High place phenomenon is that weird urge you get to jump off a bridge.

I don’t get that, exactly. I get a strange variation on that. I remember standing on a bridge one time holding a tennis ball. I wondered how hard it would be to get the tennis ball back if I dropped it. So I dropped it, entirely without meaning to. Sure enough, it was no easy job getting the tennis ball back.

In London I never liked standing at the front of the queue to get on a rush hour underground train. I always felt like I’d be pushed by the people behind me into the oncoming train and fall onto the tracks. Sometimes I wondered what it would be like to push someone in front of me. But don’t worry, I never tried it. And I stay right away from trains these days.

Because there’s always the tennis ball.

HILLS AND VALLEYS

A cottage atop a hill can symbolise extreme happiness.

Miss Rumphius Barbara Cooney house on hill

From the porch of her new house Miss Rumphius watched the sun come up; she watched it cross the heavens and sparkle on the water; and she saw it set in glory in the evening. She started a little garden among the rocks that surrounded her house, and she planted flower seeds in the stony ground. Miss Rumphius was almost perfectly happy. “But there is still one more thing I have to do,” she said. “I have to do something to make the world more beautiful.” But what? “The world already is pretty nice,” she thought, looking out over the ocean.

Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney

Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley
Elefante by Franco Matticchio — going down into the valley

Wolf Hollow is an interesting setting because it is an snail under the leaf setting. ‘Hollow’ is a poetic sounding name (as the creators of Stars Hollow surely recognise). While dips in the landscape generally indicate evil (basements are scary, valleys attract mysterious fog and harbour secrets), ‘hollows’ are metaphorically similar to islands, sheltered from the evils of the outside world. That’s why ‘Hollow’ is such a great choice for this book — it is in many ways a utopian setting (sheltered from the World War going on elsewhere) but also a terrible place, with its inhabitants dangerously bigoted.

Hills and valleys have a logic of their own. Why did Jack and Jill go up the hill? Sure, sure, a pail of water, probably orders from a parent. But wasn’t the real reason so Jack could break his crown and Jill come tumbling after That’s what it usually is in literature. Who’s up and who’s down? Just what do up and down mean?

First, think about what there is down low or up high. Low: swamps, crowds, fog, darkness, fields, heat, unpleasantness, people, life, death.High: snow, ice, purity, thin air, clear views, isolation, life, death. Some of these, you will notice, appear on both lists, and you can make either environment work for you.

Thomas C. Foster, How To Read Literature Like A Professor

In storybook illustrations, it’s very common to find a house on a hill. A house on a hill is a safe house — from here you won’t be susceptible to flooding, and you can see enemies approaching. A house on a hill might also be close to the sea, but protected from it by the slight altitude.

from Treasure Island
from Treasure Island
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson
Powder and Crinoline, 1912 Kay Nielson

MOUNTAINS

Where The Mountain Meets The Moon

Mountains are somewhat cliched as ‘the land of greatness’ in stories but they are still used a whole heap and the symbolism still works.

[The mountain] is where the strong go to prove themselves—usually through seclusion, meditation, a lack of comfort, and direct confrontation with nature in the extreme. The mountaintop is the world of the natural philosopher, the great thinker who must understand the forces of nature so he can live with them and sometimes control them.

Structurally, the mountain, the high place, is most associated with the reveal.

In the 1997 film Contact, for instance, the Jody Foster character sits on a high piece of land when she has her anagnorises.

  • The Moses story (the ur-mountain-story in the Christian world)
  • Greek myths about gods on Mt Olympus
  • Brokeback Mountain
  • Heidi
  • Cold Mountain
  • The Shining
  • The Bears On Hemlock Mountain
  • Serena

CLIFFS

The association between cliffs and peril is so strong that occasionally cliffs can be misused in drama, for instance in The River Wild.

And what about the sequences in which Strathairn cuts crosscountry, climbing mountains, fording rivers, walking faster than the river flows? Impossible, but he does it. At one point, in a scene so ludicrous I wanted to laugh aloud, he even starts a fire to send smoke signals to his wife. At another point, he clings to the side of a cliff, while we ask ourselves what earthly reason he had for climbing it. And he works wonders with his handy Swiss Army knife.

Roger Ebert’s review of The River Wild

In the illustration from Beauty and the Beast below, the family has lost its fortune at sea and has had to move to a small cottage and live as peasants. They live precariously in this community, not fully accepted (except for Beauty, of course, whose beauty privilege makes up for a lot).

from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
from Beauty and the Beast illustrated by Binette Schroeder 1986
house on cliff

Cliffs are also high in altitude but they have a quite different symbolism from mountains. Cliffs are precarious.

See the Hayao Miyazaki film Ponyo for an excellent example of cliff symbolism, in which the precarious cliff is a symbol for the precarious balance of nature.

from The Adventures of Robin Hood
from The Adventures of Robin Hood
British artist Tracy Savage draws her inspiration from the Yorkshire coastline and landscape.
Her paintings are bursting with subjects she finds fascinating, capturing the imagination with her individual & dramatic style.

Fire and cliffs make for a wonderfully camp symbolic admixture in this Three Investigators mystery story.

a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
a cliff scene in The Artifacts by Slap Happy Larry
John Frederick Tennant - Waiting for the Catch 1839
John Frederick Tennant – Waiting for the Catch 1839

For a short story collection which makes full use of altitude, set in the vertiginous landscape of Wyoming, see one of Annie Proulx’s Wyoming collections (e.g. Close Range). Proulx makes use of mixed topography and everything you find in that:

  • mountains
  • high desert landscapes
  • canyons
  • buttes (an isolated hill with steep sides and a flat top (similar to but narrower than a mesa)
  • eroded outcroppings (known in North America as hoodoos)

When reading Proulx’s stories, one of the most important concepts to grasp is her ‘geographical determinism.’ This refers to the way in which the landscape has the upper hand in a game against the insignificant humans who live there, but temporarily. We know the characters are going to have tragic endings; we read the stories to find out how much of a fight they put up, and to know the exact nature of their downfall.

“Lookout Point” by Richard Sargent, cover art for the July 18, 1953, Saturday Evening Post

Rooftops

The manmade equivalent of a natural high place is a rooftop. Characters often experience anagnorises on rooftops, or go there to achieve an overview of a situation, and to work out a plan to achieve their desires.

Artist on the Roof (1950) From…The Amsterdam Series (1940-50’s) ~Anton Pieck~ Dutch~ Painter/Graphic Artist/Illustrator

Header painting: Louis Bosworth Hurt – A Highland Drove at Strathfillan, Perthshire 1

Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

gake no ue no ponyo

Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo is a feature-length anime which makes heavy use of  myth and symbolism but is aimed squarely at a young child audience.

Gake no ue no Ponyo is the Japanese title: Ponyo At The Top Of The Cliff.

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study describes Ponyo as ‘an intimate bildungsroman‘ and writes:

Sousuke’s developmental journey begins with his rescue of a plucky little goldfish that has run away from her underwater home and is desperately keen on becoming human (presumably unaware that such a status is by no means unproblematically advantageous), whom the boy calls Ponyo, vowing to protect her at any price. At the same time, the anime’s intimate mood is reinforced by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship by its close focus on domestic life and the little boy’s relationship with his mother Lisa. The bildungsroman dramatized in Ponyo concentrates concurrently on two interrelated journeys. One of these addresses the human protagonist’s emotional and intellectual development as he negotiates the various complications attendant on his relationships not only with the heroine and the marine domain she comes from but also his caring mother and often absent father. The other focuses on Ponyo’s evolution from the moment she decides to abandon her father’s protected abode and explore the outside world with all its unforeseeable wonders and perils.

SETTING

Food

Food usually has its own starring role in the setting of Miyazaki movies.

  • The feast that turns the parents into pigs in Spirited Away, then the steamed red bean buns and the sponge cake scene
  • The bacon and eggs in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Herring pot pie and rice porridge (おかゆ) as well as all the fresh bread products from Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • More rice porridge in Princess Mononoke
  • Bento boxes from My Neighbour Totoro
  • The fried egg in bread (目玉焼きパン) and the winter vegetable stew (煮物) from Laputa
  • Fried horse mackerel (アジフライ) from Up On Poppy Hill (nothing to do with horses — it’s a different kind of mackerel)

In Ponyo we have the bowl of ramen (Chinese noodles)

raamen ponyo
Apparently Miyazaki’s favourite noodles are the kind with spinach, but he avoids depicting that in film because it doesn’t look so great.

The transmogrifying magic of food is repeated from Spirited Away in this film, in which by eating food from a different world, you become of that world — a literal interpretation of ‘You are what you eat’. It’s by licking the blood from Sousuke’s thumb that Ponyo is able to become human, but the huge hunk of ham seems to seal the deal.

ponyo eating ham
kitchen
The cosy kitchen scenery

Symbolism of the Cliff

This comes off a dodgy-looking dream symbolism site, but I think it does apply to a lot of literature, and to this film as well:

To be at the edge of a cliff is to be where earth meets both sea and sky. Sky is a symbol of consciousness/masculinity; sea is the unconscious/femininity.

I think there’s something in the masculine/feminine associations — Miyazaki has definitely made use of the dichotomy by making Sousuke a boy and Ponyo a girl. But as soon as Sousuke meets Ponyo, his feminine, caring side has a chance to shine:

Don’t worry, Ponyo. No matter what, I will protect you. I promise. I will love you too!

It is significant that this house is on a ‘cliff’ rather than on a mountain. The mountain in storytelling has quite different associations for the audience: The mountain is set in opposition to the plain. The mountain is where revelations happen (a la Moses), and in films, main characters often go to a high place in order to really work out what’s going on. The mountain is where revelations happen.

The cliff, on the other hand, is precarious. There is no safety to be had on top of a cliff. This house is elevated because its occupants are separate from the ocean, but when Ponyo arrives she unites land and ocean, and the ocean literally rises to engulf the house.

house on cliff
This low angle view of the house emphasises its precariousness. Even the palings on the picket fence are a bit wonky.

Symbolism of the Wind

Traditionally, a wind storm means that change is afoot. Something bad is about to happen — probably destruction or desolation. A precarious-looking house on a cliff is in particular danger.

Chimeras in SF

chicken feet and hands
Ponyo is almost like a foetus, and morphs back and forth constantly between her spawn-like state and that of a five-year-old fully human girl.
fish in a jar
In one scene, she even reminds me (disturbingly) of a Kitty In A Jar, a hoax that did the rounds some years ago, in which it was thought that Japanese people were growing kittens in jars, as they might grow bonsai trees.

Throughout history, hybrid creatures have functioned as remarkably versatile vehicles for the expression of abiding cultural anxieties. On many occasions, they have been rendered just about tolerable by the sublimation of their uncanny anatomies into so-called “curiosities.” Yet, this has frequently led to a paradoxical situation, insofar as our attraction to those beings’ intractable alterity is never conclusively anesthetized: much as we may seek to domesticate the threatening connotations they are held to carry, by relegating them to the province of the abnormal or the repulsive, the sense of menace abides as a vital component of their bizarre, monstrous and fearful beauty. In other words, hybrids’ attractiveness is inextricable from their intimidating power.

Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study

Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:

  • angels
  • centaurs — a mythological creature with the upper body of a human and the lower body of a horse
  • devils
  • sphinxes — a mythical creature with, as a minimum, the head of a human and the body of a lion.
  • termagants — In medieval Europe, Termagant was the name given to a god which Christians wrongly believed Muslims worshipped, represented in the mystery plays as a violent overbearing personage. The word is also used in modern English to mean a violent, overbearing, turbulent, brawling, quarrelsome woman; a virago, shrew, vixen.
  • tritons — a mythological Greek god, the messenger of the sea. He is the son of Poseidon and Amphitrite, god and goddess of the sea respectively, and is herald for his father. He is usually represented as a merman, having the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish, “sea-hued”, according to Ovid “his shoulders barnacled with sea-shells”.

The spectrum of hybrid creatures can be beautiful, with lovely wings, or they can be monstrous and deformed, evoking a wide range of moods. Ponyo is strange in a jellyfish kind of way, but she is on the loveable part of the spectrum.

shore scene
This image is a beautiful depiction of the sea with gorgeous aqua blues in the water, accented with pinks.
sea pollution ponyo
In this shot, though, we have a depiction of the Japanese aesthetic of wabi-sabi, in which we are encouraged to see beauty in that which is imperfect. Miyazaki is certainly able to depict a scene with rubbish in a beautiful way, without emphasising the abject.

Miyazaki seems to have been influenced by traditional Japanese art in his depiction of water.

Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai
Mt. Fuji from Kanaya on the Tokaido road by Hokusai

Roy Stafford makes some direct comparisons between this particular work and the film Ponyo:

The triangle formed by the cliff-top house where Sosuke and his mother live, the ship at sea carrying the boy’s father and the school/old people’s centre is the centre of the world Miyazaki has created. It neatly represents the social concerns about an ageing population, an economy that still needs the resources of the seas and that perennial fascination for Miyazaki, the self-reliant children, seemingly confident because there is a community of supportive adults who are there when needed. Jonathan Ross, in one of his more lucid comments on Film Night, made the perceptive comment that in Ponyo, Miyazaki (writer and director) spends time on everyday incidents involving children and adults – such as sharing a cup of soup – in which this sense of a community of all ages, not just parents and their own children, comes across so forcefully.

running on water

The water is literally alive in this story, with the waves morphing back and forth between fish and water.

house reflected in the water

Here we have still waters, so the viewer can see the house on the cliff mirrored in the ocean. The water has risen and now the house — formally up  high and therefore separated from the sea — is literally at one with it.

Miyazaki’s preoccupation with environmental issues, a crucial aspect of both his political perspective and his cinematic signature, obliquely permeates the marine habitat depicted in the film even though the recurrent images of dolphins and whales swimming about unmolested bear scarce resemblance to the reality of Japan’s notorious fishing ventures. […] Miyzaki also creates a tsunami that, however fantastical and benign he portrays it, can’t help recall the fatal force of nature.

Dani Cavallaro, Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study

Ponyo’s Name

Although Ponyo’s real name is Brunhilde, Sousuke names her ‘Ponyo’. Why? This name is interesting in the context of Japanese onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia and mimesis are a huge part of everyday Japanese, and if you are a fan of manga you’ll see onomatopoeic words used to their fullest in that genre. Miyazaki himself started in manga and is a native Japanese speaker, so it’s fair to conclude that he is also an expert in onomatopoeia.

The sound ‘pon’ in Japanese has a ‘burst’-like quality to it. ‘Pon-pon’ expresses the following sounds in Japanese (from 日英擬音擬態語活用辞典):

  1. The resounding sound or action of clapping one’s hands or beating a drum etc. continuously. [The repetition of the pon sound indicates the repetition.] It can also be used to describe the sound of an explosion or something bursting. [Ponyo ‘bursts’ into Sousuke’s life — she exists inside a bubble — another thing closely associated with ‘bursting’ in the world of a child.]
  2. Things being vigorously or carelessly said or done. [Related to Ponyo’s exuberant nature]
  3. To fill something to the brim. Also to fill something so full that it appears as though it could burst at any moment. [Related to the theme of being inundated by water/flood/environmental disaster].

Symbolism of the Tunnel

Tunnels are a classic symbol in fairy tales marking the ‘portal‘ between childhood and self-discovery (maturity).

tunnel ponyo

But what does the tunnel mean in this story? Halfway through, the children get scared and turn back. The dark of the tunnel is at least ominous, if not a metaphor for death.

CHARACTERISATION

Ponyo As Mirror Image Of Sousuke

崖の上

When Sousuke sees the ‘goldfish’ in the bucket, he sees the sea version of himself.

ponyo and sousuke2
ponyo and sousuke

Using the red-oni, blue-oni trope (also used in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time), Miyazaki includes many frames in which these characters are basically mirror images of each other. In this shot, even the arrangement of the food inside the bowl is exactly the same. Ponyo is the more gregarious version of Sousuke, who actually comes from the sea rather than being fascinated by it. It’s natural that Sousuke is fascinated by the sea — it’s where his father works, and due to his father’s frequent absence, Sousuke would be glamorising the sea life.

ponyo and sousuke sleeping

Here’s another mirror image. While Sousuke’s interest is symbolised by the toy boat, Ponyo is more interested in the trappings of human life, symbolised by the lamp.

Sousuke’s Name

宗介 pronounced soo-suke

The individual characters mean centre/pillar/principle + mediate/shellfish

I’ve always thought it weird that the character for mediate also happens to mean shellfish. Is Miyazaki using that here, since shellfish are associated with the sea, and Sousuke is the mediation between the sea and the land?

ponyo squirting friend

This character reminds me very much of Connie from Enid Blyton’s The Folk of the Faraway Tree, the third in her Magic Faraway Tree series. In my illustrated deluxe version there is even a picture of Connie that closely matches this one.

Connie Wet Folk Faraway Tree_600x776
Connie from Folk of the Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton illustrated by Georgina Hargreaves

In Blyton’s story, too, a girl who is preoccupied with her appearance (pretty dresses) gets her ‘comeuppance’ by having water dropped on her, in this case by Dame Washalot. Often in children’s stories, when a girly girl goes along with the dominant cultural idea that she should be pretty, rather than rejecting it, she is punished and ends up a version of ugly as a didactic message. Miyazaki uses the same trope when he first shows the scene in which the little girl shows Sousuke her pretty new dress but then is later punished — ostensibly for calling Ponyo unappealing — by having water squirted in her face. (I could continue into adult territory and explore this popular metaphor further, but I don’t want that kind of traffic to my blog.)

Sousuke is therefore embracing the caring, nurturing side of femininity, but the filmmaker is also very obviously rejecting that other side of femininity, the one in which appearance is important. What does this mean for the story? Perhaps Miyazaki is saying that humans are inclined to ignore that which is just beneath the surface. In the case of the ocean, it still looks blue to us and unless we’re schooled otherwise, we have no idea about mercury poisoning and the imminent extinction of coral reefs.

Granmamare

Granmamare beauty

On the other hand, Ponyo’s mother is not only good but she is also beautiful. Her amazing beauty is conveyed mainly through her eyes. Whereas the other characters get simply drawn eyes, the Granmamare gets highly detailed, hyper-realistic eyes which not only serve to ‘other’ her — she is not of our world — but also serve to link goodness with beauty. I wonder if Miyazaki is conscious of this  beauty of beauty in the very same story — beauty equals goodness when it comes to female characters, but when little girls aim for beauty, they are punished.

Granmamare Ophelia

This view of Granmamare reminds me of the classic painting of Ophelia. This relaxed pose is in juxtaposition to the wild and frantic Risa, Sousuke’s mother.

Ophelia is a painting by British artist Sir John Everett Millais, completed between 1851 and 1852. It is held in the Tate Britain in London. It depicts Ophelia, a character from William Shakespeare’s play Hamlet, singing before she drowns in a river in Denmark.

by John Everett Millais
by John Everett Millais

Sousuke’s Mother

pink car danger

The mother in Ponyo is a bit of a departure for Miyazaki, whose fictional mothers tend to be devoted, 1950s housewife types. Perhaps we should be pleased that this mother is different — she is reckless to the point I would not get in a car with that woman. But the car is pink — is this a comment on woman drivers? Without the surrounding cultural trope I wouldn’t be thinking this at all, so let’s just put it aside.

There’s no doubt she’s gutsy — she ignores the special emergency services-type men who try to stop her driving the winding road back to her house on the cliff. She traverses a water-filled bridge while the tide is momentarily out and puts her own life and her son’s life at risk. For what?

The mother is like a human version of the wind that opens the movie. She is easily changeable, going from ecstatic that her husband will be coming home for the night to lolling about on the floor after drinking beer in a depression when he is required to work longer at sea. She’s not exactly your ‘strong, independent woman’ just because she works outside the house.

mother with sandwich in mouth

Risa is very much a part of the human world, oblivious to anything that might be happening under the sea, and doesn’t even think too hard about the wizard with the fertiliser back pack who says he’s just keeping himself wet. Her carnal nature is symbolised by her holding the ham sandwich in her maw, in most unladylike fashion.

Yet Sousuke’s mother is still very caring and maternal. She works in the Himawari (sunflower) old-folks’ home caring for the elderly and she cooks nice food for Sousuke. Conveniently for the plot, she is somewhat childlike herself, and doesn’t wonder too much about the strange fish girl who her son has befriended and brings home with him to live.

The Old Ladies

Sousuke with cranky old lady

The old lady with the side shave didn’t know she was starting a trend, later emulated by Miley Cyrus and Rihanna. Sousuke has the same cut, which probably started as a good look for little boys to stop the headlice back in the day.

Significantly, the kindergarten is positioned right next to the old folks’ home: the young is juxtaposed with the old, or perhaps completes the ‘circle of life’ idea which is also conveyed via the earth/sea back and forth that happens throughout the plot. Old age is shown to be adjacent to childhood — in the scenes reminiscent of that 1985 movie Cocoon, the old women in wheelchairs can suddenly walk and run like they did as children when they are transported into the underwater playground.

old ladies same height

In their wheelchairs, however, they are at the same head level as the five-year-old boy.

Elderly Palestinian women sit in wheelchairs as they enjoy the waters of the northern part of the Dead Sea, in the West Bank, on October 2, 2008.
Menahem Kahana

Fujimoto

Fujimoto

This guy from under the sea used to be a human so naturally he still has a human name.

Dani Cavallaro, in Magic as Metaphor in Anime: A Critical Study compares Fujimoto to parental figures in other Miyazaki films:

A lurking sense of menace redolent of the atmosphere prevalent in Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle emanates from the character of Fujimoto, Ponyo’s father. However, the forest kami [gods] depicted in Princess Mononoke are surrounded by an alarming aura even when their actions are charitable. Spirited Away’s bathhouse spirits are invariably invested with sinister iconographic connotations despite their often comical traits, and the mutants deployed as military machinery in Howl’s Moving Castle are even more explicitly baleful, lacking any concessions to humor in their alternately repugnant and horrific constitutions. Ponyo’s father, by contrast, comes across more as a solipsistic patriarch with a peculiar sense of fashion than as a consummate villain. Nor is he utterly devoid of benevolent intentions. A sorcerer intent on the concoction of life-giving elixir that could purge the mess humanity has unleashed into the ocean, Fujimoto is determined to confine his daughter to his watery lair. There is every chance that the wizard’s objection to his daughter’s desires has a lot to do with its stark contravention of the role model he has set. He indeed describes himself as an “ex-human” — a type ostensibly issuing from some sea-change intervention — and, like most fresh converts, is driven by the manic fervor of a zealot. Thus, Ponyo only echoes the epic scope of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle insofar as Fujimoto’s efforts to restrain Ponyo evince the tone of a figurative mini-crusade.

While Fujimoto appears relatively harmless by comparison with either the malicious Yubaba or Howl’s warmongering despots, he is initially successful in tearing Ponyo away from her beloved Sousuke. If Sousuke, palpably heartbroken, is powerless to intervene, Miyazaki’s version of the Little Mermaid will stop at nothing to see her wish to be human and to live with her savior fulfilled. In the course of a fierce confrontation with Fujimoto, she rejects the name the sorcerer has imposed upon her, “Brunnhild,” and declares her name to be Ponyo (the allusion to Norse mythology is worth of notice).

With the help of her sisters, she then manages to flee the paternal prison once more and turns herself into a human by recourse to Fujimoto’s own magic. Regrettably, by releasing into the sea the wizard’s entire supply of elixir, Ponyo also triggers a massive environmental imbalance, which in turn causes the seas to boil, mammoth prehistoric fish from the Devonian era to invade the flooded land, the moon to stray outside its customary orbit and satellites to race across the sky like frantic shooting stars. In this respect, the movie stands out as a subtle parable about the precariousness of ecological equilibrium.

FURTHER READING

Mificao is a picture book from the Ivory Coast, by Marie-Danielle Aka, illustrated by Les Studios Zohoré. This story shares similarities to Ponyo:

Underwater, a little carp watches the village children play, and wants to join them. A good genie fish changes her into a little girl and there she is, Mificao, with her new friends Yaro and Ziza who guide her in her discovery of the daily life of the village. She also discovers garbage heaps, the technique of scorched earth… and gives lessons for better hygiene and the protection of nature. But can Mificao stay forever far from her own people?The text is long; colourful illustrations give a good idea of life in the village.

The World Through Picture Books