Storms, Cyclones and Wind in Art and Storytelling

"Windy Witch was gone" an illustration from the short story "Windy Witch" written by Helen Broadbent, included in the book "Blackie's Children's Annual 1912"
“Windy Witch was gone” an illustration from the short story “Windy Witch” written by Helen Broadbent, included in the book “Blackie’s Children’s Annual 1912”
Great Grandmother Goose by Helen Cooper, illustrated by Krystyna Turska, Hamish Hamilton, London 1978
Southwind, Johann Sadeler (I), after Maerten de Vos, 1560 - 1600 entire world
Southwind, Johann Sadeler (I), after Maerten de Vos, 1560 – 1600

In some parts of the world, wind is associated with a certain time of year. In parts of America, it is November.

November illustration by Eulalie Minfred Banks (1895-1999), for The Garden Year in The Bumper Book, 1946, edited by Watty Piper, published in New York by The Platt and Munk Co. Inc
November illustration by Eulalie Minfred Banks (1895-1999), for The Garden Year in The Bumper Book, 1946, edited by Watty Piper, published in New York by The Platt and Munk Co. Inc
Continue reading “Storms, Cyclones and Wind in Art and Storytelling”

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell

Wolf in the Snow (2017) is an almost wordless picture book written and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, with links to the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale.

All picturebooks are puzzles. The details of pictures invite attention to their implications. The unmoving pictures require viewers to solve the puzzle of what actions and motions they represent. The pictures in wordless books require viewers to solve the puzzle of what story they imply. In books with texts, the words and pictures together tell different stories that require readers to solve the puzzle of how to connect them. The pleasure of picture books is not just in the stories they tell but also in the game of figuring out what those stories are.

The Pleasures of Children’s Literature, Nodelman and Reimer

STORY STRUCTURE

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The Fog by Maclear and Pak

The Fog picture book cover

The Fog is a picture book by written by Kyo Maclear and illustrated by Kenard Pak. This is an example of a story for children that starts out in comical fashion, but you soon realise there’s a horrifying environmental message. The metaphor of fog serves double duty as a symbol of climate change and as a psychological state. Where to from here? The ending offers part of the answer.

Continue reading “The Fog by Maclear and Pak”

The Useless Donkeys by Lydia Pender and Judith Cowell (1979)

The Useless Donkeys is a 1979 picture book written by Lydia Pender and illustrated by Judith Cowell. At first I thought The Useless Donkeys was going to be a more realistic, earlier version of Walter The Farting Dog in which an adult threatens to get rid of a family pet, but over the course of the story the pet(s) prove their true worth and end up staying with the children.

the-useless-donkeys-cover_800x853

I was a little off in my prediction. Instead, these donkeys are donkeys in the realistic sense. There’s nothing anthropomorphised about them at all. So they just wander around being donkeys, without ever proving their worth. Instead, the oldest daughter in this story happens upon what’s nowadays known as ‘The Benjamin Franklin Effect‘, in which the more you do for someone the better you like them.

The front matter tells us the illustrator, Judith Cowell, is a perfectionist and spent two years working studiously on the watercolours of this book. As you’d expect, they’re worthy of framing.

useless-donkeys-rain-house_800x800
A beautiful example of how an illustrator might depict rain.

Perhaps this is why Cowell seems to have produced only two books in her lifetime.

SETTING OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

useless-donkeys-page-one_800x812

This storybook world is something between English and Australian. I couldn’t decide whether the author was Australian or English, in fact, so wasn’t surprised to look her up and find she was English born but spent most of her life in Australia.

Lydia Pender was the daughter of George Herbert and Ethel Podger. She came to Australia with her parents and four brothers in 1920. They lived in Sydney and she went to St. Albans Church of England School, Hunters Hill, completing the Leaving Certificate. Pender won a scholarship to do a bachelor of Arts at the University of Sydney but did not complete it.

There is something quite English about the diction, and the way the full names of the children are used. Then there’s that heavy rain, of course, which is often absent from Australian picturebooks set on farms. (See for example Two Summers.)

This is a cosy homestead, a small farm with a big, bustling family. The house provides safety, and the children are healthily excited about the rising river.

stormy-night-inside

We have a newspaper reading father and a mother dressed as a 1940s housewife, tending to the family.

useless-donkeys-cosy-house

DONKEYS

Donkeys are one of the main animals in Aesop’s fables. (They’re often referred to as an ‘ass’, which has fallen out of favour for some weird reason.)

Asses, no surprise, are often depicted as hapless victim types, with no brains. They fall into traps easily, and they are drawn towards fun with no thought to consequences.

Donkeys in real life have been important to us since the age of agriculture, but only if they can be put to work. Unlike horses and ponies, donkeys in children’s literature are primarily for working rather than for companionship. Donkeys don’t save the day very often. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the donkeys in this story are actual donkeys, not people in the form of donkeys.

Mai Miturich
Dumas, Philippe, Lucy, Edward’s Daughter, 1977

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE USELESS DONKEYS

SHORTCOMING

A pair of donkeys are useless and a bit annoying.

useless-donkeys-at-the-window

DESIRE

The mother and children want to keep the donkeys.

OPPONENT

father-with-donkeys_800x800

The father. This guy is a farmer type who values animals only for their utility.

PLAN

The two eldest children row to the ‘island’ and spend the night keeping the donkeys company.

BIG STRUGGLE

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The storm sequence.

A storm can symbolize the turmoil in the character’s psyche.

The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva

The reason for that watery watercolour technique, with those large splashes to add texture, becomes clear when it starts raining in the story and the river rises.

For more illustrations of storms, see here.

ANAGNORISIS

The more you do for somebody, the more you like them. It applies to babies and it applies to animals.

useless-donkeys-last-page

NEW SITUATION

The donkeys will be allowed to stay. We know this because the father gave the final say to the more sympathetic mother.

This part of the story is implied rather than shown.

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Fog Symbolism

Yellow Fog

In stories and in art, fog and mist symbolises a variety of related things: obfuscation, mystery, dreams, confusion and a blurring between reality and unreality.

First, a description of fog from classic literature:

Fog everywhere. Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside pollutions of a great (and dirty) city. Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights. Fog creeping into the cabooses of collier-brigs; fog lying out on the yards, and hovering in the rigging of great ships; fog drooping on the gunwales of barges and small boats. Fog in the eyes and throats of ancient Greenwich pensioners, wheezing by the firesides of their wards; fog in the stem and bowl of the afternoon pipe of the wrathful skipper, down in his close cabin; fog cruelly pinching the toes and fingers of his shivering little ’prentice boy on deck. Chance people on the bridges peeping over the parapets into a nether sky of fog, with fog all round them, as if they were up in a balloon, and hanging in the misty clouds

Bleak House, Charles Dickens

FOG AND THE UNCANNY (UNHEIMLICH)

Here’s the thing about fog. It clears. While it’s hanging around, though, we can’t see much beyond our own noses, and this feels uncanny.

For this exact reason, fog is strongly symbolically linked to the uncanny, or unheimlich — uneasy, eerie, bloodcurdling.

The uncanny can be difficult to distinguish from the fantastic, but here’s a delineation:

With the uncanny, impossible events eventually find a rational explanation which in the end undermines the preternatural.

With the fantastic, the reader is left to hesitate between a rational and an irrational interpretation of impossible events, and the text does not clearly support one or the other.

Since fog clears, opening up to daylight (most typically), this corresponds to the feeling of ‘finding a rational explanation’. Philosopher Friedrich Schelling wrote about the uncanny in Philosophie der Mythologie (1835). According to Schelling, everything is uncanny that ought to have remained hidden and secret, and yet it comes to light. This is how fog tends to be used in stories, too. A fog scene will naturally precede the Anagnorisis.

Dracula (Tod Browning, 1931)
THE OTHERS

We see it in The Others, in which the mother walks around in a fog, with the fog functioning as a barrier between herself and the other world. Eventually she (and the audience) enjoy a big reveal. We learn why she can’t penetrate the ‘wall’ of fog. The fog in this example provides a convenient boundary to the story arena, and also symbolises ‘lack of knowing’.

BLACKDOG

Levi Pinfold makes heavy use of fog in his picturebook Blackdog. Fog functions similarly to how it functions in The Others, even though one is a psychological horror and the other is a children’s picture book.

THE SLEEPER AND THE SPINDLE

In the passage below, Neil Gaiman uses the same symbolism:

They felt the castle long before they saw it, felt it as a wave of sleep that pushed them away. If they walked towards it their heads fogged, their minds frayed, their spirits fell, their thoughts clouded. The moment they turned away they woke up into the world, felt brighter, saner, wiser.

The queen and the dwarfs pushed deeper into the mental fog.

The Sleeper And The Spindle by Neil Gaiman
Hedgehog in the Fog by Sergey Kozlov, Yuri Norstein & Francheska Yarbusova

In the short film below (from 1975), a hedgehog character explores the local environment. The lightly forested area is shrouded in fog, so thick Hedgehog can’t even see his own paw. This is a fairly utopian setting — creatures are going about their daily business — but the presence of fog creates an environment which is potentially deadly. Threats — or potential threats — emerge suddenly out of the gloom.  But the dog is revealed to be a harmless pet and simply runs off after inspecting Hedgehog.

The white horse who appears seems to be protective in this cozy story about friendship. By this interpretation, the fog functions as a blanket.

Eventually Hedgehog finds himself floating down a river, evoking river symbolism.

Then it is nighttime and Hedgehog is reunited with his best friend. It is no longer foggy — darkness provides an unexpectedly safer cloak.

In 2003, an international film jury in Tokyo declared Hedgehog in the Fog to be the best animated film of all time

Francheska Yarbusova, Russian artist; Hedgehog in the fog.
Francheska Yarbusova, Russian artist; Hedgehog in the fog illustration

SEE ALSO

Winslow Homer - The Fog Warning
Winslow Homer – The Fog Warning

Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

Throughout history, folklore has included stories of dogs who roam towns at night, especially in Britain. There’s Wiltshire’s Wilton dog or the fierce mastiff that roamed the streets of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Anyone who has ever seen a huge unfriendly dog standing right outside their glass door will know how frightening it can be. Pinfold takes that fear and now we have Blackdog.

A black dog is the name given to an entity found primarily in the folklore of the British Isles. The black dog is essentially a nocturnal apparition, often said to be associated with the Devil or a hellhound. Its appearance was regarded as a portent of death. It is generally supposed to be larger than a normal dog, and often has large, glowing eyes. It is often associated with electrical storms (such as Black Shuck’s appearance at Bungay, Suffolk) and also with crossroads, places of execution and ancient pathways.

Black dog (ghost) – Wikipedia

The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.

ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL

There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. (Update: I’m more sure of the symbolism since happening across the history of black dogs as metaphors of mental illness.)

Let’s look at Blackdog through this lens and see if it holds up.

Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.

By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.

A MINIATURE WORLD

blackdog levi pinfold

The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little.

All three reasons are at play in Blackdog: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.

JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING

The snowy, ethereal setting of Blackdog is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:

Hope Family living room

There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

blackdog bathroom
The bathroom from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog
playground levi pinfold
The playground scene from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog, in which the previously ‘elephant sized’ monster is now small enough to fit through an elephant’s trunk.
lost-thing
The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.

There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.

It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…

each room different colour

But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw  — there’s something definitely spooky here. (The stone animals also remind me of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.) And of course your warm house is also spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above. This particular form of spookiness was utilised by Neil Gaiman in Coraline.

WEATHER SYMBOLISM

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.

WEIRD THING I DON’T GET

What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book?  Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.

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Ponyo by Miyazaki Symbolism and Structure

gake no ue no ponyo

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

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

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

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

SETTING OF PONYO

Food

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

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

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

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

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

ponyo eating ham
kitchen
The cosy kitchen scenery

Symbolism of the Cliff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Symbolism of the Wind

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

Chimeras in SF

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

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

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

Examples of hybrids in well-known tales:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

running on water

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

house reflected in the water

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

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

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

Ponyo’s Name

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

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

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

Symbolism of the Tunnel

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

tunnel ponyo

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

CHARACTERISATION

Ponyo As Mirror Image Of Sousuke

崖の上

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

ponyo and sousuke2
ponyo and sousuke

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

ponyo and sousuke sleeping

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

Sousuke’s Name

宗介 pronounced soo-suke

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

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

ponyo squirting friend

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

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

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

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

Granmamare

Granmamare beauty

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

Granmamare Ophelia

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

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

by John Everett Millais
by John Everett Millais

Sousuke’s Mother

pink car danger

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

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

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

mother with sandwich in mouth

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

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

The Old Ladies

Sousuke with cranky old lady

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

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

old ladies same height

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

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

Fujimoto

Fujimoto

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

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

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

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

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

FURTHER READING

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

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

The World Through Picture Books
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith for The Water Babies in 1916, written by Charles Kingsley (1863)
Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith for The Water Babies in 1916, written by Charles Kingsley (1863)
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime
The Sword of Welleran and Other Stories 1908 illustrated by Sidney Herbert Sime. This illustration reminds me of Ponyo.
Rose O'Neill (1874-1944) was America's best paid woman commercial illustrators for a long time. She created the Kewpies, and these ones remind me of Ponyo.
Rose O’Neill (1874-1944) was America’s best paid woman commercial illustrators for a long time. She created the Kewpies, and these ones remind me of Ponyo.

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