Water is perhaps one of the most challenging substances to portray through animation. So challenging in fact, that multiple movies and series either feature live action cuts of water, such as in Samurai X, or computer renderings of it. While such an omnipresent substance would seem to call for an easily simplified representation, it is perhaps because of its omnipresence that the simple circles of blue that sufficed in our childhood drawings no longer seem adequate in the animation we watch. Water is extremely, undeniably important to not only us as humans, but to the entire world in which we live, and to cut it out or overly simplify it is to undervalue it.
Although the act of slicing into otherwise beautiful animation with scenes of actual water or complex computer renderings of it shows a sort of respect for the complexities of water, it also feels disappointing. We look to animation for representations, for the artist’s perspective on the world, whatever that world may be, and for a chance to revisit reality through the artist’s reinvention of it. Fortunately, there are some directors who, rather than ignore the intricacies of water, revel in it, thereby giving us the opportunity to explore the nature of water and its significance in our lives. Foremost among these is Hayao Miyazaki.
Water plays such a major role in Miyazaki’s works that to attempt to document even only the most touching and powerful scenes played out through the use of water would easily comprise an entire book. I will attempt to make do with a brief analysis of one of Miyazaki’s lesser know works, Mizugumo Monmon [Mon Mon the Water Spider].
In April Carnegie Hall screened two of Miyazaki’s short films for the first time in the United States, Yadosagashi [House Hunting] and Mizugumo no Monmon. (You can view an NHK interview with Miyazaki about these films, featuring clips from them both, here. Unfortunately, there are no subtitles.) The later of the two, Mizugumo no Monmon, tells a love story between a water spider and a gerridae. The story plays out on, in, above, and through water, allowing us to consider the natures of water and air, their interactions, and our relationship to them as living creatures.
Much of the film focuses on portraying the day to day, repetitive activities of the water spider’s life. Water spiders breathe air, yet they live underwater. In order to survive they must therefore form bubbles by sticking their bottoms up into the air, and then bringing them back down into the water, an action which causes a bubble to form around them. They collect these bubbles beneath the leaves of sea flora, forming a larger bubble in which they live. The world beneath water being in constant flux, this gathering of bubbles is a continuous activity, with the bubbles being freed time and again to rejoin the world of air above. Predators, too, abound in the ponds these spiders inhabit, and the water spider must kill to eat while avoiding being eaten in the process. By showing us these details of this tiny creature’s everyday life, Miyazaki brings our perspective down to its scale, showing us its world.
Here water works differently. When the spider goes to the surface and raises his head, the water rises with it, keeping his head within its embrace even as it has risen above the level of the surrounding water. Likewise, when his bottom breaks that barrier and then sinks back below it, a single bubble forms, the air follow his body back below the line of the water, and becoming trapped by the water that rushes to fill that gap and reclaim that line. Through this magnified view we are able to see the tension between the realms of air and water as they follow the body of the spider, first up and then down.
Then there is the meeting of the water spider’s world with that of the gerridae. Seeing the gerridae glide along the water he spends his entire life within, we see a fascination and infatuation form for the gerridae. Her legs brush along the water, creating small ripples as she moves. This is in contrast to the water spider’s almost violent rupturing of the barrier between water and air to create bubbles. Embodying the gender norms we have created in our own society, the gerridae appears skinny, elegant, graceful, timid, slightly oblivious, and dons large eyelashes and a red bow. The water spider also follows these gener norms, and is clearly male in his stocky, and slightly ugly, hairy, and frightening appearance. He is strong, yet he is immobilized by the sight of the beautiful gerridae, and finds a love for life that prevents him from eating the small creatures on which he must survive.
We see the water spider as trapped within the water. From the moment he sees the gerridae he is constantly looking up towards the surface searching for her. We also get this sense on entrapment from how he must work to bring down the oxygen he needs to live from above the surface, the water threatening to suffocate him if he does not. While he is looking up with wonder, the gerridae looks down at the water spider with distaste and disinterest.
The barrier of the water remains between their worlds until a predator brings the gerridae down into the treacherous depths of the pond. There the water spider must save her from the grip of predators and bring her to his bubble where she can breathe. There she awakens and panics, frightened by the water surrounding her, indicating that life within water is something to be feared, a fact that is already clear to the viewer from the water spider’s constant struggles to survive in his natural environment. Together they make their way to the surface, and the gerridae is released back to the air to which she belongs. The water spider remains trapped, though, unable to leave his world.
So the two mirror one another, the gerridae with her feet upon the water, the water spider with his feet against hers, enabled by the fluid support of water to disobey the laws of gravity we live by in the surface world. Even as we see him as trapped, then, unable to do anything other than mirror her movements in the world he longs for above the water, we also see some of the freedom of movement it provides. As the gerridae breaks the barrier between them, her feet dip smoothly down into the world she had so recently feared and shunned. Holding onto two of the spider’s feed with her own, the barrir between their different worlds that had seemed to destin the two to be separated forever, is broken.
She takes him on her journey across the pond, racing with ease across the surface of the water the water spider must struggle to swim through. She leaves tiny trails of water in her wake that quickly disappear, leaving no sign of her passing. In contrast, we see the force of the water as it swooshes past the water spider. For all this resistance, he is gleeful, finally able to experience the life above the water he had gazed upon for so long, even if it is only a poor reflection of her carefree journey.
The dangers of the water come to visit them once again as a fish comes to eat the water spider. The gerridae reveals her wings, and lifts the water spider out of danger’s way. Struggling against his weight, the gerridae lifts them both high above the surface of the pond. This moment is triumphant, and we feel freed from fear for our hero and heroine. The air is the savior from the treacherous water. Up here the water spider can be with the one he loves, with no worries for predators or the constant struggle to replenish his bubble with air from above. It is as though an angel has lifted him from his earthly bonds, and we see joy clearly written upon his face.
This finale of hope and release, of breaking water’s suffocating grip, resonates with others of Miyazaki’s films. In Spirited Away Chihiro first meets Haku when he saves her from drowning as a child. In this film as well, water is that which divides the world of the bathhouse where where Chihiro has become a captive from her home she longs to return to. In My Neighbor Totoro we see this fear of drowning again when Mei’s shoes are found on the riverbed. While water where Ashitaka is cured in Princess Mononoke, it is also where he finds the washed up bodies of the men from Iron Town. Even in Howl’s Moving Castle the water is filled with the ships of war.
This is not to imply that water is given an entirely negative portrayal in Miyazaki’s works. Quite to the contrary, Miyazaki’s loving detail to water predominantly shows it in a positive light as soft, shining, and all embracing. What this does indicate is that Miyazaki does not err towards showing water from a completely one-sided perspective. Rather, Miyazaki’s works show us water in all its different roles, positive and negative. He reminds us that while water is a giver of life, it is also just as capable of taking it away. We see this in no works as clearly as in Mizugumo Monmon, where for all the loving detail given to the portrayal of water in this film, we long for nothing more than the main character’s release from its embrace, even as we know that he cannot survive without it.