The Symbolism of Water Wells

Henry John Yeend King - By the Well

I didn’t have a well growing up because I didn’t live on a farm. Our water came out of the tap and that’s all I knew about the matter. But I did have a book of Mother Goose nursery rhymes illustrated by Hilda Boswell, and I also had a cat, so I knew wells were deep, dark, dangerous places.

Ding, dong, bell,
Pussy’s in the well.
Who put her in?
Little Johnny Thin.
Who pulled her out?
Little Tommy Stout.
What a naughty boy was that,
To try to drown poor pussy cat,
Who never did him any harm,
But chased all the mice in the farmer’s barn.

by William Shakespeare, maybe
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U.F.O. In Kushiro by Haruki Murakami

“U.F.O. in Kushiro” is a short story written by popular contemporary Japanese author Haruki Murakami. English readers first had access to the story in 2001, when it appeared in an issue of the New Yorker magazine. It was republished in 2011 after an earthquake and tsunami devastated northern Japan. Safe to say this is considered a Japan-disaster-story.

Bryan Washington joins Deborah Treisman to read and discuss “U.F.O. in Kushiro,” by Haruki Murakami.

But “U.F.O. in Kushiro” is not really about the Hanshin earthquake, one of Japan’s most devastating and expensive disasters in history. To convey the magnitude of disaster in a short story is difficult because of the phenomenon of ‘psychic numbing‘. I’m sure we’re all feeling that in the year 2020. It’s impossible to extend equivalent empathy to everyone affected by disaster, but when we hear about someone’s personal tragedies, we can be overcome with empathy for them, personally, because we can more easily imagine the trials of one person, or one small community.

To get around the psychic numbing, Murakami has focused on the story of an individual. Unusually for a ‘disaster story’ though, this individual isn’t near the scene of the disaster, but instead lives in Tokyo, three hours away from Kobe (by train). But in a different way this is a story about psychic numbing. The main character is entirely passive right until the end of the story. He does what he is told to do by others. He is numb because his wife has left him and he did not see it coming. ‘The ground shifts beneath him.’ The symbolism of the earthquake is very clear.

What big ideas is Murakami hoping readers will explore in this story? Which storytelling techniques does he utilised to take us there? Let’s take a look.

Continue reading “U.F.O. In Kushiro by Haruki Murakami”

Chinoiseries and Picture books

Illustrators of fairy tales frequently choose styles that evoke the periods of history not particularly related to the tales but that they perceive to share the values they find in the tales.

Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Children’s picture books draw from a great number of traditions. One of those is ‘chinoiseries’, a European mimicry of Chinese art.

Walter Crane (1845 - 1915) 1875 "Death of the Magician" illustration for his own book "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp"
Walter Crane (1845 – 1915) 1875 “Death of the Magician” illustration for his own book “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp”
William Worcester Churchill (1858 - 1926) The Chinese Vase
William Worcester Churchill (1858 – 1926) The Chinese Vase
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3
Owen Jones Grammar of Ornament Chinese No 3

Chinoiserie: a decorative style in Western art, furniture, and architecture, especially in the 18th century, characterized by the use of Chinese motifs and techniques.

The word ‘chinoiseries’ denotes a European art style dominated by pseudo-Chinese ornamental motifs evoking a romanticized or fairy-tale East. [… This] style exudes a longing for a newly romanticized medieval “Cathay”.

Objectifying China*, Imagining America: Chinese Commodities in Early America by Caroline Frank

(In earlier eras, Northern China used to be known in English speaking areas as ‘Cathay’, from ‘Catai’. The south was called ‘Mangi’.)

A standout example of chinoiseries are the popular engravings of French artist Francois Boucher (1740s onwards).

Boucher borrowed details from:

  • Chinese woodblock prints
  • a Turkish designer
  • Arnold Montaneus’s 1671 Atlas Chinensis. Montaneus was a Dutch teacher and author.
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for "Middle" & "Upper Class" New Yorkers
In 1929, Bathrooms with an Asian Motif became the rage for “Middle” & “Upper Class” New Yorkers

Japan Work (late 17th century — 19th century)

This term referred to pseudo-lacquered furniture featuring chinoiserie decorations actually applied in Europe. It also referred to tin-glazed earthenware pottery, metalwork and textiles with the same decorations.

Furniture which has undergone this treatment is said to be ‘japanned’.

James Jacques Joseph Tissot - Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
James Jacques Joseph Tissot – Young Women Looking at Japanese Objects
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin's 'Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan', 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Illustration for Alexander Pushkin’s ‘Fairytale of the Tsar Saltan’, 1905 (colour litho), Bilibin, Ivan Jakovlevich, influenced by Japanese art.
Le Lotus Bleu, 'Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ' 1936 chinoiserie, Herge
Le Lotus Bleu, ‘Les Aventures de Tintin reporter en Extrême-Orient ‘ 1936 chinoiserie, Herge. When Westerners attempt Chinese characters they usually get it very wrong. It’s unclear what this is meant to say. Perhaps an attempt at ‘fish leg rice’? Probably intended nonsense, a bit like the faux-Japanese song Yama Yama.

Modern Chinoiserie

Perhaps you have some examples of chinoiserie in your own environment?

Atkinson Grimshaw - Summer
Atkinson Grimshaw – Summer (1875)

Features of Chinoiseries

  • Tropical exoticism is exaggerated
  • It is based on a fanciful European interpretation of ‘Chinese’ styles which may not be Chinese at all, but from Japan, Korea or Turkey. In earlier eras (and into the present) Westerners were unable to distinguish between different parts of the East. It was simply ‘exotic’. If it’s Western art inspired by Japan, then some use the word ‘japonaiserie’.
  • Chinoiserie was most popular during the rococo period (1750-70), a movement known for its light-heartedness but also for its heavy detail.
  • It’s not really Chinese or even Asian art, because the materials required to create it weren’t available in Europe or America.
  • Dragons, exotic birds, ‘Chinamen’ and women dressed in traditional Chinese clothing, fu-manchu beards, ponytails, multi-tier structures with those pointed, sweeping up roofs (pagodas), pink and white lotus leaves, bamboo plants, weeping willows and other Chinese vegetation, blue-and-white ware, hump-backed bridges, water gardens, misty mountain-scapes
  • Chinoiserie may contain shapes such as this:
modern-oriental-shapes

CHINOISERIE AND CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

The standout example of fake Eastern stories influencing the views of Western children are Tales of the Arabian Nights.

I was given an anthology of Arabian Nights as a kid and this thick book sat on the shelf right beside the Grimm fairytales. My edition was more modern, but it was Walter Crane who came out with the first picture book on Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. These were coloured lithographs. The story was ostensibly about a Chinese boy and set in China, though Crane was actually influenced by Japanese woodcuts, especially those by Hiroshige.

Other examples can be found among the illustrations of Hans Christian Andersen’s pseudo-Chinese “The Nightingale”. The art in an edition illustrated by Nancy Ekholm Burkert is a mixture of chinoiserie and art nouveau.

Header painting by Austrian Carl Moll, artist of the Art Nouveau era (1861 – 1945).

My Neighbour Totoro Storytelling

My Neighbour Totoro (1988), from Japan’s Studio Ghibli, is one of the few genuinely child centred films in existence. In contrast, most films out of DreamWorks and Pixar contain dual levels of meaning, including jokes only the adult co-viewer will understand, or emotional layers inaccessible to children.

For instance, in Toy Story 3 Andy says goodbye to his childhood when he says goodbye to his toys. This evokes the emotion of nostalgia and sadness in adults. Test audiences revealed that children under about 13 have a completely different reaction to this scene — they identify with the toys and feel happy, probably wondering why the adults are tearing up. Nostalgia is one of the few specifically adult emotions.

In contrast, The Good Dinosaur (2015) didn’t garner great reviews. Some critics suggested it’s a fine story for kids, but adult viewers expected a layer aimed specifically at them. But there is no ‘adult layer’ to The Good Dinosaur, which ranks as Pixar’s second-worst rated movie (above Cars 2). In the West adults have been trained to expect kids’ films with separate layers just for us.

My Neighbour Totoro is different altogether.

When My Neighbor Totoro , directed by Hayao Miyazaki, came out in 1988, the public treated it only as a “child pleaser”. Yet Japanese people soon realized that My Neighbor Totoro was something more; it is actually a thought-provoking film. It is now considered one of the most acclaimed films for children and adults.

Reiko Okuhara

Here’s my thesis: Studio Ghibli achieves what Pixar and DreamWorks have thus far not managed:

  1. A film which appeals to all ages
  2. without alienating the preschool viewer from any single part of it.
  3. Adults and children will be laughing at the same moments
  4. experiencing very similar emotions simultaneously.

I first watched Totoro in 1995 as a 17-year-old exchange student in Japan, where it was aired on national TV one wintry Sunday afternoon. The air time suggests family viewing — a film for all ages. I’d be surprised if I ever met a Japanese person who hadn’t seen this film, regardless of age or whether they have children of their own.

Fast forward a sociological generation, My Neighbour Totoro was one of the first films I showed my Australian daughter. As I expected, she was captivated as a toddler.

We rewatched it last night. When she first saw it she was the age of Mei; now she is the age of Satsuki. Although it had been years since last viewing, her delight showed me the imagery remains deeply etched in her memory. Revisiting the world of Totoro felt like revisiting a holiday destination from early childhood.

Ponyo is another Studio Ghibli film aimed squarely at a very young audience.

STORYWORLD OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

JAPAN

I much prefer the Studio Ghibli films set unambiguously in Japan. The European-inspired Japan as depicted in films like Kiki’s Delivery Service fall into uncanny valley for me. Totoro is set in Japan.

The story is meant to be set in Tokorozawa. If you’re using Chrome as your browser, here it is on Google Earth. This is where Miyazaki lives.

If you visit Japan you can explore a replica of Satsuki and Mei’s house.

If you would like to visit the Ghibli Museum in Mitaka, make sure to book your tickets from outside Japan, because overseas bookings are given preference. Perhaps unfairly, Japanese people booking from within their own country must book many more months in advance.

ERA

It’s not easy to guess at the era of My Neighbour Totoro unless you watch it very closely and can read Japanese. (Bear in mind that the main audience — Japanese toddlers — also cannot read Japanese.) The story could be set anytime from Miyazaki’s own boyhood until the 1980s when it was released.

Adult fans have looked really closely and realised it could be set in any number of years within the 1950s. Hayao Miyazaki has been pressed to divulge when, exactly, it’s meant to be set. He replied, “It’s supposed to be 1955, but we weren’t terribly thorough in our research. What came to mind was ‘a recent past’ that everyone can relate to.

Note that Miyazaki uses the word ‘everyone’. That includes children. He hasn’t created any part of this world that 1980s children would be unable to understand without explanation.

Apart from the minor calendar clues within the intratext of the film, My Neighbour Totoro could easily have been set when it was made, in the 1980s. We don’t get a glimpse of life in the cities because the story arena is contained to a very small part of Japan.

The second year I went to Japan (1999) I stayed in a dormitory attached to a university. This dorms were nestled under a mountain, which sounds lovely, except it hadn’t benefitted from a single bit of maintenance since it was constructed at the end of the second world war. If I hadn’t ever visited the city, I might as well have been living in post-wartime Japan. This was a hugely different experience from my high school exchange student year in Yokohama, one train ride from Tokyo, tech mecca setting of futuristic fantasy. I recognise the house from My Neighbour Totoro — the tiled sink, the wooden items, the country manners.

Country Japan has always been bifurcated from urban Japan — a point of pride and also a point of ridicule. The word ‘inaka’ might loosely translate as ‘rural/country’ in English, but it sounds pejorative and insulting as well. (Imagine ‘bumpkin’ on the end of it.)

However, this is not Miyazaki’s view of rural Japan. For Miyazaki, the natural parts of Japan contain ancient magic, and a visit into wilderness afford a trip into the deep subconscious. The forests which surround this old homestead of My Neighbour Totoro function as a forest functions in a fairytale.

Shrooms: the universal symbol for hallucination?
IS THIS A UTOPIA?

Does the setting of My Neighbour Totoro count as a genuine utopia? According to Maria Nikolajeva, there are seven requirements of a utopian setting and Totoro almost fits, except for number six: Absence of death or sexuality. The sick mother in hospital is a constant reminder that loved ones can die. Satsuki and Mei are terribly worried about their mother and this drives their actions.

Miyazaki adapted Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (released as The Secret World of Arrietty), which also includes the spectre of death with the child sick in bed. Perhaps Miyazaki wants to avoid sentimentality, which is a danger in creating genuine utopias. Genuine utopias are also quite difficult to set a film-length story in, because suspense must come from somewhere. Perhaps ‘unease’ is a better word than ‘suspense’.

Helen McCarthy is the author of Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation and has said that Death in Totoro is simply ‘there’. Death is presented as part of being alive.

Miyazaki does two very difficult things in this film with considerable delicacy and grace: he makes a film at a child’s pace and on a child’s level; and he allows death to assume a major role in the movie without demonising or personalising death.

Hayao Miyazaki: Master of Japanese Animation

The house itself might be considered a bit of a death trap. Our own pergola fell down a few years ago and it was a mission keeping everyone away from it for their own safety. But here, the girls come closer to calamity than they realise when they use the rotting post as a play thing:

This traditional old homestead also has a well — another common death trap, though it exists only as part of the background scenery.

The soot gremlins may or may not indicate the presence of evil. The girls no longer have a safe home. I believe young children will find this house as creepy as the characters do.

However, we might put forward the argument that any Hayao Miyazaki film is a moral utopia:

[T]hose who are familiar with Miyazaki can trace the film’s modern success to his stubborn moral mind. Reluctant to put his characters into straightforward ‘good’ and ‘evil’ boxes, the Ghibli stalwart nevertheless rewards the pure of heart and punishes greed and gluttony. It’s a trait that wasn’t missed by Roger Ebert, who described Totoro’s small kingdom as, “the world we should live in, not the one that we occupy.

Little White Lies

THE MEANING OF TONARI

Despite the English translation of the title, ‘tonari’ does not just mean ‘neighbour’ as in ‘those who live in the place next door’. Tonari is a wider word than English ‘neighbour’ suggests, and can mean ‘next to’, or ‘alongside’. Imaginary creature Totoro is ‘alongside’ the girls at every step of their journey (as well as dwelling ‘nearby’.)

PORTAL FANTASY

One rule of portal fantasy — there is a transition between the ‘real world’ and the ‘fantasy world’. The audience must be allowed to linger in this transitional space for a little while. Ideally, a scene or two will be set inside the transition, or right beside it. In this case, it’s the tunnel made of branches. The father even joins the girls there, blurring for them the sensible, rational adult world and the fantasy play world they have created.

It appears as if someone—probably Big Totoro himself—has invited Mei into the fantasy world. Awakened by the little girl, he appears to be startled not by her presence but by her audacity. Mei’s seclusion has led to Totoro’s invitation to his world; the child archetype acquires the protection of nature, alone and away from motherly care. Mei’s entrance into the fantasy world reminds the audience of the beauty and splendor of nature, which the present generation seems to have forgotten.

Reiko Okuhara

MYTHOLOGY AND INTERTEXTUALITY

One of the first games we see the Kusakabe girls playing is a Cowboys and Indians fantasy. I haven’t seen modern children mimic the war cries of Native Americans — Westerns have evolved into anti-Westerns, we are a little more enlightened. There is no longer the romance of American expansionism — we no longer buy toy cowboy costumes for our boys as par for the course. This childhood game does plant the story quite firmly in the 1950s when, even in Japan, American culture was having a big influence on children’s fantasy lives (as well as in every other way).

Later the girls are disappointed to find their acorns won’t sprout. But in a fantasy scene quite clearly inspired by English tales such as “Jack and the Beanstalk”, they use arm movements to create a magical force. The trees grow huge in an instant.

MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO: THE JAPANESE WIZARD OF OZ?

We Westerners like to view non-Western art through the lens of Western art. It has been suggested that My Neighbour Totoro is ‘The Japanese Wizard of Oz’. This may be useful as a hook for a Western viewer otherwise disinclined to watch anime on its own terms.

Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for Totoro’s success is that everyone has their own interpretation of what it means. While the physical appearance of the title character has been compared to everything from an owl to a seal to a giant mouse troll, on a metaphysical level the theories run even deeper. In Miyazaki’s book of essays ‘Starting Point: 1979-1996’, Totoro is described as a creation of Mei and Satsuki’s imagination, a gentle giant who guides them through their mother’s illness.

Some believe Totoro to be a Kami (a spirit tied to nature) belonging to the camphor tree which Mei falls into the belly of while she’s out playing. The tagline on the original Japanese poster translates as, “These strange creatures still exist in Japan. Supposedly,” which summons thoughts of old souls and endless wisdom. Ultimately, you can project whatever you want onto Totoro.

Little White Lies
THE THREE BILLY GOATS GRUFF

If you grew up in non-Scandinavian country, what was your first introduction to trolls?

Near the end of the film, Satsuki and Mae are shown reading The Three Billy Goats Gruff on a futon with their mother. The creature on the book looks like the creature Totoro, which suggests Mei imagines him up, inspired by the Norwegian folktale.

When Mei ‘meets’ him, she knows exactly who he is. “You’re Totoro!”

In Japanese Three Billy Goats Gruff translates to 三びきのやぎのがらがらどん (Sanbiki no yagi no gara gara don) in which the ‘gara gara don’ is onomatopoeia for the tripp trapp, tripp trapp of the first written Norwegian version (modified only slightly for English, without the double ‘t’s.)

But maybe Mei read a European version — the ‘trot trot’ of the goats sounds a little like Totoro. It’s significant that Japanese is a heavily onomatopoeic language. Children are excellent at making up their own, original onomatopoeia and I put it to you that Japanese children are excellent at i. Is Totoro Mei’s phonetic rendition of trotting?

Alternatively, ‘troll’ is transcribed as ‘tororu’ in Japanese. A small Japanese speaking child could easily pronounce the word wrongly and come up with Totoro, because Totoro is easier to say than Tororu.

STORY STRUCTURE OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

At first glance, My Neighbour Totoro does not follow The Rules Of Story as described by numerous (Western) story gurus. It just feels… different, somehow.

The story [of Totoro] is made up of a series of incidents or episodes, almost none of which I’d classify as a plot point, per se. The only truly tense moment comes late in the film, when Mei runs off to the hospital by herself, worried her mother is in danger. This turns out to have been a false alarm, and everyone is soon reunited. The whole thing is resolutely low-stakes and gentle, its narrative lumpy and relaxed.

Bright Wall, Dark Room

But look a little deeper and My Neighbour Totoro is a tightly plotted fantasy with a classic mythic structure.

A mythic journey will generally involve a road, a river, a train.

I have no trouble doing my usual breakdown of it, but here’s the thing we need to understand about My Neighbour Totoro: It is much more like a picture book plot than a Pixar plot, and it’s important to understand the concept of the Carnivalesque. (This is why My Neighbour Totoro has been compared to Where The Wild Things Are — the stand out Western example of carnivalesque children’s literature.)

SHORTCOMING

Satsuki and Mei are enduring an upheaval — in common with the beginning of many children’s stories, they are at the tail end of having been moved from some unknown prior location to a creepy big house in the country.

Before they can feel at home here they must face their fears of the unknown.

There’s a much bigger unknown which the girls are initially able to put to the back of their minds, distracted by the newness of the creepy house: Their mother is ill. Like Satsuki and Mei, the audience doesn’t know the nature of this illness. We are kept in a state of ignorance, which may be worse than actually knowing. This is the common experience of childhood — even when children are told things, we don’t know what it means. Not really. This makes childhood scary.

Miyazaki also gets rid of the mother by making her too sick to care for them — a very common plot device in children’s literature, especially in America.

But Mei in particular is the Divine Child archetype, both vulnerable and invincible at once. (Jungian.) The audience understands this contract from the beginning, even if we don’t know Jung’s word for it — nothing really bad will happen to Mei.

The sibling duo in which the younger child is at one with fantasy and imagination while the older child is on the cusp of adulthood, is common in storytelling:

Unlike Mei, who fully enjoys her childhood, her elder sister is about to enter womanhood. Satsuki resembles Wendy in Peter Pan, who must work to believe in Peter, while her younger brothers have no problem believing in Neverland.

Rieko Okuhara

DESIRE

At the deepest level, Satsuki and Mei want their mother to get better and to join them in their new house. But this doesn’t make for a story. There needs to be a more specific desire, one that the characters might actually achieve.

This is where the story turns carnivalesque. Started by the younger and therefore more imaginative Mei (in a sequence reminiscent of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe), they invent (or discover) a magical world as proxy for their subconscious. By entering into this world they will:

  1. Have heaps of fun (carnivalesque)
  2. Face their deepest fears (mythic)

OPPONENT

In a carnivalesque children’s story, supernatural/mythic creatures appear and they may appear scary. In this case, it is the large Totoro’s size. Notice how Mei at first encounters small, rabbit-sized Totoros — this correlates to how her fears intensify over the course of the story. In Japan, these totoros are known as Big Totoro, Medium-sized Totoro and Little Totoro. (This reminds me of The Three Bears.)

But Totoro is also furry like a welcoming great bed.

Despite this, Totoro has an element of danger. I’m thinking, if the creature rolls over, Mei could easily be squashed. The scene with Mei and Totoro contains a minor ‘Battle’ of a big sneeze, as Mei fiddles with Totoro’s whiskers. Many children’s picture books feature an outsized bodily function as the climax, most notably in fairytales such as The Three Little Pigs, but also in Yertle The Turtle and Julia Donaldson’s Wake Up Do, Lydia Lou!

In a cosy story like My Neighbour Totoro, the main characters will meet allies (helpers) along their mythic journey.

First there’s the father.

The father—almost like a Wise Old Man, another archetype figure—seems to understand the rules of the gods’ world and explains them to his children.

Rieko Okuhara

Then there is Granny. Mei is scared of her at first, perhaps because she is new, perhaps because she is old, perhaps because she is associated with a scary house. The Granny, like many elderly characters in children’s stories, lives in her own version of a fantasy world. She tells the girls quite confidently that if their mother ate her fresh homegrown vegetables, her illness will clear right up. This is not an especially responsible thing to tell a child, and it is what sets Mei off on her journey to deliver the corn cob to her mother. (This has been foreshadowed by Mei telling her father that she is a big girl now and is off to do ‘errands’. The father thinks nothing of this at the time.)

The boy next door (Granny’s real grandson) is positioned as a natural opponent because he is a boy. Satsuki declares that she does not like boys. However, Kanta reveals his kindness by offering the girls his umbrella — a well-known trope in Japan, where people will indeed share their umbrellas with you if you are caught in a downpour. (Downpours are common during rainy season — when Kanta is chastised by his mother for failing to take an umbrella, there was a surefire bet it would rain heavily.)

Totoro turns up at the bus stop at night — a scary prospect for the girls, whose deeper fear is: “What has happened to Dad?” Dad hasn’t turned up when expected. Without their father, the girls would be utterly alone in the world. So once again, Totoro turns up as a proxy for their fear, and the girls transform him (or her — where did those mini Totoros come from?) into a non-threatening, childlike creature who is so unassuming he is startled by heavy raindrops falling onto the umbrella lent to him by the girls.

PLAN

Satsuki and Mei first explore their new house. If they explore every nook and cranny they will understand its mysteries. Ergo, they will not feel scared. Exploration of the scary house occupies a good chunk of the beginning. They find ‘soot gremlins’ — very much in line with the sort of creature found throughout traditional Japanese folklore, but actually invented by Miyazaki himself. In the West we have dust bunnies, which are more hairy than sooty.

In a suspenseful story for adults (say, anything from the thriller/detective genres), there will be a chase sequence. Here, too, there is a chase: Mei chases after the intriguing little creatures. In other words, it is Mei who drives the action, not the other way round. The utopian, cosy atmosphere would have been punctured had the Totoros been chasing Mei instead.

Mei also drives the action by visiting Satsuki at school.

Finally, she takes off on a one-girl mission to save her mother. Notice that before she does so, the sisters have an argument.

BIG STRUGGLE

The Battle sequence, in which the village searches for Mei, is similar to cross-genre ‘lost child’ sequences. We wonder if Mei is dead when a child’s sandal is found. (I wonder who it belonged to?)

Satsuki finds Mei by visiting Totoro. Totoro is able to fly, and can also summon the cat bus. Satsuki saves Mei by making use of forest magic. At least, that’s the fantasy layer of the story.

More literally, Satsuki may summon the courage to find Mei of her own accord, imagining that she has the protection of mysterious, fantasy companions that she and Mei both conjured up, thereby leading her to Mei. By entering Mei’s imaginary Totoro world, Satsuki is also able to deduce that Mei has gone to the hospital with a ‘magic’ vegetable.

ANAGNORISIS

Ultimately, this is a story about two children who overcome their fears. They do this with the discovery that they are an integral part of the natural world. This discovery is proxy for the more mature insight they will develop later: That in order to be alive, we must also die. For now, though, their mother is not facing imminent death.

When Satsuki and Mei see their parents through the hospital window, they get the feeling everything with their mother is going to be all right. Often in visual storytelling, when characters come to some sort of realisation they are positioned at an elevated altitude. In this case they are up a tree — ostensibly so they can see through the window — symbolically because they now have a broader view on the situation and can put their mother’s illness in perspective.

This variety of Anagnorisis combines well with a Child Archetype such as Mei:

The child comes in the very beginning of life. Yet the child also symbolizes the rebirth of a new child; before the rebirth, death must come. The child archetype is an initial and a terminal creature, and represents the process of death and rebirth. When Mei sets out to the hospital to heal her mother, her family loses her for a period of time. The finding of the lost child symbolizes the rebirth of Mei. For Satsuki, finding Mei also means the rediscovery of her childhood. In the embrace of Satsuki and Mei, one witnesses the outcome of Mei’s death and rebirth. The child has combined the opposites, and the spirits are the witnesses to the event. The film ends with the happy smiles of people holding and hugging Mei and the spirits of nature looking over the cheerful scene from the top of the big camphor tree. Mei’s coming home completes a stage in the progression of human beings.

Reiko Okuhara

NEW SITUATION

No matter what happens to the mother, Mei and Satsuki are now emotionally equipped to handle whatever cards they are dealt. They have learnt resilience by means of the power of imagination.

Worth mentioning: The original tagline was “We brought what you left behind.” Clearly this refers to Mei’s delivery of the corn cob, but also works at the symbolic level — Mei reunites her family and village with the wonder of nature around them.

THE ART OF MY NEIGHBOUR TOTORO

There is much to be said on this topic — I’ll focus on just a few things.

COLOURS

Taking a condense snapshot of main colours (depicted in the poster below), it’s clear how much of this film is set in the rural outdoors (green). The blue band takes the Kusakabe girls into the sky on a flight fantasy in the cat bus. Another green band takes them further into nature. Disregarding the light orange (which indicates the credits) notice the film is bookended by browns — the brown is the home, at first new and scary, by the end a true home.

Kathleen Hale. Orlando; a Seaside Holiday. First published in 1938. The cat vehicle is an old trope.
PERSPECTIVE

More recently I’ve been following a discussion about how scenes in Totoro break the rules of perspective, as it is traditionally taught. At first glance scenes look like cartoonified versions of photographs, but that’s not the case. People have whipped their rulers out and discovered that the animators/background artists have broken traditional ‘rules’ (made in the West) to include more information in a single scene.

This, too, is more in line with the off-kilter perspective found in children’s picture books than in animation aimed at older audiences, in which case scenes tend to be beautiful for their technical prowess.

CHARACTER DESIGN

In a film aimed squarely at children, it is perhaps unusual that Miyazaki’s characters don’t have that big-eyed, anime look.   On the other hand, the character designs are very much in line with picture books — an art form which has so far rejected the ‘anime look’. In fact, I’ve heard agents and publishers advise illustrators to steer well clear of manga-esque characterisation if the aim is to illustrate picture books.   The movements of Totoro’s characters are beautifully accurate impressions of how children actually move — in common with how the best children’s book illustrators are able to depict realistic movement in their picture books. The scene in which Mei scoots forward on Totoro’s belly could not have been achieved without close observation of young children. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his attention to detail. If he needs to depict water flowing over rocks in a stream, he will go and watch water flowing over rocks in a stream.

FOR FURTHER INVESTIGATION

Verbal Diorama podcast discuss My Neighbour Totoro.

The Weirdness of Yotsuba&! by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba 1 cover

The other day someone in a book recommendation group wanted suggestions for a 10 year old who loves Hayao Miyazaki movies.

This basically describes my own kid, who’s been a Miyazaki fan since the age of three, before she even knew transmogrification wasn’t a thing. My kid enjoys Yotsuba&! (among other things, so I recommended that.

Yotsuba&! is a manga series which has been translated into English to capture an international market. We can deduce: Yotsuba&! is actually one of the least ‘weird-to-Westeners’ stories produced by Japan.

Someone else said, “Oh I love Yotsuba! She’s so cute.” Another person mentioned the general weirdness of Japanese media for kids. (It’s worth mentioning at this point, our kids generally love this stuff. Adults find it weird.) In any case, I should probably have recommended the series ‘with reservations.’

Because of my interest in storytelling, I wondered if I could attempt a theory on why, so often, adult English speakers find Japanese stories so… inexplicably weird.

  • What do we mean when we call something ‘weird’?
  • Why does a culture find some story elements ‘plausible’, but elements from another culture ‘weird’?
  • What are the different expectations of ‘a story suitable for children’?

Any insight I have on this subject comes from 10 years of Japanese study, including a couple of years living in Japan — first as a high school exchange student living with a host family, next at a Japanese university living in a dorm Then I taught Japanese at high school level, though I’ve had little to do with Japan since the 2000s. I can only guess at the general trajectory, as more and more young Japanese people spend part of their youth abroad, many learning English to a high level which no doubt leads to a more internationalised Japan.

Conversely, is the West becoming a bit more accepting of Asian entertainment? I know white people who listen to nothing but K-Pop, and others who spend a lot of time playing Nintendo games from the 80s and 90s. Western fans of Japanese entertainment tend to be uber fans.

Japanese Weirdness and the Western Media

My general thoughts on Japanese ‘weirdness’ is this: Our Western media loves to paint Japanese people as downright quirky. We’ll pick up any out-there news article and disseminate it with glee, to bolster our view that these people are somehow ‘Other’. Oftentimes, our media’s ‘proof’ of Japanese weirdness is a complete misunderstanding of intent — Japanese people love to poke fun at themselves. Where they’re poking fun, we’re imagining they are taking themselves completely seriously. Either that or we can’t possibly see the joke because jokes are so culturally specific.

Yotsuba&! is a great introduction to Japanese ‘weirdness’.

YOTSUBA&!: A CASE STUDY IN WEIRD

Yotsuba&! is centered on Yotsuba Koiwai, a five-year-old adopted girl who is energetic, cheerful, curious, odd, and quirky — so much so that even her own father calls her strange. She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings.This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

Wikipedia overview

Yotsuba means ‘four leaf clover’ in Japanese, which explains the green hair and four pigtails.

THE TITLE

Well, the first weird thing is the title. An English speaker would not shove an ampersand into that title unless it meant ‘and’. What’s it doing there?

Well, that symbol means ‘and’ in Japanese, too. It’s just used a little differently here. Japanese orthography doesn’t put spaces between words (because there are three different ‘alphabets’ and it doesn’t need to).

The phrase Yotsuba to means “Yotsuba and,” a fact reflected in the chapter titles, most of which take the form “Yotsuba and [something].

Wikipedia
LANGUAGE

First of all, Yotsuba&! is full of onomatopoeia and mimesis, which is amazingly rich in Japanese. The English version keeps the Japanese (written in Japanese) and adds its English transcription in small letters. For an English speaker, this still won’t be enough. We do fine with the echomimesis, but need further translation for ideophones such as ‘kuru’ to represent the turning of something. (This comes from the Japanese verb form of ‘to turn’, thus making perfect sense to Japanese readers.)

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Japanese is so different from English that wordplay never translates. Yotsuba is young and gets words wrong, which presents a problem for the translator to the point where jokes simply do not work. Sometimes the translator gets around this by describing the problem in marginalia. In Yotsuba&! number one, Yotsuba mistakes her father’s job ‘translator’ for ‘jelly maker’. This works in Japanese because the words sound very similar. (Even the translation of ‘jelly’ doesn’t work — konnyaku is not what Westerners think of when we hear the word ‘jelly’ — it’s a grey, black flecked substance made from potato starch.) On a meta-level, it’s ironic that the character of the father is a translator, yet the joke about his job simply doesn’t translate.

THE CHARACTER WEB

The fictional child orphan is a very American trope. Yotsuba as a character doesn’t fit this trope at all, though. This backstory (such as there is) feels foreign. The father just kinda picked her up from someplace.

Yotsuba is not really a… real child? She’s more like Ponyo of the Hayao Miyazaki film — someone who just turns up and joins the family. She seems to have come from a different planet. In the world of the story, she’s understood to simply be ‘foreign’:

She is also initially ignorant about many things a child her age would be expected to know, among them doorbells, escalators, air conditioners, and even playground swings. This naïveté is the premise of humorous stories where she learns about, and frequently misunderstands, everyday things.

This particular character trope isn’t entirely foreign to a Western audience. We’re seeing a lot more comedy about characters who don’t seem to know what on earth is going on around them. Some of these characters are coded as autistic, which I go into more thoroughly here.

Because Yotsuba has no mother, and because her adopted father is so useless, the girls next door step in and they perform much of the emotional (and housework) labour a mother would otherwise provide. I don’t believe this is a specifically Japanese phenomenon at all, but it is an unusual family set up to see in contemporary Western children’s literature. Hopeless Dads are dime a dozen, but Dads who kind of fall in lust with their children’s informal babysitters next door? Not so much. (See below.)

SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE SYMBOLISM

In Yotsuba&! volume one, the story takes place over summer. Summer in Japan has its own specific atmosphere — after the rainy season of June comes a very hot and humid time, and unless you live in a very built-up area, summer sounds like cicadas. (Cicadas and frogs.) A ‘typical’ Japanese summer includes eating watermelons with family, wind chimes and festivals. This summer experience is depicted clearly in Yotsuba&!, though may not be coded as specifically ‘summer’ by readers who haven’t experienced the specifically Japanese summer. My Australian summer includes many of those things, too, but an Australian ‘vision of’ summer is different: the beach, swimming, surfing, shorts, sunscreen, icy-poles, thongs, beer. Each culture has its own Symbolism of Seasons, and Japanese symbolism is a little different even when summer itself is basically the same.

SPECIFICALLY JAPANESE CULTURE

As a high school exchange student, I was surprised to see teachers thwack students across the head. Touching the head is taboo in my own culture, especially when it’s a teacher to a student. Yet I saw it done mostly in jest.

Likewise, in Japanese entertainment, when one character hits another over the head, this is coded by the audience as funny. It’s one character ‘owning’ the other, usually as the conclusion (or as the main part) of a joke.

This joke is used numerous times in Yotsuba&!, first with one sister hitting the other on the head in the chapter where Yotsuba thinks she’s being abducted by the girl next door. (She doesn’t know that yet.) Later, Yotsuba insists everyone goes cicada catching. She jokingly ‘Catches an Ena’, which involves capturing her neighbour’s head in a net.

In another gag, Yotsuba’s father ends up with underpants on his head and pretends he’s some kind of underpants monster. This version of the joke translates the best out of all of these ‘head’ gags — probably because a young Western audience is also laughing at the inversion of a clothing article meant for the butt ending up on the head. For a Japanese audience there’s an added layer of embarrassment around showing your underwear to someone in your out-group — for girls and women especially, this is taboo. While modern attitudes are various, some Japanese women will never, ever show anyone their underwear, to the point where they won’t hang underwear on the line. (Therefore, a joke about the father’s underwear exposed to a non-family member works as a joke, but I doubt it would work if the underwear belonged to a girl.)

There’s a huge irony in this, which I’ve never been able to reconcile: Whereas the underwear of a post-pubescent Japanese female is absolutely taboo, the white, voluminous underpants of a little girl is considered cute, whereas in the West, adult women get to show their bodies as a form of empowerment, but when it comes to little girls, we are very protective of them. Pixar would never show the underpants of a little girl flying on a broomstick or falling comically from a height, but Hayao Miyazaki has no such qualms.

In Yotsuba&! we see examples of butt shots used comically:

funny butt

But my Western sensibilities come to the fore in the relationship between Yotsuba’s ‘father’ (according to the story he simply found her and decided to keep her), and his reaction to the triad of adolescent/teenage sisters who live next door.

In the first, minor example, the comically inappropriate Yotsuba refers to one of the sisters next door as the pretty one, the other as the ‘not pretty’ one. The father says, “You’re right, but you shouldn’t say it that way…”

not so pretty

My Western sensibility wants a Good Dad to tell Yotsuba that all the sisters next door are beautiful in their own way, but this father is more pragmatic, instead acknowledging that yes, he has noticed and yes, some girls are pretty, others not so much. I’ve noticed in the West, a general lack of willingness to accept that some people fit the Beauty Cultural Norm better than others. The problem with that: Unless we accept Beauty as a concept, we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege. If we can’t acknowledge Beauty Privilege, we can’t go out of our way to move past it.

Besides, this father is not your typical father. He’s more of a young guy who isn’t quite up to the task of taking care of a kid. This kid regularly finds herself in perilous situations, because the father is asleep or busy working or whatever. A permissive, indulgent parent is useful to a writer of children’s literature, because it’s really hard to realistically get adult caregivers out of the way. Modern kids, in real life, are rarely afforded the opportunity to head off on their own adventures. Not so Yotsuba, who goes off on her own around the neighbourhood. “Don’t worry, she eventually comes back,” says Father to the concerned girl next door. While he’s sleeping, Yotsuba’s getting herself locked in the toilet, then escapes by tottering precariously along the rail of the balcony. Instead of fixing the lock on the door, the father leaves it be, paving the way for further embarrassing window-escape adventures. An adult Western reader may well look at this father-daughter relationship and have grave concerns. Has the creator removed the father from Yotsuba’s life in a way that doesn’t set us on edge? What is he even doing with this little girl? Does her origin story need to be explained a little more? Readers will vary on this point.

More salient: Is Yotsuba&! even for kids? At first glance, of course it is. Japanese publishers have definitely aimed it at a young child market: We know this because they include the ‘kana’ readings over the Chinese characters, which is a sure sign a book is aimed at emergent readers. (Around 5-8.)

The main character, Yotsuba is also five. But Yotsuba is five in the way Junie B. Jones is five — her particular quirks appeal to older readers.

Here’s a scene Junie B. Jones would never include: The father’s friend comes round to the house, sees the girl next door with the father and makes a comment about ‘jail bait’.

jail bait yotsuba

This is icky to me, especially after the way in which this girl is introduced to Yotsuba’s father — and to the reader:

Yotsuba up skirt shot

I’m no manga apologist, but it’s possible that within manga culture this is such a normalised objectification of a teenage girl that it doesn’t really even strike the manga-enthusiast as a sexualised pose. I recall my year as an exchange student, in which I wore the school skirt a lot lower than any of my Japanese classmates. I wore it just below the knee, whereas they rolled theirs up. Some concerned classmates offered fashion advice, and tried rolling it up at the waist to achieve a more acceptable look. The girls themselves have internalised the idea that women’s legs are to be looked at.

To me, this pose is very gazey and, depending partly on the viewer, absolutely sexual. I was prepared to look past it until the ‘jail bait’ section, but considering the story as a whole, the creators are well-aware of their intent: To depict these teenage girls in a sexual manner to appease the male gaze. Although we do see examples of the male gaze in Western children’s literature, it’s been a long time since I saw something this blatant. This is manga culture pulled down into children’s entertainment.

THE STORY STRUCTURE OF YOTSUBA&!

Yotsuba&! is the perfect example of an ‘episodic’ story, found quite often in middle grade fiction, especially that aimed at (and starring) girls. Boys more often go off on linear adventures, but in Yotsuba&!, each chapter is its own self-contained story. Apart from the first chapter, in which Yotsuba moves house and meets new people, any of the others could easily be switched around.

‘Episodic’ is often used as a negative descriptor when it comes to fiction — as a synonym for ‘boring’ or ‘goes nowhere’. Modern middle grade novels in English tend to have a single driving thread even if it includes subplots which seem to take the reader off on self-contained tangents. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a good example of a Western counterpart. I’m also thinking of Clementine — also about the quotidian life of a girl. The difference is, each of the Clementine books has a single plot thread with means the chapters could not be switched up.

In general, Japanese audiences accept a slower pace. There’s a long history of very long Noh and Kabuki plays, in which the audience happily leaves part way through, goes to eat a meal, then comes back to see the end.

But partly this is because of the huge crossover appeal of its anime, manga and also pop music, which tends to be enjoyed by adults and children alike. To generalise, even children’s media ends up with a more adult pacing:

Toy Story – 76 mins
Brave – 84 mins
Monsters Inc. – 85 mins, 8 secs
Toy Story 2 – 85 mins, 32 secs
Inside Out – 87 mins
A Bug’s Life – 88 mins
Up -89 mins
Wall·E – 90 mins
Finding Nemo – 93 mins
Toy Story 3 – 94 mins
Monsters University – 94 mins
Cars 2 – 98 mins
Ratatouille – 103 mins
The Incredibles – 107 mins
Cars – 108 mins

Pixar Running Times

Summer Wars – 114 mins
Wolf Children – 117 mins
Spirited Away – 125 mins
Paprika – 90 mins
Totoro – 86 mins
Ponyo – 101 mins
Your Name – 106 mins
From Up On Poppy Hill – 91 mins

My comparisons aren’t perfect, because ‘animated’ doesn’t mean ‘for kids’ in Japan. Summer Wars is more for an adult audience despite being anime, in line with Miyazaki’s From Up On Poppy Hill, whereas all of the Pixar films are made solidly for kids despite humour that only their adult co-viewers would get. Totoro is Japanese anime made solidly for kids, making for a better Pixar comparison, and Totor’s runtime lines up nicely with the films of Pixar. My wider point is: A more diverse story structure is accepted by audiences in Japan, with younger audiences enjoying films of ‘adult length’. (Spirited Away is enjoyed by children, but you won’t see a Pixar film of 125 minutes.)

Why are some Japanese films much longer? Because they are ‘slower’. By ‘slower’ I mean there tends to be more emphasis on scene-setting. Hayao Miyazaki is well-known for his emphasis on food scenes. Food is important across all children’s literature from any part of the world, but the emphasis on food preparation and the sharing and consumption of food is not something you’ll find easily in the West.

However, emphasis on food culture is not specific to Miyazaki. Keep looking and you’ll find it holds true across all aspects of Japanese entertainment. It’s true of Yotsuba&!, too.

The word ‘pillow shot’ was first used to describe the films of Yasujiro Ozu:

A “pillow shot” is a cutaway, for no obvious narrative reason, to a visual element, often a landscape or an empty room, that is held for a significant time (five or six seconds). It can be at the start of a scene or during a scene.

Dangerous Minds

Although it describes film, I like to apply the word equally to stories comprising static images (e.g. manga) because all the Yotsuba&! shots of first waking up, slurping on food, announcing one’s intention to visit the toilet… these are the quotidian aspects of life more commonly omitted from Western stories, even in stories for children:

I didn’t mean to pick a scene which literally includes a pillow, but there you go.

My Japanese teacher in Japan also taught English to Japanese students (that was her main job). She always found it uniquely Japanese that when asked to write an essay about their daily, her Japanese students would include details English speaking students would not: “I got up, went to the toilet, brushed my teeth…”

I have concluded over time that Japanese natives do a better, more thorough job of noticing the details of everyday life, and this is reflected in entertainment coming out of Japan.

In Sum

As you can probably gather, I have mixed feelings about the Yotsuba&! series as a middle grade text. Yotsuba as a character is a satisfying character for girls in particular — she’s irreverent (especially by Japanese standards of politeness), she’s energetic and her family situation means she’s often out on interesting hi jinx. Yotsuba herself is not sexualised — in fact she’s dressed in hardy shorts and is wholly unlimited by cultural gender expectations.

All of these wonderful things about Yotsuba are undermined by the dynamic between Yotsuba’s young, adoptive father, the father’s creepy best friend and the triad of teenaged sisters next door. I believe the creator has been influenced by manga culture to the point where he perhaps doesn’t even realise this dynamic could be read as anything other than innocent.

I suspect a proportion of Japanese parents would share this view in common with me, and to finish off, I’d like to emphasise that ‘manga’ culture is not synonymous with ‘Japanese culture’.

A Letter To Momo Film Study

A Letter To Momo film poster

Letter to Momo is a 2011 Japanese feature anime directed by Hiroyuki Okiura, also known for Ghost In The Shell. After the oceanographer father drowns in a disaster at sea, mother and daughter move from Tokyo to the small island village where the mother spent holidays once per year with her aunt and uncle to recuperate from her asthma as a child. Creatures from Japanese folklore appear to guide young Momo through the grieving process, in this story intimately connected to Japanese Buddhist and Shinto traditions.

SETTING OF LETTER TO MOMO

Japan is an archipelago of about 3000 islands — five main ones, of course. The director himself grew up on the coast of Hiroshima, which means the edge of the Seto Inland Sea.

Letter To Momo is set on a small island in the Seto Inland Sea of Japan — the body of water separating the islands of Shikoku, Honshu and Kyushu. The real island is called Osaki-Shimojima, whereas the fictional island is shortened and changed slightly to Shiojima.

Though the island is fictional, the landmarks and art are closely based on the real island. For example, Historical Nomieruoka Park is depicted in several scenes. The real island has an area of about 18 square kilometres and a population of about 3,000 people as of 2012. There is a Buddhist temple at its highest point (Mount Ippooji).

The Name Of Shiojima
Welcome to Shiojima
Momo stands in front of the bridge welcoming visitors to Shiojima.

The name of this island is Shiojima. The first character of Shiojima (汐島) means both ‘tide’ and ‘opportunity’. This is the sort of symbolism which doesn’t translate easily into Western narrative and is part of what makes Chinese characters so hard (and fascinating) to study. In Eastern Asia, the fact that the tide is connected to opportunity maps onto this story starring two characters who return to the sea for a second chance at a full life, even after great loss. And even after the great loss was due to the sea. The history of this connection is to do with Japan’s close historical connection to the sea, and their heavy reliance upon fishing. The difference between having enough to eat or not was all about judging the ebb and flow of the tides.

If you look up a Japanese-Japanese dictionary you’ll learn that 汐 refers specifically to the ebb of evening tide, and is associated with a beautiful view. This makes sense, since the character is made up of the radical for ‘water’ next to the character for ‘evening’. If you write some Japanese you can probably guess the character for morning tide. Yep, it’s 潮. Both words for tide are pronounced the same way — either ushio or shio. In everyday Japanese both are used and no mind is ordinarily given to whether the tide is an evening or a morning one. The character for morning tide seems to be more the default.

汐 is often used in girls’ names, which makes it worth knowing. The character conveys ‘softness’ and has relatively few strokes, making it convenient to write. The character itself, when written in calligraphy, is of a curved shape, which makes it feminine. You’ll find it in names such as Shiori (汐里、汐璃、汐莉), or in combinations pronounced Shiomi and Shione. In names, confusingly for foreigners, this character might alternatively be pronounced ‘Kiyo’. So you’ll find it in names like Kiyomi, Kiyora. When found in boys’ names it will always be pronounced Kiyo, occurring in names like Kiyoharu and Kiyohiro. When used in a boys’ name, ‘evening tide’ will be paired with a character with traditionally masculine virtues, presumably to offset the feminine associations with ocean tide.

Why has the character for evening tide been chosen for the name of this village, instead of the character for morning tide? It could have gone either way because Momo is young and is starting a new life, but if you stayed for the roll of credits you’ll have noticed the pillow shots of the slow, elderly nature of the island. This is a village which is dying, devoid of young people. It’s likely those children jumping off the bridge are the only children in the village. Will Momo build an entire life here? I doubt it. I imagine Momo returns to the mainland for her upper education. In fact, I just checked my watch and it’s already 2018, so she’s probably there now.

More on the Symbolism of Islands in storytelling.

Buddhist Culture In Letter To Momo

If you ask young Japanese people on the street about religion, you get something like this:

In Japan you can consider yourself Buddhist without any of the mystical beliefs of yore, just so long as you have a ‘butsudan’ (a Buddhist altar) in your house (or in your parents’ house, probably), and participate in the Bon Festival. You can see a Buddhist altar in this movie. Mother and daughter stand in front of it and think about the dead father. There’s a photo of him hanging there. My host father was the most interested in my host family’s altar — he’d take a small portion of food in there each night for his dead ancestors. The following night he’d bring out the crusty old rice and replace with new. The altar is basically a place where you go to think about loved ones — a convenient little grave right inside your own home. (It’s not where the actual dead bodies are kept.)

At the height of summer, Japanese people have Obon.

Obon (お盆) or just Bon (盆) is a Japanese Buddhist custom to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors. This Buddhist-Confucian custom has evolved into a family reunion holiday during which people return to ancestral family places and visit and clean their ancestors’ graves, and when the spirits of ancestors are supposed to revisit the household altars. It has been celebrated in Japan for more than 500 years and traditionally includes a dance, known as Bon-Odori.

Wikipedia

The lantern tradition is a great spectacle, and the only part of Obon depicted in Letter To Momo:

Tōrō nagashi (灯籠流し) is a Japanese ceremony in which participants float paper lanterns down a river; tōrō is a word for “lantern,” while nagashi means “cruise” or “flow.” This activity is traditionally performed on the final evening of the Bon Festival in the belief that it will help to guide the souls of the departed to the spirit world.

Wikipedia

What must it be like, to really believe that your dead ancestors are visiting Earth again each year? In A Letter To Momo, the idea that the world is inhabited by a parallel realm of live creatures harks back to an earlier time where people really did believe in the supernatural. Dead souls were (are?) thought to hang about for a bit before going to ‘up there’, a belief which  helps the grieving process.

Japanese Culture In Letter To Momo

You’ll notice some specifically Japanese body language in this anime. Here’s Momo in the middle of a big, exaggerated march. This is a girl on a mission. This is a particularly juvenile kind of walk, emphasising youth. I wonder if it comes from the fact that Japanese school children used to do a lot of marching. (There’s still ‘marching music’ played in many Japanese schools at cleaning time.)

Something the animators of this film do extremely well is the body language of Momo (and Mame). Momo doesn’t just sit on the tatami mats — she pushes herself around on them while lying down, propelled forward by her feet.

There are numerous other examples of a girl behaving how kids really behave when they’re not confined to a chair, and it’s not something I’ve seen a studio like Pixar do particularly well. The kids in Pixar films — compared to this one — behave like little adults. Is that because our Western way of making kids sit on chairs and sleep on raised beds prevents them from being kids? In any case, the childlike body language of Momo when she is bored and at home in her Japanese-style house is especially realistic. I believe any child would behave like this in the same setting.

Momo pen held in nose
Momo holds a pen between top lip and nose, like no one is watching her.
jumping the last step
Momo jumps the final few steps.

Momo’s mother beckons to her in a typically Japanese way, calling her over to meet the elderly relatives. When I first got to Japan I thought my host-mother was shooing me away when she did this.

You’ll see Koichi the postman point at his face to mean ‘me’, whereas Westerners tend to point to our chests, as if our ‘selves’ reside in our hearts rather than in our heads.

Shoes are removed in the entrance nooks (genkan), and although it’s polite and ‘correct’ to turn your shoes around to face the door when you step out of them, most kids don’t. We see Yota step into his shoes backwards, shuffling backwards out the front door in a comic-realistic fashion. These are kids being kids, without the parental intervention.

Bicycles and mopeds are a great way of getting around narrow and winding roads such as these, because utility vehicles and cars would need to back up when meeting an oncoming vehicle.

Is there a rule that umbrellas make an appearance in every Japanese anime? I shouldn’t be surprised really, since umbrella culture is strong in Japan. With a heavy and predictable rainy season, in which rain is usually unaccompanied by wind, making them genuinely useful, there is usually a point in a Japanese film when rain is utilised as pathetic fallacy. Here, too, a rainstorm not only functions as an impediment to the characters getting what they want (a doctor for the mother), but also stands in for Momo’s emotions. Rain = tears, thunder and lightning = uncontrollable and strong feelings.

Japanese Folklore In A Letter To Momo

The ‘goblins’ who appear to Momo are known as ‘yookai’ (with the long ‘o’ sound) in Japanese. The class of yokai is much wider than the subtitles translation of ‘goblin’.

Yōkai (妖怪, ghostphantomstrange apparition) are a class of supernatural monsters, spirits and demons in Japanese folklore. The word yōkai is made up of the kanji for “bewitching; attractive; calamity”; and “spectre; apparition; mystery; suspicious”.

Wikipedia

Though historically yokai didn’t look like anything in particular, their forms started to solidify in the collective Japanese imagination once artists started sketching their own imaginings onto emaki (horizontal, illustrated narratives created during the 11th to 16th centuries).

Letter To Momo emaki

The yokai featuring in A Letter To Momo:

  1. Iwa no ke — Spirit of Rocks. This guy looks scary at first because he can’t close his massive mouth. But when he is revealed to be harmless, his permanently open maw makes him look easily duped and comical. Rocks are associated with masculinity in Japanese culture. Therefore he is depicted as big and strong. An evil version of this guy can bite your head off, as Kawa points out. Like Grizz of the We Bare Bears, Iwa is the guy who takes the lead, even when his ideas are terrible.
  2. Kawa no ke — Spirit of Rivers. This guy is particularly grotesque, with stinky big farts being one of his superpowers. An evil version of Kawa can suck your soul out through your mouth, as he comically demonstrates on Kawa. Evil river spirts can also cause drowning. But in other traditional stories they just fart, for some reason. (You’d think this would be more heavily associated with wind, wouldn’t you?) Kawa hates anything that requires effort, and speaks with the dialect favoured by hoodlums who’d like to fancy themselves Yakuza.
  3. Mame no ke — Spirit of Beans. This little guy is harmless and innocent, like a toddler. He is shown to be friendly with all the spirits on the island, which comes in handy later. Beans are associated with smallness in Japanese language, and ‘mame’  is also  a homophone for honest, devoted, hardworking and active.  Of the three yokai here, Mame is the airhead who does things at his own pace. He doesn’t always hang around with the other two, having his own friendly friends.

The idea that there’s a spirit in everything is a Shinto idea rather than a Buddhist one. (Is Shintoism a ‘religion’? A Japanese lecturer at university was a stickler about this — I got marked down in an essay for Shintoism a religion. I’m still bitter.)

Another film — one from Hayao Miyazaki — Princess Mononoke, is all about the spirit of things. In fact, that’s what mononoke means: the spirit of things. If you’ve already seen that anime you’ll recognise the nymphs of the forest. (Kodama)

Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Princess Mononoke
Kodama from Letter To Momo

STORY STRUCTURE OF A LETTER TO MOMO

This story spans the time between learning of the father’s death at sea and his final departure to the world of the dead, though the plot begins with Momo arriving at her new home, and flashes back to fill in the parts when they lived in Tokyo, including the two main parts relevant to her recovery:

  • The argument she had with her father
  • The phone call she overheard when her mother learned of his death

The argument is presented twice, once with a medium angle camera, the other view from further away. The first time we don’t know what the argument is about, so the exact details of it are used later as a reveal.

Whenever a plot begins with a child starting in a new place, there will be flashbacks. The story usually starts a bit earlier. There’s a reason why people move and in stories it’s often pretty grim.

PARATEXT

Taglines:

  • When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone. (Used in the poster below)
  • Dear Momo; An unfinished letter from her father is left behind.
  • A wonderful encounter.
  • They had a “mission”.
  • Are you telling your loved ones what truly matters?
  • Words that were never said.To save those you love.
  • A letter that ties the bond between them.
Letter To Momo Japanese poster
Momo e no tegami, the Japanese movie poster

SHORTCOMING

I'm all alone

Eleven-year-old Momo is the viewpoint character, the main part of the story, and also the character who undergoes the main character arc, making Momo unambiguously the main character. You’ve probably noticed that Japanese directors aren’t afraid to make feature films for everyone starring girls. There’s a reason for this which isn’t feminist in origin  — these girl characters have flaws but are ultimately a version of the Female Maturity Formula. While Momo has her faults, the little mother in her makes her the voice of reason, persuading the male-gendered yokai characters to behave themselves, going to great lengths to stop them from stealing vegetables from the villagers. Upholding the moral fabric of a community is more often considered a feminine job. The yokai make stereotyped reference to ‘women’ numerous times in the dialogue, which is what genders them male in a more-than-symbolic way.

Momo’s ‘ghost‘ is that she has lost her father. We are not told this right away. As is usual, this ghost is withheld as a reveal.

Momo needs to move on from her father’s death and forgive herself.

The problem is, her father is dead, and the last time she saw him she told him to go away and never come back. Now she can’t take those words back.

Her shortcoming is that she can be ‘wagamama’, as Japanese people might put it. Selfish, inward looking. The mother is presented non-empathetically to the audience, but this is because we are seeing her through Momo’s eyes. Momo does not see her mother cry, and nor do we. We only see the mother leave each day for her nursing seminars, leaving her daughter with the basics but alone nonetheless, told to amuse herself with homework. Japanese children do get a lot of homework over summer, but Momo is between schools. She has little motivation to do it.

DESIRE

Momo is a reluctant participant in this new life, wanting only to return to Tokyo. But the mother has said that she sold the house in Tokyo rather than rent it out, so we know this is not an option.

Momo’s ‘below the surface’ desire is to be part of a team, to have friends. Her mother’s clumsy attempt at making friends for her is embarrassing to her. She needs to make genuine friendships alone.

OPPONENT

Momo’s main opponent is ultimately herself — her own conscience — she can’t forgive herself for those careless words she threw at her father. But in a narrative ‘oneself’ makes for a really boring story. Therefore, we have fully embodied opponents which represent the very things Momo doesn’t like about herself. In this supernatural tale them come to her in the form of the yokai.

These yokai are initially very scary, especially for young children. But as soon as Momo works out the nature of them they morph into comedic characters more reminiscent of ribald Japanese humour, resplendent with farts and nose-picking and hairy butt cheeks. They are quite grotesque. Momo, too, thinks of herself as grotesque after yelling at her dad. These yokai are self-absorbed, shown by their never-ending appetites and inability to give a damn about whose food they are stealing.

Momo’s human opponent is also her mother, standing in the way of just packing up and moving back to Tokyo.

At first the twelve-year-old boy looks like he may turn into a romantic opponent, and other directors would have made the most of this possibility but as it happens these kids are allowed to be kids. At eleven years old Momo is pre-adolescent, which is a less usual age for main characters. Main characters tend to be twelve.  Twelve-year-olds are on the cusp of adulthood, but also in English language they are about to hit the ‘teen’ years. This makes me wonder for the first time — is there something about the Japanese way of counting which makes twelve-years-of-age not so special? When counting beyond ten in Japanese it goes ‘ten-one, ten-two, ten-three, ten-four…’. There’s no phonological change after twelve. The concept of ‘teenager’ comes from English, as does the Japanese loanword, ‘tiineejaa’. Is our Western concept of twelve as ‘the end of childhood’ down to the words we use for numbers?

PLAN

Momo’s plan that sustains the middle part of the film is ‘To prevent the yokai from stealing the village vegetables’. This all changes when Ikuko has her asthma attack — now the plan is dire and simple — Momo must get medical help during a terrible storm in order to save her mother’s life, otherwise she’ll be left an orphan.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle phase of A Letter To Momo reminds me of the one in Hud, but only in one sense: A physical tousle is followed by a war of words. These lead into a ‘life or death’ struggle. In Hud, Hud tries to rape Alma. In A Letter To Momo, Momo’s mother almost dies of asthma.

By the way, my asthmatic husband says the depiction of asthma in this film is better than in most, though asthma attacks don’t tend to be accompanied by coughing. This massive asthma attack is foreshadowed by two events:

  • The old man is told not to smoke by his wife, because the old woman knows it sets off Ikuko’s asthma.
  • Ikuko is drinking tea and it goes down the wrong way. This coughing and spluttering fit is probably why the animators thought it necessary to make Ikuko cough during the asthma attack.

Here’s what’s left off the screen: Ikuko’s getting the doctor. Instead there is a cut from the stormy scene with all the supernatural creatures banding together to save Momo’s mother, right to the next morning, with the mother lying in bed. From that high angle, at first it’s a possibility that she is dead. So that’s one good reason to cut. The other is that there would be no ironic potential in a doctor’s scene, and every scene needs some level of irony. At the doctor’s, Ikuko would be treated for her asthma. We don’t need to see that because it goes exactly as we expect it would.

ANAGNORISIS

As mentioned above, one of the taglines transliterated from ‘catch copy’ in Japanese is:

気がつけば、私、ひとりじゃなかった。
When I really started to notice, I wasn’t alone.

Momo’s big anagnorisis happens in between big struggle scenes. Before rushing out to cross the bridge Momo realises that her mother has been badly affected by her father’s death. This is prompted by the old woman saying that Ikuko’s suppression of emotion has contributed to her failing health. All this time Momo has been wallowing in her own pity. She is lonely all day and doesn’t want to be here where she has no friends, her mother won’t believe they’re surrounded by supernatural creatures that only she can see… Yet Ikuko has her own inner world that Momo cannot see — Ikuko has lost a husband just as much as Momo has lost a father.

At first the film makes us think that by ‘not alone’ Momo means the yokai. Which also works. But really, more deeply and more symbolically, Momo is not alone because she and her mother are going through the same grief. Hence, the deeper meaning of the catch copy.

The second part of the anagnorisis happens when Momo reads the letter from her dead father, sent back on the lantern boat. This is the mother’s anagnorisis, too. She’s had nothing to do with the yokai, but this time she allows herself to believe that her dead husband has a kind message from beyond the grave.

By the way, the English version of the catch copy asks us, “Are you telling your loved ones what really matters?” Which speaks to an interesting cultural difference. Westerners value “I love yous” and other grand gestures of love expressed towards those closest to us, but Japanese families are traditionally laconic in this regard, preferring to let gestures of love speak for themselves. This may be changing with globalisation.

NEW SITUATION

Momo plucks up the courage to jump into the sea from the bridge — all so symbolic it almost hurts.

Momo jumping off bridge

Mother and daughter will always have each other. As they stand together on the beach we know that their relationship will improve from now on. The yokai are no longer needed, so they have departed with the rest of the dead souls at Obon.

CHARACTERISATION OF MOMO

A number of reviewers have something like this to say about the character of Momo:

Momo’s displays of emotion belie an otherwise flat characterisation. Despite the amount of time spent with her, both in and out of flashbacks, she never becomes a truly compelling or inspiring protagonist, as nearly all of the Miyazaki heroines do. Considering that she is in some serious psychological pain, it’s not totally surprising that Momo spends at least half of the film with her shoulders slumped and head down; it’s just a bit disappointing that she rarely reveals herself to be more than what she appears on the surface, exhibiting a plot arc more than a full-fledged personality.

Film Comment

And I’m not sure why. Could it be that English-speaking reviewers can’t connect to an eleven-year-old Japanese girl? Now that I’ve analysed the structure it’s nothing to do with that. Momo’s inability to express her feelings may make her a little distant to a Western audience, but I suspect a native Japanese audience intuitively grasps what she would be feeling inside, and identify with her civic-mindedness regarding saving the community vegetables.

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
  • 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

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.

Hitotsubashi Daigaku

The university is in this part of Tokyo:

Hachioji

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

coffee cake shop
coffee shop wolf children

This dry-cleaning store also exists:

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
apartment living wolf children

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.)

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
the riding bitch trope in Kiki’s Delivery Service
From Up On Poppy Hill even uses the riding bitch trope as a promotional image
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.

22 Steps Breakdown

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 YA 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 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 protagonists 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

TIME TRAVEL IN FICTION

Time Travel When Do We Want It

1. Speed of light discovery: would you go back in time? and Time Travel In Fiction, from Guardian Science.

2. What Is Time? from Michio Kaku (a video)

3. Watch design built for ‘predictably late’ Indian time, in acknowledgement of the fact that different cultures have different attitudes towards time-keeping.

4. Why the past is different from the future, from Brain Pickings

5. What Is Time? One Physicist Hunts for the Ultimate Theory from Wired

6. 10 Myths About Space Travel That Make Science Fiction Better from io9

7. Why Time Travel Stories Are Meant To Be Messy from io9

8. The 10 Least Competent Time Travellers from io9

9. Is Time Travel Possible? (a video from Unplug The TV)

10. The Awful Time Travel Trope That Both Looper and Doctor Who Embraced from io9

11. 12 Greatest Time Travel Effects from Movies and Television from io9

12. Rachel McAdams has been in 3 time-travel films, but never time-traveled from io9

13. Time Travel Via Wormhole Breaks the Rules of Quantum Mechanics from Discover

14. A list of books about Time Travel from Reading Matters

Asian-Australian Children’s Literature

There are only a small number of Asian-Australian authors writing about Asia in children’s/young adult fiction and there are very few books where the first-person narrator or main character is Asian or Asian-Australian.

Also surprisingly, there are very few Australian works with Asian content that have been translated into an Asian language – translations are primarily made up of award-winning or well-known Australian authors (such as Pamela Allen and Mem Fox) and works that invoke iconic imagery of Australia such as the bush and the Anzac legend.

While anime and manga are growing in popularity globally, there are very few such works published in Australia or by Australian writers for children or young adults. Queenie Chan and Madeleine Rosca have written original English language manga, and Emily Rodda’s Deltora Quest has been adapted into both anime and manga, so it will be interesting to see what the future holds with respect to these issues.

How Children’s Literature Shapes Attitudes To Asia, The Conversation

Here are a few examples:

  • The Little Refugee by Ahn Do
  • The Tale of Temujin by Sarah Brennan
  • Samurai Kids by Sandy Fussell

The Colour Of Sky

In Western cultures at least, little kids first learn to draw with a blue or (black for night-time) sky, and a yellow orb for the sun. In reality, sky can be many different colours.

And the sun is actually white, but that’s a different blog post.

Why is the night sky turning red? from Discover Magazine

Watch As Clouds Convince You You’re Underwater from io9

The illusion that lets you see ghosts of clouds, from io9

Why does the sky look green before a tornado? from Mental Floss

Changing the colour of the sky is a great way to significantly alter the mood of an illustration. A blue sky is cheerful, a stormy sky foreboding, an orange sky indicates evening, or early morning, and a purple sky might convey a fantastical or magic world.

Paris, view of the Seine, Night Mathias Alten, 1899
Paris, view of the Seine, Night Mathias Alten, 1899

What if you change the colour of the sky after the rest of the artwork has been done? I read a hint lately in a digital art manual which suggested filling a top layer with the colour of your sky, then setting it to multiply blend mode. This will tint the landscape/cityscape or whatever to the appropriate hue, since the colour of the landscape is influenced by the colour of the sky above. I haven’t had a chance to put this to use, but I did try it out anyway on an illustration I’d already done, and I do believe it would be a good way to get the sky matching the landscape, if you end up with a hue which draws attention to itself, or in which the sky looks somehow separate from the land.

Mikhail Bychkov - Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Mikhail Bychkov – Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Mikhail Bychkov - Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Mikhail Bychkov – Tales of Scandinavian Writers
Belgian artist  Pol Ledent ‘Magic Autumn’
Belgian artist Pol Ledent ‘Magic Autumn’

Header painting: John Muirhead – The Calm before a Storm 1881