I once tried to convince you all that I’m not just a drunk, but a person fascinated by symbolism and patterns. I actually did mean half of that. And the fact is that since I started putting together drinking games for anime, I have noticed certain elements that seem to come back a lot. Some of these are limited to particular genres while other are staples of storytelling that aren’t confined to anime. A few elements have intrigued me, so I decided to do some light digging to see what I could find out.
For instance, I’ve recently started to wonder on the significance of water in anime. Both water drop motifs, rain and flowing water are recurrent themes in a lot of animation and I was curious whether those symbols mean the same thing in traditional Japanese culture as they do in European folklore or North American myths.
I am Eastern European but I’ve lived in North America all of my adult life. I have a general idea of the influences in the folklore of those places, albeit a very superficial one. Traditionally, water is often associate with feminine energy and believed to be calm and reasoned. It soothes those fiery elements that bring about chaos. We often see it associated with wisdom as well. Although there is also an idea of treachery present. Mermaids or reflections in water have been luring unsuspecting victims to drown in the depths for ages. However, this imagery is not completely consistent with what I’ve been seeing in anime.
I do realize that Japan being a collection of islands surrounded by water and full of rivers, the presences of flowing waterways is to be expected in their stories. It’s an innate part of the scenery. Moreover, as fishing has always been crucial to the culture, there’s a peculiar relationship that is formed between the people and the bodies of water around them. It’s plain to see that lakes and rivers will be frequent environmental markers for that reason.
However, after noticing how often images of water seem to be associated with scenes of conflict or loss in the Eccentric Family, and more recently, the sudden foreboding images of a single drop of water heralding the appearances of insidious and dangerous Nora in Noragami, I became curious as to what else water could mean in the context of anime.
Now take this with a grain of salt, the information I got was either from Wikipedia or from asking a few friends (Japanese History and World Mythology students) about it.
The first thing I found out was that the word ‘Mizu’ (Japanese for water) derives from the word Mitsu (allegedly). Now Mitsu can mean a lot of things but in this context, it’s supposed to be: “to be full” as in “satiated” or “satisfied”. Water is of course essential to all life and as such you need to drink enough to live and be satisfied. But since water is an ever-present element in Japan’s landscape, dehydration is not a big concern or part of the cultural mindset (as it is it occasionally is in North America – we got some deserts…),. On the other hand, precipitation and weather anomalies bring with them a constant risk of flood or even tsunamis. As such, water is as much a vital necessity as a source of danger. With time, the Japanese have come associate the element with something both frightening and comforting at once. A dual nature of what sustains us can also kill us. And so, water can be used to represent those unclear characters or events that have drastically opposing outcomes or could go from saviour to foe without warning.
Meanwhile in Shinto tradition, water is a symbol of purity, and a lot of religious rituals include steps of “purification” washing or rinsing. This is in fact common to most religions and probably stems from necessity of old world sanitation regulations rather than anything mystical. It does however rejoin European traditions of associating water with innocence or using it as a calming element in a story.
Finally, in Japanese Buddhism and Hinduism, all five elements (earth, water, fire, wind and void) have distinct features that are used to form a five elements philosophy which impacts every aspect of a person’s life.
In this philosophy water is defined as such:
水 Sui or mizu, meaning “Water“, represents the fluid, flowing, formless things in the world. Outside of the obvious example of rivers and the lake, plants are also categorized under sui, as they adapt to their environment, growing and changing according to the direction of the sun and the changing seasons. Blood and other bodily fluids are represented by sui, as are mental or emotional tendencies towards adaptation and change. Sui can be associated with emotion, defensiveness, adaptability, flexibility, suppleness, and magnetism. Via Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_elements_(Japanese_philosophy)
We do know that society and group culture are praised highly above individualism and originality in Japan. Although this is changing, the few recent Japanese emigrants I know have told me that it’s still a deeply ingrained part of the culture. In this regard, traits such as adaptability, flexibility and suppleness, which would make a person easier to work with in a group, should therefor be sought after and considered great qualities.
But what does it all mean?
I live in a cold country (you wouldn’t tell nowadays though…), so for me water is often ice. And ice is well… frozen. This is the deep insight you come here for, folks! By frozen I mean unmoving. It’s used to show that a situation is static, orderly. By contrast the adaptive and free flowing nature of water in Japan would have the same element used to signify a change or a reversal of situation. It can be frightening or even dangerous but at the same time it holds promise and potential. The image of water means that things cannot remain as they are, for better or for worse.
Nora’s intrusion in Yato’s life always brings about upheaval. Characters get thrown in water or stuck in the rain just before they make important life altering decisions. People associated with the element are often powerful but not always trust worthy. When water is personified, you still often get to traditional cool, calm and beautiful characters that favour intellectual solutions over brawn. However, the simple use of water itself as a symbol brings about very different implications, that are more specific to Japanese culture.
I personally find this fascinating. I think that discovering these underlying views we hold about the world around us, helps us understand each other better. I’m not exactly sure how on a practical basis but it sounds pretty good, no?
Have you guys noticed the presence of water in anime? Do you have an example? Is there another peculiar element that has captured your imagination? Tell me about it!