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.

Your Lie in April water
it does look calm!

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.

Nora.(Noragami)
There are so many beautiful images here

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:

 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)

anime onsen yuru camp
I guess water does have some other uses in anime

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!

Noragami Nora and Yato
this isn’t a Noragami post but I just love this artist’s work

43 thoughts on “A Drop In The Ocean – The Symbolism of Water in Anime”

  1. Whn it coms to symbolism in water, there’s one scene in the SGRS opening (can’t remember if it was the 1st or 2nd season) where it looks as if Miyokichi (if it wasn’t Miyokichi, it was Konatsu) is drowning and it’s quite the powerful image. Also, the image that sticks in the mind for Tsuritama is when the protagonist has a metaphor for anxiety visually expressed as drowning…and that’s an anime all about water. Then again, I need to finish that show…

    1. I love Tsuritama. I didn’t think of it at all when writing this post. Maybe there was too much water? My mind switched it from symbol to background…or character? I guess in that anime I would have associated it with “home”

  2. As some who likes nature and water, I really love this analysis! When you really think about it, water in many ways, is like a recurring character in Anime (and media in general) considering the endless possibilities of how it’s used.

  3. Water has always been my favorite element. Water IS life, and it’s easy to forget just how many ways it can reflect emotions and situations in shows. From the classic rainstorms in times of sadness to emerging from the water with a new ability as like a rebirth.

  4. Water is pagan mythos is generally a symbol of the feminine (which in Paganism, is not “bad” or “negative” but the nuturing mother, the wise crone, the joyful maiden) and the subconscious. Yes, March Comes In Like a Lion – one of my favorite shows and not least because of the marvelous and constant water imagery. I have also noticed the predominance of water imagery in anime, which is one of the things I love and appreciate about it. I also noted a lot of water in Erased, and don’t get me started on the beautiful use of water in Darker than Black where the mystic doll can literally see through water as her medium. I agree, too, with Mushishi as someone else mentioned as yet another watery anime. Your comments about water in Eccentric Family made me go back in memory and think about that. Hmmm, I had somehow not noticed it. Now I have to go watch it again.

    I am also something of a film noir fan. In film noir it seems that rain is always symbolic of sadness and loss – yet in anime it can be loss, or it can be a nuturing of life, or a symbol of change. Which is more true to life if you think about it. Water gives. Water can also take away. Life goes on.

    Wish it sounded like I have a point here, but I’m feeling so wishy washy about it all now…

  5. Being underwater can be a sign of psychological drowning. The opening scene of Nana has her in a fetal position underwater and I think this symbolizes her desperation. OTOH bathing can be a literal method of purification.

    Coming out of water is symbolic of rebirth. Compare Kusanagi coming out of the water after deep diving with Kusanagi’s manufactured body coming up out of the tank.

    Water itself is life. Compare Degoba to Tatooine. Which is more full of life?

    Water is also symbolic of death. Think of the river Styx. Think of the water in Jigoku Shoujo that the damned must cross to get to Hell.

    Look at how water is used in Spirited Away. Depending on which use of water you look at, it has different meanings. The water of the bath. The water that isolates the castle. The water embodied by the river gods.

    My favorite use of water is in The Garden of Words. The water (rain clouds, lake) symbolizes loneliness and is also used by the characters to be alone. (Also by Kusanagi in GITS.) At the same time, it nourishes the verdant garden. The characters cannot work out their problems if they aren’t alone together, so it nourishes them as well. It protects them while they are still healing.

    Hot springs, communal baths and the beach are tropes as old as moving pictures. They cause clothing to disappear. This can be used to demonstrate innocence, body positivity, body negativity or any other cinematic purpose. Sometimes a bath is just a bath and no more remarkable than making dinner but some people will salivate, regardless.

    And of course there is always good old-fashioned fan service. 🙂

  6. I’ve often associated water in anime (particularly single drops of water that ripple an otherwise completely still and nearly invisible pool of it) with dreaming and the subconscious in general. This happens a LOT with Clamp shows like Cardcaptor Sakura. They’re all but obsessed with it. Also, anime characters tend to do a lot of their deep and meditative thinking in the bath (where the visuals/sounds of water dripping is also understandably often present).

    1. That’s true, water is linked with intellectual elements rather than physical ones.
      I need to rewatch some clamp shows.

  7. Nice research!
    What comes to my mind when I try to think about anime and water is onsen stuff, beach stuff, and the fact that a few raindrops will inevitably cause a Japanese a cold. Yeah, not the most philosophical kind of stuff.

  8. I’m not surprised people mention March Comes in Like a Lion a lot. The water imagery is very striking. What people haven’t mentioned is the stylistic emphasis of the water/tea bottles during matches (and sometimes sweat). A lot of emotional scenes take place at the riverside or on the bridge, too.

    Social anxiety/depression as drowning strikes me as a common trope, but all I can think of apart from March is Tsuritama (definitely a water anime), where social anxiety manifests during presentations etc. as rising water levels. Then there’s the iconic scene of someone drowning (most often in the sea), falling down backwards and often looking up at an illuminated surface thinking, ah, so that’s it? Often this scene ends in a saviour diving down towards the person, arms outstreched, and sometimes its a scene for new-found determination (with no saviour, but effort).

    I’m pretty sure Mushishi has plenty of water imagery, and perhaps one or two dedicated water episodes, but I can’t recall any specifics. (Mushishi is a hard show to remember in terms of words; it’s amazing how this show makes highly abstract animist content into those visceral images that are just so… present. I remember seaside scenes; and also a lot swampy ones, including a very mangrovy episode where people were going from house to house on boat… But no specifics on what water might mean.)

    Not to mention umbrella shenanigans, and taifun episodes. Haven’t seen it yet, but Garden of Words seems to be a very rain-dominated show if I go by popular images.

    Very interesting post, with a lot of information I didn’t have.

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I noticed that in western movies, scenes of the main characters getting stuck in the rain usually follows a big decision on their part whereas it’s often the opposite in anime. That’s what got me interested in the first place

      1. I was sooo tempted to post a singing-in-the-rain video, but my links never seem to work. Waiting out the rain, facing upwards in the rain, running in the rain… There does seem to be such a motif. Never thought of that in terms of character-pivot-moments. Interesting thing to pay attention to.

        1. Interesting is probably the nicest way to put it. When I like a story I fixate on the details to try to get every last drop out, when i don’t my mind wanders and i latch onto the details to distract myself

  9. I thought right away about Mizuki from Kamisama Kiss 😊 he also had that “powerful yet not always trustworthy” personality. Loved this post Irina! 💕

  10. Japan’s views on rivers is fascinating. They historically rose and flooded towns, which is why post-war their rivers have 30 foot high embankments with walkways on top. These appear in most anime because they’re going through every town after 1945. Its to keep out the annual floods. In shinto, dragons were the manifestation of rivers. And a river is flood was a dragon in rage, and also why the dragons are so long and snakelike. China also believes this. When you live somewhere that monster storms arrive and slam into the nearby mountains flooding your entire town for a week, maybe killing lots of people, and washing away all the fleas and your stored food, its all kinds of trouble. Raging water.

    During Japan’s more prosaic and poetic time a few centuries ago, all the rich people built water gardens, so they could reflect on the perfection of heaven and earth and compose poems and find inner peace. Carp and the pointless stone bridge and the annoying “TOOOOK” bamboo rocker thing. It was better than forming armies and slaughtering your neighbors in a midnight raid, or banding together to do the same to a neighboring province. The warring states period is what happens when you figure out the water garden inner peace doesn’t put food on your plate. Socialism replaced by imperialism. Its a short trip.

    The oddest thing about Japan’s views on water is they’re islands surrounded by ocean, and they have terrible fishing boats. They’re traditionally narrow, which is a crap design in big Pacific swells. The fishing boats in Russia, China, Korea, and the USA/Canada are all better for the conditions they face. But the Japanese use inherently bad designs. They know this, but they insist. Its like they don’t really want to go out onto the sea. This is a very conflicting view on water.

  11. When you hear that drip in Noragami you know some shiz is about to get started! One of the anime that I think of first is March Comes in Like a Lion. The water for him is like a manifestation of his depression and anxiety. He starts to feel like he is drowning or the water comes in during a particularity hard moment in his match. It is that overwhelming force that you mentioned. Also that anime does those scenes in such a beautiful way too.

        1. Are you kidding…it’s a metaphore for growing up. Emerging from water and finding your footing on solid ground while constatly being drawn back into uncertainty and escape of the pool…

  12. Wonderful post! There are is definitely one anime that springs to mind for me, and it’s one that I loved very much: Your Lie in April. Kousei not hearing the notes of the piano because of his anxiety and the anime symbolising this by having him be submerged under water as if he was on the bottom of the ocean, is for me the best example that I can think of. Water really is seen in a lot of animes, sometimes it’s clear why, sometimes it isn’t. (There is for instance also a lot of water in the original Ghost in the Shell movie, but whether or not that had any meaning I never did find out 😊).

    1. Ah I’m so glad you mentioned the Ghost in the Shell movie Raistlin! Water plays many different roles depending on the situation the Major finds herself in. When she deep dives under water, she relishes in the escapism and nothingness that silence provides—it allows her to hone in and communicate with her own self. In contrast, the water fight against the hacker (that iconic fight scene) shows us the mysticism of water’s properties, in how it hides the Major’s appearance rather than exploiting her soul to the audience. There’s also, of course, the rain falling during that three minute city cutscene where we see technology floating down the river, perhaps representing that life and death of machinery is all part of the great flow. Lastly is the aftermath of the tank scene in which the Major is lying on the cold museum tiling. The water there is both polarizing and comforting, yet also beautiful, too, mirroring her ascent to the surface from her lonesome ocean dive at the beginning.

      I went on a bit of a tangent there, whoops! Nice post Irina, you make me want to write my own post on this aquatic subject!

      1. Wow, well I wouldn’t call it a tangent at all. Thanks for this. Ghost in the Shell really is one of my favorite animes (heck, The Major is my favorite character), and this comment really made a lot of things much clearer to me. The next time I will watch this one (and trust me, I watch it every year) I will definitely watch it differently because of this comment! So…thank you! 😊

  13. Interesting post! In relation to water, I find it’s exceptionally well used in anime in general. 3gatsu no lion comes to mind, showing the main character ‘drowning’ in his own thoughts or being numb to everything around him.

  14. Great and thought-provoking post! I immediately think of March Comes in Like a Lion–water is a constant in Rei’s life, and his emotional turmoil is often represented by him submerged in it. But, harkening back to what you mentioned above, the progress he is making in rebuilding his life can be seen in the river he lives beside; the same one he must cross to visit his “real” family, the Kawamoto sisters (and grandpa).

  15. The first thing that comes to mind is Mitsuha Miyamizu, from Your Name. Not only does it coincidentally contain Mitsu in her first name, Mitsuha as well as means three leaves, which is significant to the names of every female member of her family (Hitoha her grandmother is “one leaf”, her mother Futaba meaning two leaves, and her sister Yotsuha meaning four leaves).

    Miyamizu, is a last name that means shrine water, which makes sense considering her family history. In Kimi no na wa, water being the essence of femininity, going with the flow, and a single drop causing ripples reflects upon the themes of change and maturity in the story.

    While I haven’t finished it yet, Hyouka also has plenty of water imagery, with MC being a person who is forced to go with the flow by a girl. This is very prevalent in the OPs of the show.

    I can probably think of a lot more if I put my mind to it.

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