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”

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’.

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).

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.